The official name of your municipality may include a term such as township, village, town or city. You will be familiar with terms such as county or region, often used in the names of upper-tier municipalities. Such terms usually do not determine the legal powers and responsibilities of a municipality.

The Municipal Act, 2001 (referred to throughout this section as the Act) distinguishes between the following three types of municipalities:

  • upper-tier municipalities, found within a two-tier municipal structure
  • lower-tier municipalities, found within a two-tier municipal structure
  • single-tier municipalities

The legal powers and responsibilities of these three types of municipalities vary from one another.

The City of Ottawa, for example, has the status of single-tier, as does the Town of St. Mary’s (although geographically located within Perth County) and the Township of Matachewan in northern Ontario. The City of Cambridge in Waterloo Region, the Town of Hawkesbury in the United Counties of Prescott and Russell, and the Township of Melancthon in the County of Dufferin are examples of lower-tier municipalities in a two-tier system. The Regional Municipality of Durham and the United Counties of Leeds and Grenville have the status of upper-tier municipalities.

Some municipalities have opted to use the generic term “municipality” in their official name, as in the Municipality of Grey Highlands (which has the status of a lower-tier municipality in the County of Grey).

The Act states that a municipality may change its name as long as certain requirements are met, including making sure the new name is not used by another municipality. The legislation also states the change of name does not affect the status of a municipality as an upper-tier, lower-tier or single-tier municipality.

The Act standardizes and clarifies municipal roles and responsibilities for the three types of municipalities – that is, the upper-tier, lower-tier and single-tier structures.

Two-tier municipal structures

If your municipality operates in a two-tier structure, the upper-tier municipality delivers certain services within its geographical boundaries.

Lower-tier municipalities are also sometimes referred to as local municipalities. Membership on local council is by direct election, either by wards (election by the electors in one ward only) or “at large” (election by the electors of the whole municipality).

Upper-tier councils are usually not directly elected. Often, members of upper-tier councils become members by other methods. For example, someone may become an upper-tier council member automatically because he or she is head of a lower-tier council. However, there are many variations. If you have a question regarding your municipality, you may wish to contact your municipal clerk.

The head of the upper-tier council in a county is typically called the warden or the chair. They are usually elected indirectly, by and from among the members of the upper-tier council. This decision usually takes place at the inaugural meeting of the new council. Once again, there are exceptions to this rule. 

As a lower-tier member of council sitting on an upper-tier council, it may be important to know and understand the broader roles, responsibilities and interests of both councils, as well as their communities.

Single-tier municipalities

Single-tier municipalities are also referred to as local municipalities and include:

  • single-tiers created by the amalgamation of former regions, such as the cities of Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton and Greater Sudbury (generally large, self-contained service areas with sole responsibility for all municipal services)
  • single-tiers created by the amalgamation of all the municipalities within former counties, such as the Municipality of Chatham-Kent and the City of Kawartha Lakes (with sole responsibility for most municipal services)
  • separated municipalities in southern Ontario, such as the cities of Cornwall, Barrie, Brockville, Brantford, Guelph, Kingston, London and Windsor, the towns of Gananoque, Prescott, Smiths Falls, St. Mary’s and the Township of Pelee. They are not members of the upper-tier municipalities in which they are geographically situated, although they share responsibility with them for certain other services
  • all municipalities in northern Ontario

Northern Ontario

Whether you are a councillor in northern Ontario or not, it may be helpful to understand that local governance in northern Ontario is different in some ways from governance in the rest of the province:

All municipalities in northern Ontario are single-tier.

  • much of the geographic area of northern Ontario is not organized for municipal purposes. These unorganized areas (also referred to as unincorporated territories) are not municipalities, and are sometimes referred to as territories without municipal organization (TWOMOs)
  • in the north, there are currently ten district social services administration boards (DSSABs) that are designated as service managers providing certain services (such as social assistance and child care) to both municipalities and unincorporated territory. There is one municipality in northern Ontario, the City of Greater Sudbury, designated as service manager within the territorial area of the District of Sudbury

DSSABs are created under the District Social Services Administration Board Act (DSSAB Act). Each DSSAB is governed by a board consisting of a mix of municipal representatives and individuals in TWOMOs. Ontario Regulation 278/98 under the DSSAB Act sets out the composition of and other matters for each individual board. Services provided by a DSSAB are governed by the statutes and policies applicable to those services. For example, ambulance services are delivered based on provisions in the Ambulance Act and any rules set by the Ministry of Health.

There are two kinds of municipal appointments:

  • specific municipal representation – these members are appointed directly by their respective municipal councils
  • shared municipal representation – these members are appointed jointly by a group of municipalities in an area that is within a larger DSSAB district. Often, the municipalities that actually nominate representatives have entered into an agreement among themselves

There also may be members representing a TWOMO. These are selected by the residents in the TWOMOs. In practice, each DSSAB conducts elections for these members to coincide with municipal elections.

As with upper-tier and lower-tier councillors, it may be helpful for DSSAB municipal representatives to know and understand their role on the DSSAB board and to consider the interests of the entire board when participating in the DSSAB.

In unincorporated areas, the Ministry of Energy, Northern Development and Mines’ helps residents of communities in unorganized territory to set up local services boards to deliver basic services.

Local service boards are established under the Northern Services Boards Act. Their services may include fire protection, water supply, garbage collection, sewage, street and area lighting, recreation and public library service. Local service boards are not considered municipalities, but may come/fall under the jurisdiction of the Municipal Act, 2001 for certain purposes.

