Sunday January 15, 2017

The political risks of the urban-rural divide

(Jennifer Quesnel/CBC)

Listen 13:03

Recently, 180 senior producer Geoff Turner stepped into an abyss: the social and political divide that separates urban and rural Canada. 

While doing story research, he came across a 2011 profile of Conservative Party leadership candidate Kellie Leitch.

In that profile, Leitch made her preference for small towns over city living clear, "I know it's fine if I walk next door and ask for a cup of sugar, they are going to give me a cup of sugar. It's the neighbourly thing to do. Living in downtown Toronto as a resident I would never go next door and ask my neighbour for a cup of sugar. It just wouldn't happen," she told the Alliston Herald.

That passage hinted at one of the most persistent schisms in Canadian politics and society: the gulf between rural and urban Canadians. We put out the call to 180 listeners for their perspectives on this polarity.

Michael Dudley is the Indigenous and Urban services Librarian at the University of Winnipeg, but he's also a 180 listener. He argued that the divide is more a reflection of politics than real life, that Canadians generally share the same values. He says that politicians exploit rural resentment to political ends.

"I think what's more troubling is how come this divide has become a proxy for liberal/conservative politics, and how this has been so continually manipulated by conservatives -- to the extent in the U.S where rural America has largely embraced a candidate openly espousing racist, nativist, and anti-intellectual rhetoric" - Micheal Dudley
Mike Tractor

Mike Pasztor works the fields of his Norfolk County farm. (Mike Pasztor)

"I think what's more troubling is how come this divide has become a proxy for liberal/conservative politics, and how this has been so continually manipulated by conservatives -- to the extent in the U.S where rural America has largely embraced a candidate openly espousing racist, nativist, and anti-intellectual rhetoric."

Mike Pasztor is a farmer in Norfolk Country Ontario. He agrees with Dudley's view that rural and urban Canadians share similar values. But he thinks that the resentments are real, that they stem from an imbalance of political power and representation. Those resentments are bound to exist in smaller resource communities for example, that are more economically vulnerable than the big cities where the political deals get made.

"I think that sense of anger has been here for quite a while, especially with Hydro rates here in Ontario, and new taxes being implemented, cap and trade. Things that are making us really uncompetitive. I think that's where it's really starting to show and people have just about had enough."

Recent provincial elections in Ontario have highlighted the rural urban split. Rural southern Ontario is a sea of Progressive Conservative blue. So presumably, those rural voters see their interests represented with the Tories. But the PCs haven't won a single seat in the 416 area code in four straight elections. If this was baseball, that would a zero for 92 batting streak. So now you have a government with little representation in rural parts of the province. And for Mike Pasztor, the result is policy decisions that don't take into account the needs of rural people.

Do You Know Your Manitoba?

Rural Manitoba farm. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

Jino Distasio is the director of the institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg. He notes that the rural experience in Canada is very diverse, from one region to the next, but he uses the example of Manitoba to show how sharp the demographic imbalance can be.

"Winnipeg and the surrounding communities are getting close to having almost 80 percent of the provincial population, just within the Winnipeg CMA [Census Metropolitan Area]. That means, how do you distribute services and supports including roads and infrastructure from the US border to the shores of Hudson's Bay? That's a big challenge, and to say that we can do that equally, well that's a tough ask."

Demographics notwithstanding, Jino Distasio points out those far flung communities are still crucial parts of the Canadian economy. Resource extraction and farming are still big pieces of the puzzle and urbanites ignore them at their peril.

"I think just that people need to get out there more and try to understand what everybody else is going through, and how certain issues that they vote for or they see maybe idealistically, affects other people in other regions." - Ontario Farmer Mike Pasztor

But according to Keith Roulston it's too easy to ignore the concerns of rural people because the media does a very poor job of reflecting their reality. As publisher of the North Huron Citizen in Blyth and Brussels Ontario, he takes a special interest in the health and vitality of rural communities.  

Roulston says that newspapers rarely have agricultural beat reporters anymore because of cutbacks. And thanks to changing demographics, those newsrooms seldom have reporters and editors with personal experience of rural life.

Farmer Mike Pasztor says people have a personal responsibility to consider the reality of those on the other side of the rural - urban divide. 

"I think just that people need to get out there more and try to understand what everybody else is going through, and how certain issues that they vote for or they see maybe idealistically, affects other people in other regions."