I Love By-laws!

December 30, 2012

But not the way you think!

By-laws are simply functional rules by which citizens of a municipality govern themselves and behave as a community. They are wide-ranging and in most cases cover everyday governance matters, such as street names, sidewalk widths, plans of subdivision and appointment of by-law officers.

What I love about by-laws is how they reflect the community and the time period in which they were enacted. By-laws tell the story of Guelph.

I happened to borrow an old book of by-laws from City Hall over the holidays, and will share a few humourous tidbits over the next few days.

As background, the Ontario Municipal Act came into effect in 1849. In 1850, the Town of Guelph became officially recognized in Schedule D of the Act as a corporate municipal entity. Once recognized, Guelph now had the right to enact by-laws.

Enacting a by-law speaks volumes about Guelph at the time. Since by-laws are for the governance of the town, what kind of by-laws were needed to regulate a community with a population of less than 3,000 people? This is where the interesting part starts…..

First things first, By-law No. 1, enacted of January 31, 1851, was “for carrying into effect the Assessment Act.” In other words, giving ourselves the right to levy taxes. It makes perfect sense that this was the first order of business.  Afterall, that is what a municipal government does.  It is our primary purpose — tax and spend — to provide services and programs for the benefit of the community. Today, we may agree or disagree on how to spend tax money, but when it comes right down to the basics, levying taxes and using them for the operation of the town was as relevant in 1851 as it is today.

Which brings us to By-law No. 2. Enacted February 10, 1851, By-law No. 2 was for “regulating the keeping of dogs.” That’s rather curious from a modern perspective. With sweeping power to enact new laws, Guelph’s second act of governance was to regulate dogs. It turns out that feral and unleashed dogs were a huge problem in 1851, because they killed and injured livestock and ran loose in the streets. By-law No. 8, forbidding animals from running at large” was passed in March 25, 1851.

Now that the dog problem was dealt with, what next? By-law No. 3 should come as no surprise — “for the granting of tavern licences.” In fact, several by-laws followed relating to the appointment of tavern inspectors, amendments to the original tavern by-law and licencing storekeepers selling liquor. The consumption, and therefore the regulation, of alcohol, was an issue that fell to the local authorities in most early Upper Canadian towns. Community safety, security of persons and property and public order continues today as an issue of prime importance in policing.

The next few by-laws are more routine, such as rules of governance, appointment of officers, fines, etc.

Stay tuned — I will post more in the next few days! Some of the funnier by-laws passed by Town/City Council over the years still to come….