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Many rural dwellers in Canada have come to feel as if they don’t really matter in the larger picture. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Many rural dwellers in Canada have come to feel as if they don’t really matter in the larger picture. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

As Ontario politicians stump on city issues, rural 'urbanites' feel cut out Add to ...

Ron Hodge needs a grocery cart to carry his books – 27 this particular trip – back and forth between the local library and his home in this tiny Ottawa Valley community.

“I read because I can’t stand television,” he says on what feels like the first warm day of a nasty year that put most of the country in a bad mood. “All the negativity, everybody lying to you – I can’t stand it.”

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Mr. Hodge catches enough TV, however, and has seen enough fresh campaign signs along the road to know that there is an election going on in Ontario and that on June 12, as has become his habit, he will hold his nose and vote.

“I tell you,” says the former Windsor-area landscaper and property manager who has retired back to his old town, “if they have a space on the ballot that says ‘None of the above’ – that’s for me.”

If you want to find disenchantment, just head into the country. You won’t find anyone here trying to figure out in which order the phone calls came in during the PMO-Supreme Court fiasco. You will, however, find a great many wondering why they hear so little about the issues that concern them – and why so many of the country’s politicians, policy makers and mainstream media continue to believe the fiction that 80 per cent of Canadians live in cities.

This could be something those running to become premier of Canada’s largest province might want to consider. It was in deeply rural Ontario, after all, that the backlash began against then-Conservative leader John Tory’s ill-considered plan to extend funding to religious schools. And it is here where the “This Land is Our Land – Back Off Government” signs are still sometimes found, a bit faded perhaps, but the anger right up-to-date.

A recent survey undertaken by the Rural Ontario Institute found that those who consider themselves truly “rural” are worried about the expected – jobs and health care – but also about the different. The cost of electric power, and by extension the expansion of wind-turbine power gathering, is a major concern. They want to hear about services for an aging population, farmland protection, water quality, local food initiatives, fixes for bad roads and crumbling bridges, and how the government plans to keep out invasive species.

In a long list of wants, nowhere will you find things such as expanded pension plans, slashing 100,000 civil service jobs and, most assuredly, transit issues in the Greater Toronto Area.

There is good reason why so many rural dwellers in Canada have come to feel as if they don’t really matter in the larger picture. And that reason is they are often treated as if they essentially do not exist.

If you were to type “80 per cent of Canadians live in cities” into an efficient search engine, you would find every major media outlet in the country – this one included – has perpetrated the myth over and over and over again until it has become accepted gospel.

If four out of every five Canadians live in cities, then who really cares about that one lonely Canuck who never gets stuck at a traffic light and probably doesn’t have a job to go to anyway?

The blame here is partly Statistics Canada, but much more it belongs to the media. For reasons that eventually came to baffle even its own people, Statistics Canada defined “urban” as any place with a population in excess of 1,000. Barry’s Bay has 1,300 – and so became an “urban” community, according to the federal government.

Census takers first embraced this definition way back in 1861 – when 1,000 people was indeed a significant centre – and, despite small tweakings over the decades, stuck to it right through until 2011, when Statistics Canada finally bowed to internal and external criticism and started calling places such as Barry’s Bay a “small population centre.”

From this point on, the term “urban area” was out and “population centre” in – “small” having populations 1,000 to 29,999; “medium” between 30,000 and 99,999; and “large” with 100,000 or more.

The change was welcomed by concerned social scientists such as Ray Bollman, a former Statistics Canada analyst who is now an adjunct professor at the University of Saskatchewan. Rural Canada needs to matter, Mr. Bollman has long argued, because “95 per cent of the land and a great pile of the country’s resources are found there.”

After 150 years of bad definition, however, media outlets had long since taken the word “urban” and turned it to “city,” and the 80/20 city-country split became an accepted part of media comment, policy discussion and political expediency.

Canada has even defined itself as “the most urbanized country in the world,” even though it is nothing of the sort.

A more fair definition, some experts say, is that roughly two-thirds of us live in cities – which leaves a significant one-third who do not.

“It’s rubbish,” says Mr. Hodge that anyone would think of his community, where the main thoroughfare has no streetlight and no Tim Hortons – not yet anyway – as “urban.”

“Hell,” he says. “I left urban.”

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

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