The Municipal District of Spirit River was incorporated on November 8, 1916 by a provincial Ministerial Order (effective December 11, 1916) as the Rural Municipality of Spirit River No. 829. The name “Spirit River” comes from the Cree “Chepe Sepe” meaning “Ghost River.” The Municipality included Twp. 77 Ranges 5 and 6, Twp. 78 Ranges 4, 5, and 6, and Twp. 79 Range 4, in Range 5 those parts south and east of Rat Creek, and the south half of Twp. 79 in Range 6, all W 6th. Less than a year after its incorporation, on May 15, 1917, the M.D.’s boundaries were expanded to include the part of Twp. 79 Ranges 5 and 6 between Rat Creek and the Kistuan River. Sometime before 1928, the municipality became known as a “Municipal District” rather than a “Rural Municipality.” The Municipal District of Spirit River No. 829 was renumbered by Ministerial Order as of April 1, 1945, becoming the Municipal District of Spirit River No. 133.
As of 2009, Spirit River includes 68,588 hectares of land and is bounded by Peace River to the north, Saddle Hills County to the south and west, and Birch Hills County to the east. The M.D. of Spirit River includes farmland and unincorporated communities like hamlets. Although the Town of Spirit River and Village of Rycroft are within the M.D.’s borders, the M.D. is not responsible for their administration since they are considered independent urban municipalities. The local economy is founded on agriculture and related businesses. As of 1998, about 84% of land in the M.D. was agriculturally developed or improved. Other natural resources and related activities include oil and gas, lumber, gravel, hunting, and fishing.
The Municipal District of Spirit River operates under the provincial Municipal Government Act. The M.D. is required “to provide good government”, “develop [a] safe and viable” community, and “provide [local] services, facilities or other things that, in the opinion of council, are necessary or desirable for all or a part of the municipality” (Alberta Municipal Affairs website).
The M.D. is governed by a four person council, each representing a Division. The council is responsible creating and reviewing policies and programs on behalf of the municipality and can “exercise the powers of the municipal corporation” through bylaws and resolutions (Alberta Municipal Affairs website). Council elections are held every three years. The M.D.’s chief elected official is the Reeve, who is appointed by the councilors from among their number. The M.D. also has an unelected Chief Administrative Officer responsible for overseeing the actual implementation and administration of the municipality’s policies and programs
The settlement history of the Spirit River area extends to long before the M.D. was established in 1916. During the 1800s, both North West Company and HBC had trading posts at nearby Dunvegan, across the Peace River from where Spirit River is now located. In the 1860s, Dunvegan also became the site of a Roman Catholic Mission. By the late 1800s, both farming and ranching were being done in the Spirit River area. In 1906, an Anglican mission was founded. The Spirit River area was surveyed for the Government of Canada in 1909 by J. B. Saint Cyr. Early settlers arrived primarily over the Long Trail and the Edson Trail. After the arrival of the Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway (E. D. & B. C.) at Spirit River in 1916, settlement increased.
Before becoming a Rural Municipality, the area now composing Spirit River was part of Large Local Improvement District No. 829 and before December 18, 1913, Territorial Unit 829. The parts of Large Local Improvement District 829 not included in the M.D. were transferred to LIDs 800 and 830.
The first meeting of the Rural Municipality of Spirit River was held January 2, 1917 at the Spirit River Hotel (located at the Spirit River Station). The council was initially composed of five members, although the number of councilors was reduced to four in 1934. The first councillors were W. S. O. English, A. H. Parks, S. Mageau, J. A. Bell, and G. Galvin and the first Secretary-Treasurer was R. H. Rycroft. Mr. Rycroft’s home functioned as the municipality’s office until an office building was rented in 1918. The M.D. later bought an office building, which burned down in 1922. A new office was constructed after the fire and served until 1960 when the old Prestville School was moved to Spirit River and became the new municipal district office. In November 1983 another new M.D. office was opened, followed by a new Public Work Shop in January 1984.
The M.D. has had a fairly stable population base over the years, 850 people in 1921, 812 in 1991, although the numbers have been dropping in recent years. As of 2009, the population stood at 662. By cooperating with other municipalities in the area, Spirit River is able to offer its residents a number of services while still retaining the municipality’s autonomy.
The M.D.’s first by-law was a Herd By-Law passed March 1, 1917. The By-Law aimed to stop livestock roaming free through municipality. In 1918, a weed inspector and police officer were hired. By issuing debentures, the M.D. was able to finance necessary road building in the municipality, meeting expenses for equipment and labour.
Over the years, the M.D. has been involved in providing various forms of assistance to its residents. For example, the M.D. helped with hospital and medical expenses during 1918 flu epidemic, provided seed grain advances to farmers during tough years, and made relief payments to many of its residents during the 1930s Depression. In fact, relief payments were biggest expenditure of the MD through the 1930s with all other expenses kept as low as possible.
By 1989, the M.D. was engaged in a number of activities, running an agricultural service board and a fire department and participating in the South Peace Regional Planning Commission, the Central Peace General Hospital Board, the Central Peace Seed Cleaning Association, the Municipal District Library Board, the Grande Spirit Foundation, the Agricultural Development Corporation, the Tourism Action Committee, and the Spirit River and Rycroft Recreation Boards.
1994 cutbacks in the Provincial Government and an amended Municipal Government Act caused the M.D. to assume control of its own planning and assessment services. Assessment services and some planning were contracted out, while minor planning was done by the M.D. itself.
As of 2009, services provided by and functions carried out by the M.D. include: the Agricultural Services Board, Development Department, Family and Community Support Services (as a partnership between Province of Alberta, Alberta municipalities, and Metis Settlements), Emergency Services (volunteer fire department, member of the Central Peace Region – Emergency Management Agency, RCMP detachment at Spirit River), Public Works, Waste Management, and Taxation.
The M.D. also participates in the Agricultural Service Board, Central Peace Health Council, Central Peace Medical Clinic Board, Central Peace Seed Coop, Disaster Services Committee, Family and Community Support Services, Grande Spirit Foundation, Inter-Municipal Relations Committee, Land Use Planning Steering Committee, M.D. Fire Department, Mighty Peace Tourist Association, Mountain Pine Beetle Project, Municipal Planning Commission, Peace Library System Board, Peace Region Economic Development Alliance, Personnel Committee, Senior Housing Projects, South Peace Regional Archives, South Peace Water Project, Subdivision & Development Appeals Board, and VSI Services Committee.