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Much of Canada’s political power lives in cities, and that has led to cultural biases and blind spots that risk erasing a vital kind of diversity in the country

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Photo illustration by The Globe and Mail (source: iStockphoto)

Donald J. Savoie is the author of The Rural Entrepreneur: John Bragg.

Canada is a confederation of divides – a huge geographic mass that has been cut along shifting regional, linguistic and cultural lines over the course of more than 150 years. Elections tend to expose the cracks, as politicians work the wedges to encourage voters into one camp or another. And there’s one pan-Canadian rift that hasn’t received enough attention lately: the rural-urban divide.

That divide only hardened in the most recent election. Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole needed to make inroads in urban Canada to win power; the Liberal Party’s Justin Trudeau needed to win more seats in rural Canada to win a majority. Both failed, and in doing so, delivered a very similar-looking Parliament that only reaffirmed the fault line.

Political leaders seeking power generally concentrate their campaign efforts and party platforms on urban areas, and it is easy to see why. Unlike all other federations, which have an effective legislative check through some kind of Upper House, winning the most ridings in Canada’s House of Commons is all that is needed to win power in Ottawa, and the best path to doing so runs through the cities, where high population densities in our urban areas have produced a significant number of prizes in the metropolitan areas. Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver alone account for more than one-third of Canada’s seats in the Commons. This has long been the formula for electoral success in Canada for decades: Win the seat-rich urban centres, and you win power; add some seats from rural Canada, and you win a majority. So why bother worrying about farming communities in Saskatchewan, fishing communities in Nova Scotia and mining communities in Northern Ontario?

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Justin Trudeau waits to cast his ballot in Montreal on Sept. 20's election day.ANDREJ IVANOV/AFP via Getty Images

As a result, urban Canada sets the country’s policy agenda. It doesn’t just decide which party holds political power across the country – it is also home to Canada’s leading universities, to many of the important voices in the national media, to the country’s leading businesses, to the head offices of the country’s banks, and to all-powerful lobby groups. Provincial and federal government bureaucracies, at their highest levels, are located in cities. In the case of the federal public service, the percentage of civil servants working in outlying regions has fallen from 72 per cent in 1972 to 58 per cent today, reflecting a significant migration into the National Capital Region. And if you look closely, you can see the giveaways of this bias: When governments launch ambitious innovation agendas, for example, and label them “Smart Cities” rather than “Smart Communities,” or when consultations on public policy issues primarily focus on hearing from urban Canadians.

That’s a big problem for an important kind of diversity in Canada. After all, people tend to look at issues through their own lenses, and if Canada’s political, economic and intellectual elites generally live in cities, then many perspectives get lost and ill-fitting policies become sources of deep contention – at an immense cost for all Canadians.

Sitting in downtown Toronto or Montreal, for instance, one can easily see the merits of quickly moving away from fossil fuels, of introducing more demanding regulations to control development in natural resources, and of banning chemical products to protect fruits and vegetables from insects. But things are rarely so straightforward in rural communities. There are often delicate trade-offs that need to be struck between embracing new regulations and potentially seeing a community shut down. What works in urban centres may simply not work in rural Canada.

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A Mi'kmaq fisher baits lobster traps in Saulnierville, N.S., in the fall of 2020.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

As one example, Indigenous peoples are now addressing the historic injustices of social exclusion and continue to pursue their treaty and land rights. No one should question the legitimacy of Indigenous communities righting a series of historical wrongs. But the actual work of dealing with such injustices falls largely on rural communities, not on large urban centres. From a downtown Ottawa perch, it is easy to conclude, for instance, that white fishers in Nova Scotia are being unreasonable by not letting Indigenous peoples enter the lobster fishery off the coast of southwestern Nova Scotia, and to be sure, there are unreasonable white fishers who will fight to stop any change that could affect their livelihood. But the issue is not as simple as urban observers dismissing white fishers as racists because of their unwillingness to compromise, as so often happens. Instead, many white fishers are only asking for clarity from Ottawa on how the fishery is regulated, who regulates it and who ensures that the regulations are respected.

