Elected with Experience: From Local Councils to the Provincial Legislature

Article 2 / 11 , Vol 46 No. 2 (Summer)

Elected with Experience: From Local Councils to the Provincial Legislature

The frequency with which municipal politicians seek elected office at the provincial level is notable. Although each prospective candidate will have their own reasons for wanting to run, their experience on local councils or school boards are often mentioned as prompting them to run for higher office. In this article, the author uses interviews with MPPs who previously held municipal office to explore why these representatives made the switch to provincial politics, how their time on local council helped them to prepare for their new roles, and what differences they’ve identified between serving as elected representatives in these two levels of government. *This article is a revised version of a 2017 Ontario Legislative Internship Programme (OLIP) research paper.

Rachel Nauta

Rachel Nauta is executive assistant to Ted Arnott, Speaker the Legislative Assembly of Ontario and a former participant in the Ontario Legislative Intern Programme (OLIP).

When the 43rd Parliament of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario began sitting last summer, 36 newly elected members took their seats for the first time. However, almost half of them had some familiarity with being seated as representatives in a Chamber – 16 had previously served at the municipal council and/or school board level in some capacity.

Political parties of all stripes have successfully courted local politicians to run under their banners, and the composition of the Legislative Assembly often includes members with previous elected political experience at some level. Former school board trustees, councillors, mayors, and even federal Members of Parliament1 have all found opportunities to continue their public service at Queen’s Park.

Beyond the name recognition of previous electoral success, having experience from other levels of government can give Members of Provincial Parliament an advantage over other newly elected Members, as they are already familiar with some parts of the job and the needs of their community.

Drawing in part on an academic paper produced for the Ontario Legislative Internship Program in 2017, and newly conducted interviews with three current MPPs (Andrew Dowie, Mary Margaret McMahon, and Charmaine Williams) who have previous municipal experience, this article explores how and why so many municipal politicians make the jump into provincial politics, how their time on local council helped them to prepare for their new roles, and what differences they’ve identified between serving as elected representatives in these two levels of government.2

Studying the Careers of Politicians

Political upbringings and a belief that they can be successful can motivate individuals to run for office.3 Choosing which level of government to pursue as a candidate often depends on the individual’s interests, and a politician may serve in more than one jurisdiction over the course of their political career.

But, unlike the trajectory frequently found in the United States of America, where holding municipal or state-level office is considered a stepping stone to federal politics, Doreen Barrie and Roger Gibbins have found “political ambitions in Canada do not knit elected offices into a hierarchical, national structure… politicians follow a bifurcated rather than integrated career path with provincial office serving as an alternative to rather than as a stepping-stone towards national office.”4 Similarly, David Docherty’s work on political careers and the paths that lead individuals to become involved in federal politics found that while there is evidence to show that municipal politicians have an ambition to move forward, the natural ladder of progression to facilitate this ambition from local to provincial to federal is not present.5

Reflecting on the differences between Canadian and American political careers, Barrie and Gibbins ask their readers to consider if “the limited mobility of provincial politicians to national office stem[s] from the individual choice and preference of provincial politicians, or… [the] institutional and structural barriers to career mobility within the Canadian federal state which might not be present in other federal states.”6

Much of the existing literature on moves between levels of government focuses on transition from varying lower levels of government to federal politics. Research into politicians who switch from the local to provincial level (and possibly back again) is still fairly sparse.

Overlapping Authority and the Provincial-Municipal Relationship

Provincial and local governments share many responsibilities. Both levels have a stake in ensuring the well-being of citizens, both socially and physically, resulting in interconnected governing tasks.7 Additionally, since the province provides significant funding to municipalities, develops rules for municipalities that allow them to generate their own funds, and creates the policies under which municipalities operate, the way one government functions can have a significant impact on the other.