Local roads boards (LRBs) are established under the Local Roads Boards Act. The Ministry of Energy, Northern Development and Mines allocates funding and, in conjunction with the Ministry of Transportation, supports the maintenance and construction of local roads in areas without municipal organization.

For more information on northern services boards, see the Ministry of Energy, Northern Development and Mines website.

Local government and Indigenous peoples

Many municipalities across Ontario are working to improve municipal-Indigenous relations through ongoing relationship-building activities with Indigenous partnersfootnote 1. Engaging Indigenous partners can help your municipality understand where municipal actions may intersect with the interests of Indigenous peoples. A few examples of areas where Indigenous partners and municipalities have shared interests are:

  • economic development
  • planning and development
  • community services
  • environmental sustainability
  • affordable housing and related services

 Positive, long-term relationships between municipalities and Indigenous partners can help:

  • avoid and mitigate misunderstandings
  • help address challenging issues
  • facilitate the development and implementation of mutually beneficial initiatives

Aboriginal and treaty rights

Much of Ontario is covered by treaties between the Crown and Aboriginal footnote 2 communities. In addition, some lands are subject to claims of Aboriginal rights, including Aboriginal titlefootnote 3. It is important to be aware of Aboriginal and treaty rights in your area. Court decisions have determined that Crown decisions or actions that have the potential to adversely affect established or credibly assertedfootnote 4 Aboriginal or treaty rights trigger a duty to consult with Aboriginal communities. Aboriginal and treaty rights are recognized and affirmed by section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.

Treaty rights are the specific collective rights of Aboriginal communities embodied in the treaties they entered into with the Crown. Treaty rights often address the creation of reserves for the exclusive use of First Nations, and their rights to hunt, fish, trap and gather.

Aboriginal rights are collective rights of Aboriginal communities. For an activity to be an Aboriginal right, it must be an element of a practice, custom or tradition which is integral and of central significance to the distinctive culture of the Aboriginal community holding the right. The Courts have established tests for the establishment of continuing Aboriginal rights. Examples of Aboriginal rights include the right to hunt, fish, trap and gather.

Municipalities engaging and consulting with Indigenous communities


Engagement is a flexible process ranging from general information sharing to meaningful dialogue and collaboration. Engagement is the term typically used where these activities are undertaken on a policy or relationship basis, or as a statutory or regulatory requirement, but not where such activities are undertaken as part of a constitutional duty to consult Aboriginal communities. However, in the process of engagement it may be determined that a constitutional duty to consult exists in which case such activities can lead to and become part of the fulfilment of duty to consult obligations. 

Engaging Indigenous communities is different from public engagement for the following reasons: 

  • Indigenous communities have a treaty relationship with the Crown
  • Indigenous communities have Aboriginal and treaty rights that are recognized and affirmed by the Constitution Act, 1982
  • Indigenous communities have different cultural and governance structures

Many municipalities in Ontario have developed positive working relationships with Indigenous partners and found innovative ways to work together for mutually beneficial outcomes. 


When working with Indigenous communities, the term consultation is generally used to refer to discussions related to fulfilling the duty to consult. 

The duty to consult is owed by the Crown, including ministries, Crown corporations, administrative decision-makers or other bodies that are extensions or creations of the Crown.  In the exercise of their powers, such as making decisions with respect to land-use planning matters, municipal governments may also have a duty to consult. 

The duty to consult is owed to Aboriginal communities when their established or credibly asserted Aboriginal or treaty rights may be adversely affected by a municipality’s proposed conduct or decision. Aboriginal and treaty rights are collective rights, so the duty to consult is not owed to individuals. 

Most First Nation communities in Ontario hold treaty rights and may also hold or assert Aboriginal rights. Métis communities may also hold or assert Aboriginal or treaty rights. While Inuit people live in Ontario, there are no Inuit communities with established Aboriginal or treaty rights in Ontario. Inuit communities are primarily located in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and northern parts of Labrador and Québec.

Helpful considerations: section 5

  • As a councillor, understand the broader roles, responsibilities and interests of both upper- and lower-tier councils, as well as their communities.
  • Even if you are not a councillor in northern Ontario, you may want to improve your understanding of local governance in northern Ontario and how it is different in some ways from governance in the rest of the province.
  • As a councillor, you are also encouraged to familiarize yourself with the Constitution Act, 1982, learn about the histories, cultures, interests and priorities of neighbouring Indigenous communities and local Indigenous organizations, and make efforts to foster strong municipal-Indigenous relationships in decision-making processes for your municipality.


  • footnote[1] Back to paragraph Indigenous peoples have a special constitutional relationship with the Crown and are acknowledged as partners not stakeholders. In this document, the term Indigenous partners is intended to include Indigenous communities and organizations.
  • footnote[2] Back to paragraph Aboriginal is the term used in section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 to refer to certain constitutionally protected rights and the peoples who hold those rights. Indigenous is a collective term that encompasses First Nation, Métis and Inuit groups and replaces the collective term “Aboriginal” except in legal or official contexts.
  • footnote[3] Back to paragraph Aboriginal title is a particular type of Aboriginal right. If established, Aboriginal title to land may include the right to decide how the land is used and the right to benefit from those uses.
  • footnote[4] Back to paragraph An asserted Aboriginal or treaty right means that it has not been recognized by a court, through a settlement agreement with the Crown, or outlined in a treaty where there is no dispute regarding the meaning of the treaty right in question. Determining if there is a credible basis for an asserted right is done through a preliminary assessment that reviews and analyzes available information to gain a general understanding of the strength of the evidence to support the claim.