Rural vs. urban voters: Resources, unity and the 2021 election

The polarization is obvious. Resource producing regions vote Conservative. Urban resource consumers vote Liberal or NDP. While that works for the Liberals at the ballot box, it comes at a very high cost for national unity, says writer and oil service executive David Yager.

Urban voters increasingly don’t understand where the energy and products they enjoy come from

A pumpjack in a field near Longview, Alta. Recent Canadian elections have pitted the less populated resource producing regions against urban resource consumers. That may be good politics, but it's damaging to Canada, says Calgary writer David Yager. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

This column is an opinion from David Yager, a Calgary writer and oil service executive. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

That Canadians vote differently regionally is well known.

What is less understood is how recent elections have pitted the less populated resource producing regions against urban resource consumers.

Resource production is almost exclusively rural. It's where hydrocarbons, minerals, wood and food are extracted, mined, cut and grown. Primary processing takes place close to production before transportation to markets.

Final conversion to finished products – steel mills, smelters, refineries, petrochemical plants and manufacturing – are concentrated in small and less populated regions.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of resource consumers are increasingly urban. This has been the trend globally for the past 57 years as the world's population has tripled.

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In 2020, almost 82 per cent of the Canadian population was classified as "urban." That's where the votes are.

"The path to a Liberal majority runs largely through the suburbs of Canada's largest cities. And the opening moves of the campaign tour foreshadowed the Liberal's election endgame." So wrote the CBC's David Cochrane on Aug. 21, summarizing the first week of the 2021 election.

Polarization is obvious

The 2019 election highlighted this phenomenon. The 21st century Liberal party gets its support from younger, urban voters with campaign pledges about climate change, social justice, gender equity, and this year, subsidized daycare and reduced housing costs.

Support for the Conservative Party comes from resource producing and processing regions. With the exception of Newfoundland and Labrador, all the oil and gas producing provinces rejected the Liberals. As did all of B.C. that doesn't border the ocean, resource-rich northwest Ontario, and the parts of southern Ontario that contain heavy industries such as steel, manufacturing, refining and petrochemicals. So did rural western New Brunswick and industrialized east Montreal.

The polarization is obvious. Resource producing and processing regions vote Conservative. Urban resource consumers vote Liberal or NDP. The Liberals don't need a single vote in the resource extraction and producing regions of Canada to form a majority government.

While it clearly works for the Liberals at the ballot box, it comes at a very high cost for national unity as it intentionally pits Canadians against Canadians. And it ultimately damages the entire economy.

Ever wonder why the Canadian electoral map tends to look like this one from 2019? It's because so many voters no longer directly depend on resource jobs for their livelihood, says Calgary writer David Yager. (CBC News)

If you've ever wondered why there is such a strong regional split in Canadian federal elections, the simple answer is that so many voters no longer directly depend on resource jobs for their livelihood. Everything they need is there on demand, making supply chains somebody else's problem.

That's why urban voters increasingly don't understand where the energy and products they enjoy come from. This allows them to be concerned about the environmental impact of oilsands mining and complain about the price of gasoline at the same time.

Many oppose new oil pipelines because they believe this is the environmentally responsible thing to do. But in doing so they are admitting how little they know about the myriad oil and gas derivatives used for their plastics, clothing, chemicals, heat, fuel and even their food, through fertilizers, mechanized farm equipment, transportation and packaging.

When governments increase carbon taxes and fossil fuel costs to tackle climate change, the negative impacts on resource extraction and agricultural industries are rarely mentioned. Nor are issues like international competitiveness or capital flows. The rising costs of food, energy and other products punish everyone. Promised government carbon tax rebates help consumers much more than producers.

Resources fundamental to economy

It is incomprehensible to farmers and oil workers how "city slickers" can blindly support slogans and policies that affect the cost and supply chain of things they cannot live without. In early 2020 it required national rail blockades opposing pipelines for west coast LNG exports for many Canadians to learn that Quebec depends heavily on Alberta propane to dry grain crops and heat senior citizen residences.

Whatever Canadians believe the country should be, resources remain fundamental to the economy. Canada is the world's fifth largest oil and gas producer. This sector pays huge taxes, which support government spending.

The Liberal's "just transition" to renewable energy with promises of great new jobs for a half-million displaced oil workers is simply soothing campaign rhetoric for urban voters, not workable public policy.

Everyone affected is perplexed and discouraged. Many are angry.

Good politics and good policy are not the same thing. Exploiting regional divisions to win elections may be good for campaigning politicians, but it is very damaging to Canada.

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David Yager is a Calgary oil service executive, writer, author and energy policy analyst. His book, From Miracle to Menace — Alberta, A Carbon Story, was released in 2019.