Municipalities are often referred to as creatures of the province. In the 2017 study, one MPP explained that “they can’t do anything unless it’s authorized by legislation from the province. It is very prescriptive as to what municipalities can and can’t do; [the province] sets up the rules, processes, funding models, etc.” The provincial and the federal governments appear to be more distinct from each other because they have constitutionally defined responsibilities and powers. According to the British North America Act, municipalities exist under the discretion and authorization of the provincial bodies and have no constitutional or legal status outside of the laws of the province.8

Despite its subordinate legal position, the municipality provides many services that affect a resident’s day-to-day life (transit, garbage collection, street signs and traffic control, and local parks and recreational activities). “The closest politics to the people is the municipal side because you represent just them,” said one MPP. “The sphere of your concerns is much more parochial.”

Local governments are, notably, often best suited to oversee and deliver services as a result of their understanding of the local community and its particular needs. A municipality’s ability to reach local residents also puts them in a strong position to facilitate grassroots democracy.9 This unique position was highlighted by an MPP who said that “if you want the hands-on, closest level to the people government, start with municipal government, [where] it’s in its most pure form.”

Another MPP noted:

At the municipal level you have a direct impact on hundreds of small and large decisions which impact the community. At Queen’s Park you impact on broader policy issues and the bigger provincial budget. Some of the issues are the same but the direct relationship to the community may not be as much. Municipally, sometimes you hit a brick wall because [municipal issues] require changes to provincial legislation, but now I’m in a position to advocate for those changes so they can filter down into the ability of the municipality to have more control over planning and other issues.

Moreover, when municipal politicians encounter an issue of local importance over which they had no control, residents may still expect their local representatives to ‘do something.’ One MPP said that although they were in a political position at the local level, there was not much they could do except make a lot of noise. With governments hearing noise from so many parts of the province (whether in support or in opposition to provincial plans or policies), they were not sure that made a difference. As a result, they chose to take advantage of an opportunity to run provincially.

Serving Community and Constituents

During an interview, an MPP related a story about the work of a municipal politician:

I recently pulled out an old raincoat that had my regional councillor card in it, and my home number was on it. If I was your councillor and you called, I’d probably be standing in my kitchen. The house became the business office. [As an MPP,] it’s helpful here to have a community office; it’s a place people can meet you, it’s a high priority. You can easily be sucked in here. People will say the work you’re doing at Queen’s Park is far more important than what you do in the community but exactly the opposite is true. You’re sent here by the people that are local; they’re the first priority, my first responsibility and loyalty. It would be very easy to forget that.

Frequently the work MPPs do within Queen’s Park is described as occurring in a bubble and that the daily grind in the “Pink Palace” and its environs is important only to those who are doing it. Since the work of an MPP is divided between Queen’s Park and the constituency, their impact can sometimes seem very distant to the local community. Many of the MPPs interviewed were aware of this perception. One commented that municipal politics is a lot more tangible (“you fix a park, build the road”) while another explained that “[provincially], it’s not all about tangible projects. Good policy that affects the whole population is better. The tangibles can be important, but it’s equally important that you look at the policies governments implement.” Of course, whether constituents are aware of the work that goes into developing the policy, especially if it does not have an immediate and noticeable impact on their lives, is an open question.

A third MPP identified a key difference in the type of work done at each level:

Locally you can immediately affect change. Local elected officials are the most accessible to the electorate because they are right there…You can’t be all things for all people, but you have to use a community lens to improve life for those around you to make the biggest impact.

For some MPPs, the policies implemented at the local level are ones they believe could and should be introduced across the province; something they can work towards as an MPP. As one interviewee explained:

One reason I ran for MPP was my belief that if you could work towards a solution to a problem, it made sense and was more useful to go from case to cause. So when I came here I wanted to change that and make legislation that would go across the province. Then, instead of helping one person, I’m helping millions. It makes sense to do that.

When taking office provincially, the definition of local will change for most MPPs. With the exception of some Toronto-area MPPs whose constituencies may mostly or entirely overlap with their municipal wards, a municipal politician who is elected to provincial office will represent a riding that may encompass all of their former municipality or even multiple municipalities.

