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PEI Conservatives play to sense of urban-rural divide

Farmer Reg Hamill walks through his frost covered field near Borden-Carleton, PEI as the Confederation Bridge looms in the background, in this 2009 file photo.

Kevin Van Paassen / The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen / The Globe and Mail

When Prince Edward Island's Conservatives accuse the governing Liberals of neglecting the province's small communities, the message hits home with Sandra Acorn.

The resident of the village of Dundas is still angry that the consolidated school for her four children, ages eight, 10, 13 and 18, was among eight rural schools closed in 2009.

"I feel there is a divide. I feel like Prince Edward Island stops at the Hillsborough Bridge sometimes," said Ms. Acorn, referring to the bridge she takes from Charlottetown on her way home in eastern PEI.

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But whether the perception of an urban-rural divide turns into votes for Conservative Leader Olive Crane on Monday is an open question.

Premier Robert Ghiz dismisses the suggestion of such a split in a province where farmers' fields are just a few kilometres from the centre of the capital city.

"We are a rural province," the Liberal leader said in an interview. "Charlottetown and Summerside in any other province would be considered small towns."

Throughout the campaign, Ms. Crane has played up her roots – she grew up on a dairy farm in Morell, PEI – and promised to distribute government spending more equitably in a bid to appeal to rural voters.

Martie Murphy, a Tory candidate in the rural district of York-Oyster Bed, has also picked up on the theme of an urban-rural divide. She has vented over what she said was the Liberal government's failure to address rural decline.

"It hurts me when I see boarded-up barns where farmers used to raise hogs, empty pastures where beef cattle used to graze, and fishing boats dry in a backyard," Ms. Murphy said.

"This Island does not begin and end with Charlottetown."

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Mr. Ghiz said the Tory campaign is not reflective of the province but rather of the party itself.

"It's an Opposition that tries to divide Islanders rather than uniting them," he said.

But Paul MacNeill, who publishes a bi-weekly agricultural newspaper called the Island Farmer, said the Tories are touching on some raw and real feelings of alienation.

"There is an angst in rural Prince Edward Island," he said, citing the decline of the pork and lobster industries as sources of frustration.

"When you combine that with the outmigration of young people and the inability of government to change rural areas to make them viable, it is an issue."

A spokeswoman for Ms. Crane said the leader did not have time for an interview. But in an e-mail, the party said it looks "forward to working collaboratively with urban and rural residents alike to provide a better future for our province."

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Peter McKenna, a political scientist at the University of Prince Edward Island, said he doesn't believe accusations that the Liberals have abandoned rural parts of the province will resonate with voters.

"The Conservatives have painted a portrait of Robert Ghiz as a city slicker, but I'm not so sure that's true," said Mr. McKenna.

"I'm not even sure that Islanders have grabbed onto what the argument is."

As for the school closure that has angered Ms. Acorn, Mr. Ghiz said it was done to deliver a better education in a larger facility that offers more programs.

But Ms. Acorn said she can't get over feeling a sense of loss.

"We had a sense of community," she said. "We had it in Dundas, older kids would look after younger kids. Parents were helping with hot lunches.

"We lost some of that."

At dissolution, the Liberals held 24 of the province's 27 seats. The Tories had two, both from rural districts. There was one vacancy.

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