States of Emergency: Decision-making and participatory governance in Canadian municipalities during COVID-19

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(29 September 2020) The Windsor Law Centre for Cities has released its first report, on states of emergency and participatory governance in Canadian municipalities during COVID-19.

Enabled by provincial legislation and emboldened by provincial state of emergency declarations, in the early weeks of the pandemic many Canadian municipalities – including most of the country’s largest cities – declared local states of emergency. These declarations, along with other provincial and municipal legislative changes, helped to create a situation in which major decisions – from transit service reductions to physical distancing fines – were being made in Canadian municipalities with limited debate and public consultation.

While such limitations on participatory governance affect all residents, they especially impact the vulnerable communities whose interests already tend to be under-represented in municipal decision-making. These communities — and in particular Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) — have also been some of the most deeply affected by COVID-19.

Against a backdrop of the provincial legislative frameworks enabling municipal states of emergency across the country, this study presents a scan of municipal decision-making practice during the early weeks of the 2020 pandemic. While responses were as varied as the underlying governance cultures of Canadian municipalities, some patterns emerged: the exercise of unilateral mayoral powers, the cancellation of council and committee meetings, and deep limitations on public participation in all levels of municipal decision-making.

The study also highlights encouraging signs, including some municipalities that managed to continue robust public consultation and participatory decision-making even at the beginning of the pandemic, and some new practices which will continue to improve municipal governance when the pandemic recedes. It concludes with recommendations for reform of provincial state of emergency legislation and changes to municipal governance practice, to ensure that Canada’s local governments are better prepared for the next emergency — whether another wave of COVID-19 or something new.

Report design by Hambly Woolley

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