As MPPs become involved in policy files and meet stakeholders from across the province, the definition of local can change again. It may cover a whole region of the province or even the entire province. Globalization is creating a worldwide community, and politicians increasingly realize that community issues may have a national or global dynamic.

Speaking of their political roles and the work done in the constituency office, one MPP said that they “try not to draw a line on what’s a municipal responsibility or federal responsibility. When a constituent comes to us, try to do best we can to help them. Frankly, there’s only one constituent.”

Another says they felt that their responsibility to the community changed in unexpected ways when arriving at Queen’s Park:

I find making a difference in people’s lives now has a greater impact. When people have a problem with government, in municipal politics there wasn’t much you could do about it. In provincial politics now, that’s all we do – help people through the bureaucracy of government. Actually serving individuals is easier as a provincial politician. You can actually do something, you can follow up to where the decision was made that caused the problem and see if it can be changed. In some simple things municipally, someone says there’s a pothole so you call city works to fix the pothole and that’s pretty direct, but they could just do it themselves. With provincial politics, when people come in needing help, it’s because they can’t get to the ear that needs to be listening.

But, another MPP suggests that the way councillors interact with citizens locally can be an important lesson for serving provincially. “I learned politics at the municipal level, where if someone’s garbage doesn’t get picked up, you call public works get them to pick it up, stuff like that; these things might be small but are so important to people on an individual level. I’ve brought that service standard into provincial politics.”

Fresh Perspectives

In revising my older OLIP research paper for publication, I decided to speak to a few current MPPs who recently made the transition from municipal to provincial politics – this time with permission to attribute answers. I asked MPPs Andrew Dowie, Mary Margaret McMahon, and Charmaine Williams to reflect on differences between the roles of councillor and MPP.

Andrew Dowie: The types of interactions that a councillor and an MPP have are quite different. As a councillor, I was often asked to contribute to local news reports, but opportunities to inform a news story are rare now that I am an MPP.

Municipal councillors often receive criticism for decisions made and periodic false claims of undue influence; but there were relatively few online trolls incessantly criticizing and insulting every effort. As an MPP, most feedback received is vulgar, insulting, and rooted in partisan leanings. No matter what it is that’s being proposed, there will never be serious consideration of the merits of a law from these commentators.

As an MPP, the complexity of the cases we deal with is more significant, as is the volume of cases. The volume of form emails my office receives is also exponentially higher. Typically, those messages have a derisive, negative tone that is not particularly seeking to influence the direction of government, but rather to boldly state objections.

Scheduling of the week is an effort unto itself; the demands on time as an MPP are much greater and have a far more intensive impact on family and at home.

Mary Margaret McMahon: Although there are many similarities between the roles of City Councillor and Member of Provincial Parliament, the differences are striking! At the municipal level, the workload covers the whole gamut, spanning from potholes to bedbugs. One’s everyday life is affected most by the municipal level of government. At the provincial level, we focus on specific portfolios such as education and healthcare. In my Community Hub (also known as a Riding Office or Constituency Office), we are happy to help our Constituents in any way we can. From our experience at City Hall, we can often help them with municipal and provincial issues! We are here to serve.

The Legislature is also much more formal and has a stricter set of rules and regulations. These include little things like not being able to bring a chai latte or snacks into the Chamber, and the tradition of bowing to the Speaker’s Chair when you enter.

At City Hall, we can bring forward an endless number of motions, and speak regularly at committees and in Council meetings, simply by adding our name to a list and turning on our own microphones. Senior city staff are frequently on the floor or at committee to answer questions and provide presentations, which is also a very different format than at the Legislature.

Charmaine Williams: I would say the biggest difference I have noticed between the roles of councillor and MPP, is that as an MPP (and in my case, a cabinet minister) are the decisions I make affect a much larger pool of people. I wake up everyday with the weight of knowing that every decision I make affects an entire province of people. That weight isn’t a bad thing. It’s a guiding light that reminds me how impactful the work I am doing is.

