Roots of Government

British Columbia has two systems of government – parliamentary and municipal

Parliamentary is rooted in law making, Municipal in law keeping. Legislative versus Judicial.

These forms are used around the world but descend from the Kingdom of Wessex, of Alfred the Great who unified England. Wessex was divided into Shires governed by a Shire Reeve or Sheriff, which retains its law and order connotation. Each Shire was divided into ‘Hundreds’; an area of one hundred households. Each Hundred had a Court of property owners that met monthly. Each Hundred Court had a Reeve to implement the Court’s decisions.

Two Knights of each Hundred were called by the Sheriff annually to set the ‘Farm’, or food rent, from which our word comes.

As population grew and towns evolved, so did the governance model. Our municipal governments come from the Hundred Court – a Reeve with a Council of property owners.

Many British Columbian Mayors were called Reeves. And the requirement for Council Members to own property only ended in 1973.

The French invaded England and William the Conqueror laid siege to London, but his first legislative act granted it a Charter of Liberties in return for loyalty. Between his son King Henry First and Henry Third, they raised money and weakened Shire landowners by granting hundreds of towns Royal Charters, making them Boroughs.

Borough: a town with a wall, a charter, and no feudal overlord

Towns might have fences but Borough meant ‘settlement with a wall’. Borough Charters granted self government, but most importantly, access to the Royal Courts, the heavy volume leading to our Common Law. A resident of a Borough, called a Burgess, was a freeman, with no feudal overlord. Boroughs had Councillors, Aldermen and a Reeve who Kept the King’s Peace.

Our city police reflect this tradition. They are not arm of government, as in the US. They maintain the King’s or Queen’s Peace, meaning Subjects free to live their lives without harassment.

For hundreds of years, England’s government was conducted in French. Shire became County, Borough City, Burgess Citizen, Reeve Mayor.

  • “Shire” became County (Fr. Comté)
  • “Borough” became City (Fr. Cité)
  • “Burgess” became Citizen (Fr. Citoyen – Citoyenne)
  • “Reeve” became Mayor (Fr. Maire | Mairesse)

But a Mayor continues to be addressed as a Judge, ‘Your Worth Ship’ becoming ‘Your Worship’.

When Kings needed money they called representatives, two Knights from each Shire and two Burgesses from each Borough. The gathering was called a Parliament, from the French, parler, to talk. In return for taxes, grievances were addressed through new laws. The three functions of Parliament remain, to supply Government with money, to make laws, and to decide when a new Parliament is needed.

Before calling Parliament, some monarchs would create boroughs to increase friendly votes. Other boroughs sent Members to Parliament, which Monarchs and the House of Commons disputed. With the legal development of Corporations, Boroughs could incorporate with their own unique governance structures.

Over the centuries, some Boroughs became de-populated yet still had two Members of Parliament while burgeoning industrial cities had none. And their elections excluded many citizens.

The borough system started to break down

Prime Minister Earl Grey overhauled Parliamentary and Municipal governance with Reform Acts, abolishing many Boroughs and replacing their various structures with one municipal standard.

Canada followed with the Baldwin Act, our First Wave of Urban Reform. In Canada, local government had been administered by judges. The Baldwin Act granted incorporation to areas of at least one hundred households, a reference to the ancient Hundred, and granted broad powers, which provinces would reduce later.

Philosophers guided the evolution of Parliament. Aristotle and others recommended a Balanced Constitution of three parts:

  • a traditional form rooted in history
  • an appointed Council, and
  • an elected Assembly

This Balanced Constitution, our Constitutional Monarchy, was achieved in the Glorious Revolution. In Canada, this is our Monarch, Senate and House of Commons.

Parliament has been designed to maintain a distribution of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial. Despite the growth of municipal government, its design remains simple, a Legislature or City Council responsible for all three functions.

Our government systems have developed over a thousand years. Knowing this history can help us continue to evolve them.

watch video again

Leave a Comment


No comments yet. Why don’t you start the discussion?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *