Why BYLAWS Matter

groupWe spoke in a previous post about the value of council records generally. In this post we shall examine one of the most significant and pervasive types of council records:  the bylaw (sometimes spelled “by-law” or “byelaw”).

What are they?

In general, “bylaws” are rules or laws passed by an organization to regulate itself. Government bylaws refer to laws passed by a municipal council in order to approve its operating and capital budgets and to also regulate land use (zoning), animal control, traffic & parking, infrastructure projects, emergency planning, and other issues of municipal concern. Bylaws are also passed in order to confirm the proceedings of council, to appoint civic officials, and to amend or repeal (cancel) earlier bylaws.

Region of Peel council chambers, 1986

Region of Peel Council Chambers, [ca. 1988]

All bylaws passed by Canadian municipalities are done so under the authority of the province or territory in which the municipality resides.  Under the system of governmental administration in Canada, all municipal corporations are “creatures of the province,” meaning that provincial or territorial governments have the authority to outline the borders, powers, and responsibilities of all municipal corporations within the province or territory.  All municipal bylaws should therefore make reference to the provincial or territorial law or statute that enables the municipality to enact the bylaw.

The current municipalities in the Peel area include the Region of Peel, the cities of Mississauga and Brampton, and the Town of Caledon, and they all derive their respective powers from the Province of Ontario.

Four of the more significant pieces of current legislation governing the operation of Ontario municipalities are:

What do they tell us?

Bylaws contain fascinating insights into community history, the growth and evolution of local government programs and services, and the changing mindsets of public administrators. At a high level, an index to a set of municipal bylaws will reveal a) the extent of powers delegated to the municipality by the province, and b) issues of local concern to the citizens of the municipality. Moving from the index to the bylaws themselves one can learn about a wide variety of topics, including:

  • Changing moral standards enforced by the government
  • Regulation of food staples – i.e. municipal councils often passed bylaws regulating the weight, size and quality of bread
  • When particular roads or streets were surveyed and opened for use
  • The borders of the old School Sections and electoral districts
  • Formation dates for local boards and organizations – e. Library Boards, Hydro-Electric Commissions, and “Hook and Ladder Companies” (fire fighters)
  • The origin of local police forces (such services often started with a single appointed constable)
  • Names of civic officers appointed in any given year or term – i.e. the sheriff, clerk, engineer, etc.
  • Regulations surrounding the behaviour of “transient salespeople,” also known as hawkers and peddlers
  • The locations of permitted “land uses” within the municipality – i.e. residential lands, industrial lands, parklands, etc.
  • The location of land expropriated (bought) by the government for public purposes. This is often done to allow for the widening of roads, the creation of parks and landfills, or the building of public buildings (recreation centres, airports, etc.)

Bylaws are an invaluable resource for those interested in the social, economic, and political history of communities in the Peel area. They are also incredibly useful when seeking to understand the many ways in which elected officials exercised their powers as public administrators.

Case study 1 – The Preservation of Public Morals in the 19th Century

The preservation of public morals was an active concern of municipal councils in this area during the 19th century. The Village of Brampton and the Township of Toronto (now the City of Mississauga) both passed very similar bylaws for this purpose in 1873 and 1874 respectively. The bylaws use remarkably similar language, suggesting that the two councils either corresponded about the bylaw, or perhaps copied the text from a template provided by the Province.

The following activities, among others, were deemed to be illegal by both the Village of Brampton and the Township of Toronto under bylaws “To make provision for the preservation of Public Morals…”:

  • Giving intoxicating drink to “children,” “apprentices,” “idiots,” and “insane people”
  • Writing, carving, or engraving indecent words, pictures, or drawings on any wall, fence, sign post, or sidewalk
  • Uttering obscene, blasphemous, or “grossly insulting language”
  • Being drunk or disorderly in public
  • Gambling
  • To “open or keep a bowling alley for hire or profit” (likely related to the provision against gambling)
  • To operate a “House of Ill Fame” (a brothel or house of prostitution)
  • Indecent exposure (“flashing” others or bathing outdoors without a bathing suit between the hours of five in the morning and eight in the evening)

Fines for infractions ranged from two to twenty dollars, and if the culprit could not pay he or she might end up in the County Jail.

In many ways these bylaws serve to illustrate continuity and change across time: many of the concerns of the elected representatives in 1873/1874 are the same as those in power today; however, there are also some notable differences, including the prohibition against gambling (lotteries and casinos are now rather popular) and the prohibition against uttering “blasphemous” speech in public (the right to free speech, with some limited restrictions, is now a fundamental principle of democratic societies).

Case study 2 – Rare gems among the bylaws

At times the legal content of the bylaw is not what makes it of interest to archivists and researchers: often bylaws will come with attachments, such as maps, plans, and/or agreements, and sometimes these attachments are incredibly useful. For example, while working on an index to the Toronto Township bylaws, one of our volunteers recently came across a tax assessment bylaw with a fantastic 1951 roadmap of the township attached. At the moment this is the only known example of this particular roadmap within our archival holdings.

TT 1951 map

Township of Toronto road map, 1951 (view full resolution)

It is a useful resource for those interested in the history and development of the Mississauga area in the years following the Second World War. In particular, this map offers insights into the layout and composition of the then township just before extended development pushes in the late 1960s and early 1970s occurred, resulting in the rapid growth of industrial complexes and residential subdivisions. Among other things the map depicts provincial, county, and township roads along with the underpinning lots and concessions, as well as the location of the various crossroad settlements and rail lines.

What should a researcher know about these records?

The Region of Peel Archives holds bylaws for the following municipalities:

  • County and Region of Peel
  • City of Mississauga (partial)
  • Village, Town, and City of Brampton
  • Townships of Toronto, Toronto Gore, Chinguacousy, Caledon, and Albion
  • Village and Town of Port Credit
  • Village and Town of Streetsville
  • Villages of Caledon East and Bolton

The ranges and dates of the bylaws are different for each municipality. Researchers are encouraged to contact the Archives if they have a question about the availability of bylaws for any of the above municipalities.


Diagram outlining the composition of the Region of Peel, including predecessor municipalities that would have created their own bylaws.

Complete or partial indexes to the bylaws in our care exist for the County of Peel, the Township of Toronto, the Village & Town of Brampton, the Town of Caledon, and the Village & Town of Port Credit. However, projects are currently planned or underway to complete indexes for all of the municipal bylaws in our holdings prior to 1974, so that these amazing resources can be more accessible to researchers and the general public.

Municipalities in Peel are increasingly seeking to provide online access to their bylaws. The following resources may be of use to those researchers interested in area bylaws published since 1973/1974:

Hopefully you have enjoyed this brief discussion of the often overlooked but incredibly interesting administrative tool, the bylaw!

Kyle Neill, Senior Archivist

10 responses to “Why BYLAWS Matter

  1. Bylaws are the perfect example of how records have value far beyond their operational use. Once rescinded or amended, the bylaw ceases to have a regulatory value – but still retains fascinating informational value.


    • Indeed! We are really excited about our ongoing indexing of these records, as those lists are revealing a wealth of information!


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