Although helping their community may have brought councillors to Queen’s Park, they are now interested in helping anyone who needs it. Service standards and serving individuals are not the only lessons brought up to the province from municipal councillors, for MPPs with prior experience in the municipal realm, the transition into provincial politics is seemingly smoother than what it would otherwise be; and the skills to perform certain job duties are already developed.

Does Previous Elected Experience Help?

Members of Provincial Parliament come from all walks of life, but certain jobs, careers, or professions tend to be over-represented compared to their proportion in the provincial workforce. The frequency with which former municipal politicians find their way into the Assembly is notable. Was this past experience helpful in terms of your electoral success and the ability to be effective once taking your seat at Queen’s Park?

Andrew Dowie: Serving with my municipal council in the Town of Tecumseh was key to success in my election, and my learned experience subsequently helped to manage the many case files that come into our office.

Having prior election experience allowed me to campaign efficiently, identify campaign supporters, donors, and suppliers, and to understand the difference between the version of the campaign that was being portrayed in the media and opinion writers, versus my own experience listening to our constituents.

On local council, I was able to develop a brand and people of the community got to know me and who I was as a municipal councillor. The familiarity with my experience and expectations of service allowed many to look past the partisan labels. I also came to understand the authority entrusted to me, and the responsibility to make decisions and consider all sides of the issue before casting a vote.

Mary Margaret McMahon: Absolutely, my role as Toronto City Councillor prepared me for the role of Beaches – East York Member of Provincial Parliament.

Eight years at Toronto City Hall taught me how to juggle a full schedule of meetings, events, official tasks, mandatory readings, obligatory signings, and much more, all on a wide range of topics as well.

I love people, so attending so many different events was incredibly exciting and enlightening. It is the best way to get to know your residents and their interests. Transferring this knowledge and experience to my role of MPP has been immensely helpful, as I do not have to start from scratch. Although some things have changed and some residents have moved away, I still have the institutional knowledge of our east end neighbourhood and local issues.

As a councillor, I met hundreds of people: competent, clever, and creative staff members; savvy city builders; and other politicians from different levels of government, with different political views. Collaboration is key to developing solid solutions to issues that affect people’s day-to-day lives, and consulting and communicating with these networks led to successful outcomes. As MPP, I am lucky enough continue tapping into these amazing groups of change agents!

There are so many other ways my former role as City Councillor has benefitted me in my current position as Member of Provincial Parliament from public speaking experience to protocol and beyond. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had that political foundation to lean on.

Charmaine Williams: In 2018, I became the first Black woman in history to be elected to Brampton City Council. As excited as I was to embark on such a special chapter, I knew that my success would be dependent on my ability to listen to my constituents’ concerns in a manner that was genuine and help implement policies that would create positive change in their lives.

Being on council showed me what governance is, and all the mechanical pieces that are needed to move bold policy forward. It also prepared me for the scrutiny that comes with public life.

This work is challenging for many people, but especially for a Black woman who enters a space where her voice has rarely been represented. Not only was my time on Brampton City Council an honour, but it was also the foundation to my political career. My time and experience gave me valuable insight into what it takes to truly affect change for the people that need it most. Now as an MPP, those same teachings and principles have helped me immensely.

The roles of political parties

Although the teachings and principles of local elected office are transferrable to other elected offices, there is one significant difference to overcome at the Provincial or Federal level: partisanship.

Municipal politicians in Ontario are elected independently of political parties and there are no established party systems in place (though informal networks exists whereby a party’s local organization may tacitly support or volunteer for a candidate). As a result, there is often greater demand for collaboration and cooperation to make decisions and pass bylaws.

Many members with municipal experience said they were approached by political parties across the political spectrum and at all political levels to run because of their experience in public life and their name recognition in the local community.

One MPP who served in many roles within the local municipality, including as councillor, deputy mayor, and mayor was approached by a provincial party to run not because of his aggressiveness in moving forward, but his success. Although he did not see it in himself to run for provincial election, others saw the potential in him.

