Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy


Political Science


Sancton, Andrew


How powerful are Canada’s big city mayors? Do mayors have the power to lead in Canada’s cities? What does mayoral power in Canada look like, and what can we learn about Canadian urban politics by examining it?

This project explores these and other questions by engaging in the first broad study of urban mayors in Canada. It is often said that Canada has “weak” mayors, or a “weak mayor system” – terms borrowed from an American context referring to the limited executive power of Canadian mayors relative to many of their American peers. This study examines the Canadian mayoralty in its own context, through close examination of the role and power of the mayor in ten Canadian cities. Mayoral power is examined “on paper,” comparing the legal and institutional powers of mayors across cities; and, “in practice,” informed by interviews with mayors and those who work most closely with them. A new model for understanding mayoral power is advanced.

This project finds that Canada does not have “weak mayors” nor does it have a “weak mayor system.” These terms reflect a narrow, institutional definition of mayoral power. In Canada, where the role and power of the mayor is largely undefined, institutional variables emerge as less important in practice than the type of leadership provided by the mayor. Canadian mayors are expected to simultaneously serve in three distinct roles – as political leaders, as executive leaders, and as community leaders – with each role involving different power resources. Mayors are being uniquely positioned at the nexus of the network of actors who are engaged in local government, with an unparalleled ability to shape the engagement of these actors by virtue of their leadership (or lack of leadership). As a result, mayors play a shaping role in the governance of Canada’s cities. This is the power of a Canadian mayor.

Mayors are important leaders in Canada, but they are often misunderstood. This study begins to address outstanding questions about the role and power of the mayor, while raising larger issues about leadership capacity in Canada’s cities. It is the beginning of a potentially much larger research agenda – and a contribution to a needed discussion about strengthening leadership in Canada’s cities.