Oxford County is a regional municipality in the Canadian province of Ontario. Highway 401 runs east–west through the centre of the county, creating an urban industrial corridor with more than half the county’s population, spanning 25 km between the Toyota auto assembly plant in Woodstock and the CAMI General Motors auto assembly plant in Ingersoll. The local economy is otherwise dominated by agriculture, especially the dairy industry.
The Oxford County regional seat is in Woodstock. Oxford County has been a regional municipality since 2001 but has retained the word “county” in its name. It has a two-tier municipal government structure, with the lower-tier municipalities being the result of a merger in 1975 of a larger number of separate municipalities that previously existed before the restructuring. It also comprises a single Statistics Canadacensus division, and a single electoral division for federal and provincial elections for which the precise boundaries have been revised from time to time. For part of its history, it was divided into two ridings, Oxford North, for federal and provincial elections, and Oxford South, for federal and provincial elections, for each of which see their own pages. Oxford County had its own school board until 1998, when it was merged into the Thames Valley District School Board. It had its own Health Unit until 2018, when it was merged into the Southwestern Public Health Unit.
Oxford County consists of eight lower-tier municipalities (in order of 2016 population):
- City of Woodstock (40,902)
- Town of Tillsonburg (15,872)
- Town of Ingersoll (12,757)
- Township of Norwich (11,001)
- Township of Zorra (8,058)
- Township of South-West Oxford (7,544)
- Township of Blandford-Blenheim (7,359)
- Township of East Zorra-Tavistock (6,836)
Local municipal governments in Ontario exercise authority delegated to them by the provincial government, which may choose at any time to increase or decrease the powers given to them through enabling statutes, as was demonstrated in the decision by the Ontario government in 2018 to reduce the size of Toronto’s council, despite the city’s opposition. In the early days of Upper Canada, the relevant legislation provided for convening an annual meeting of property owners in each township, who were obligated to choose such officers as a township clerk, a constable, property tax assessors and collectors, fence viewers and pound keepers. It was a matter of pride in each township to keep track of population growth, and several townships were divided as they grew, giving separate town meetings and local officers to East, West and North divisions of Oxford-on-the-Thames, East and West divisions of Nissouri, and East and West divisions of Zorra.
The individuals were responsible for the administrative work necessary to enforce the laws of the province and to carry out decisions made at the district level by the area’s Justices of the Peace, appointed by the Governor, who met periodically at the designated district courthouse for deliberations known as Quarter Sessions. The paternalistic authority of the Governor and his chosen Justices of the Peace continued as the hierarchy for local government until 1841. From the earliest days of settlement, the District Court was convened in the Long Point Settlement, first at Turkey Point, then at the village of Vittoria. It was moved to London in 1826. The Brock District, containing Oxford County’s territory, was then split off from the London District in 1840. By the time a courthouse had been built for the Brock District at Woodstock, legislative changes were introduced by the province to provide for election of district council members from each township to take over the local government role from the Justices of the Peace, but appointment of the warden and senior administrative officers for each district council remained the responsibility of the provincial government.
District councils were abolished and replaced with fully elected county councils by the implementation of the Baldwin Act in 1850. The provincial legislation defined the structure for fully-elected local municipal government in Ontario for the next century. In addition to defining the powers of the county council, the legislation created authority for township councils and provided for creation of village, town, and city councils. Woodstock, Ingersoll, Tillsonburg, and other communities within Oxford County were in time incorporated under those provisions as separate municipalities.
At around the same time as the Baldwin Act came into force, some of the townships that had been included in the Brock District were severed off to become parts of a new Brant County and a reconfigured Middlesex County. Norwich Township was divided into North and South in 1855. In the 1960s, the Ontario government began simplifying the structure of local government in select parts of the province, and the process reached Oxford County in 1975, when the number of separate township and village councils was reduced to the current five townships. Three urban municipalities also remained: Ingersoll, Tillsonburg, and Woodstock. The county boundaries were also enlarged to include the entire urban areas of Tavistock in the north and of Tillsonburg in the south.
Townships from 1855 to 1975, with selected communities in blue.
Oxford County municipal boundaries today, as established in 1975.