Ninety-one per cent of the MPPs who were interviewed for my 2017 research were involved in partisan politics prior to running for provincial election. While partisan leanings changed for some of them through the course of their careers, 83 per cent had a longstanding relationship with their current political party: holding memberships, working within a riding association, volunteering or working for members, or assisting with campaigns and leadership races.

But, regardless of the potential ideologies associated with municipal candidates, municipal politicians still run as independents. And, in municipal chambers, partisan politics were hung up at the door.

As one former mayor-turned MPP noted:

Even today, years later, I still could not tell you which party the 10 councillors I worked with were involved in. I could make a reasonable assumption but I could still be wrong. There would be all three [of the parties then recognized in the Assembly] around that table, but we never had anything to do with it.

Another mayor recalled his announcement to resign to run in the provincial election and the questions about party choice that followed:

When I announced I was running as a PC, the press asked why I chose that party when they were so low in the polls, around 18 per cent, and the third party in the house. Well, if [they] didn’t know I was conservative after 14 years here, I did my job right.

Additionally, although partisan values may have always been present for MPPs, the transition from an independent to a partisan politician can still be a challenging adjustment. One MPP reflected on their entrance into provincial politics and adjusting to the partisan nature of the job:

Party discipline is hard to get used to. I’ve noticed, anecdotally, that people who are first elected here have an easier time with party discipline; they don’t know any differently. If you’ve spent time voting based on your own reputation, it’s harder. Sometimes you might not agree with the party but you buy into it when the campaign is announced, you agree to support the platform, or else you probably shouldn’t run. Generally, policy won’t change much when you bring it forward. At the local level, things can spin on a dime.

While the public appearance of political parties is a united front, politicians often learn that the caucus room is more like the council chamber they are used to. Successful decision-making within political parties includes a dialogue of all members, something that can be done by “fostering opportunities for personal development, by sharing public recognition, and by creating a sense of camaraderie.”10

For three Members, newly elected in 2023, taking their seats at Queens Park meant they were no longer council colleagues but instead, technically, partisan opponents. MPPs Michael Ford (York-South Weston), Kristyn Wong-Tam (Toronto Centre), and Mary-Margaret McMahon (Beaches-East York) were all Councillors elected to Toronto City Council from 2014-2018.

Now, MPP Ford serves as Minister of Citizenship and Immigration in the Progressive Conservative Government, MPP Wong-Tam serves as the New Democratic Party’s critic for 2SLGBTQ+ issues and the Attorney General, and MPP McMahon is part of the Liberal group of Independent Members.

While they all have different political views—and didn’t always agree on council either—the three made waves after the election when they reconnected over coffee. In a photo tweeted from the meeting, @MichaelFordTO wrote: “While we may sit on different sides of the house, there will always be opportunities for collaboration and above all, working for all Ontarians.”

Among Members with municipal experience interviewed as a part of my 2017 research, collaboration and cooperation were features of local government most admired by former councillors. One Member said:

You always know when ex-municipal politicians like us are at a committee, you always try to seek consensus like at the council table. Our Westminster parliamentary system isn’t like a city council, it’s not consensus…Coming from the municipal system, you try to get results. You want to show constituents that you’re trying to work together to improve the community you live in. You take that same approach as a provincial politician. Many times I try to find common ground when dealing with an issue in the riding.

And, while many politicians with previous political experience occupy the benches at Queen’s Park, the Legislature can also be a training ground for Members to move on to other levels of government.

Final Destination or a Stop on the Journey?

Returning to the question posed by Barrie and Gibbins, MPPs were asked if they would consider moving to federal politics or returning to municipal politics to test if it was a voluntary choice or advancement barriers existed. Surprisingly, most MPPs responded that they would be interested in returning to municipal but few expressed direct interest in running federally. Many responses which did not completely close the door on a transition to federal politics were likely following the old adage that you should never say never in politics.

Most respondents dismissed the federal government as being too distant from home and the people in their community. Comparing their current position to their former position, an MPP suggested their “new position looks more at provincial perspective not local perspective… rather than looking at one college, one hospital, I’m looking at the entire framework in Ontario.” Thinking of the federal government, one MPP suggested that “they’re the most divested from municipal. You think of them as postage and defense and a few things in between. Other than passports and a few CRA issues, it’s not the day-to-day.”

Another MPP echoed that sentiment:

Provincially, you’re in a bigger picture: health care not just that hospital; infrastructure, roads and bridges, not County Line 17 road. So you’re a little divested here and then [federally] you’re really divorced from the people, so I wouldn’t go federal.

The close relationship between municipal government and the people is not a new concept. In a Toronto Election Study, voters were asked to rank the orders of government based on the impact each had on their quality of life. 30.1 percent of respondents ranked municipal as having the greatest impact, and a further 20.5 percent ranked it second.11 This impact may also explain the desire for MPPs to return to their communities and continue serving their communities in a local capacity if faced with electoral defeat or a voluntary retirement from Queen’s Park.

In the municipal elections that took place across Ontario in late 2022, there were many familiar names on ballots, with Queen’s Park alumni successfully seeking election to continue their public service at the local level across the Province. Notably, these included:

  • Andrea Horwath, former leader of the New Democratic Party and Member in the 38-43rd Parliaments was elected Mayor of Hamilton;
  • Steven Del Duca, former leader of the Liberal Party and Member in the 40th and 41st Parliaments was elected Mayor of Vaughan;
  • Patrick Brown, former leader of the Progressive Conservative Party and Member in the 41st Parliament was re-elected Mayor of Brampton;
  • Jeff Leal, Member in the 38-41st Parliaments became Mayor of Peterborough; and
  • Gary Carr, former Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, and Member in the 35-37th Parliament elected for the fifth time as Halton Regional Chair.
  • John Tory, former leader of the Progressive Conservative Party and Member in the 38th Parliament, was also elected to his third term in office as Mayor of Toronto before stepping down in February. Among the candidates contesting the mayoral by-election were former MPPs Mitzie Hunter, Giorgio Mammoliti and Anthony Perruzza.

Federally, Members of Parliament Yvan Baker, Michael Coteau, Han Dong, Helena Jaczek, Marie-France Lalonde, Yasir Naqvi, Jagmeet Singh, and Charles Sousa gained Legislative experience at Queen’s Park before their elections to the House of Commons.


1 Current Members of Provincial Parliament Paul Calandra, Parm Gill, Ted Hsu, and Greg Rickford all served in the House of Commons prior to their elections to the Ontario Legislature.

2 Answers have been edited for clarity.

3 Fox, R.L., and J.L. Lawless. “To Run or Not to Run for Office: Explaining Nascent Political Ambition.” American Journal of Political Science, vol. 49, no. 3, 2005, p. 642-659.

4 Barrie, D. and R. Gibbins, “Parliamentary Careers in the Canadian Federal State.” Canadian Journal of Political Science, vol. 22, no. 1, 1989, pp. 137-145.

5 Docherty, D.C. “The Canadian Political Career Structure: From Stability to Free Agency.” Regional and Federal Studies, p, 185-203.

6 Barrie and Gibbins.

7 Graham, K.A., and S.D. Phillips. “‘Who Does What’ in Ontario: The process of provincial-municipal disentanglement.” Canadian Public Administration, vol. 41, no. 2. 1998, p. 175-209.

8 Siegel, D. “Provincial-Municipal Relations in Canada: an Overview.” Canadian Public Administration, vol. 23, no. 2, 1980, p. 281-317.

9 Ibid.

10 Speaker, R. “Party caucuses behind closed doors.” Canadian Parliamentary Review, vol. 21, no. 1, 1998, p. 4.

11 McGregor, R.M., A.A. Moore, and L.B. Stephenson. “Political Attitudes and Behaviour in a Non-Partisan Environment: Toronto 2014.” Canadian Journal of Political Science, vol. 49, no. 2, 2016, p. 311-333.