Another example of rural perspectives being ignored can be found in the federal effort to reduce the use of carbon-emitting vehicles. Electric vehicles make sense to people living in urban centres; the short commutes to work make the technological shift manageable. But things are different in rural Canada. Rural communities are by definition low-density, and many are located far from larger urban centres, which, because of their denser populations, are also where the services are – medical, dental, etc. Farming, meanwhile, is often the bread-and-butter industry of rural communities, and it is expensive to maintain and operate equipment, which does not run on electricity; EV tractors and combines are years away. In short, rural Canada relies much more on carbon-emitting energy sources than urban centres, which will make the urban-driven transition to clean energy much more difficult.

This does not mean that rural Canada, broadly speaking, denies climate change. Instead, it has a different relationship to climate change. Indeed, rural communities have a direct connection to the environment; they often depend on it for their livelihoods.

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Farmland in Abbotsford, B.C., lies flooded on Nov. 22, a week after heavy rain lashed southern B.C.Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

These examples also show the downside of a deep rural-urban divide: a kind of blindness to how both kinds of Canadians depend on each other.

Rural communities account for about 20 per cent of Canada’s population, and contribute 43 per cent of the country’s GDP from goods production. GDP per capita is actually 9 per cent higher in rural areas than in large urban areas. Rural Canadians view themselves as more self-reliant than their urban counterparts, and surveys reveal that they are more likely to provide unpaid volunteer work for an organization than urban residents.

And if urban areas are Canada’s engines of economic growth, rural Canada provides the food and fuel. About 70 per cent of the food we consume is home-grown in these rural communities, and about 50 per cent of what is domestically produced is exported, making Canada the world’s fifth-largest food exporter. That’s why we need to guard against thinking that climate change is a problem only for rural Canada and that it should be left to its own devices to deal with it: severe weather events disrupt farming, and as a result, food supplies to big cities.

Rural Canada also generates most of the country’s energy needs. Hydroelectricity generates the majority of Canada’s electricity and the bulk of its capacity is located in rural communities. Onshore and offshore wind power generating capacity is also located in rural Canada. Nuclear power plants generate about 16 per cent of Canada’s electricity-generating capacity, and here again they are mostly located outside of urban areas, and largely serviced by rural Canadians.

While rural Canada is, in some ways, more self-reliant than urban Canada, their economies are confronting their own sets of challenges. It is far more difficult today for an entrepreneur to start a business in a rural setting than in an urban one. Difficulty accessing capital, environmental regulations related to the exploitation of natural resources, the need to encourage Indigenous communities to become economic partners, and the distance from expertise and government decision-makers are factors that make the process much more demanding in rural communities. An entrepreneur can start an IT business in downtown Halifax, Waterloo or Vancouver without spending much time dealing with governments and their regulatory demands. However, things can be vastly different for a rural entrepreneur wishing to start a business in the natural resources sector.

This is why government decision-making processes must be carried out with rural lenses – and that hasn’t been happening very often.

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Dairy farmers take their cows to Ottawa in 2015 for a protest against a trade deal.Chris Wattie/Reuters

Rural advocates and supporters have consistently expressed concerns over the inconsistent priority status that Ottawa has given rural development over the past two decades, and they have a point.

Ottawa’s Rural Secretariat was established in 1998 by Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government, but it was abolished in 2013 by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. Then, between 2019 and 2021, responsibility for rural development was parked with Infrastructure Canada under the Centre for Rural Economic Development. In June of 2019, before the general election, the Trudeau Liberals outlined an ambitious Rural Economic Development Strategy, calling for investments in high-speed internet, affordable housing, tourism, business development, immigration, infrastructure, skills development and labour-availability measures for rural communities. However, that policy agenda fell off the radar screen shortly after the Liberals won. No minister responsible for rural development was appointed to pursue the agenda.

Canada now has a minister responsible for promoting rural economic development, but Gudie Hutchings will have to pull against gravity from both an economic-development and machinery-of-government perspective. The global economy, the service sector and IT industries favour urban areas, after all; federal and provincial governments, meanwhile, generally see things in frameworks of economic sectors, rather than in terms of communities or regions.

Ottawa’s seven regional development agencies might seem like they’d be a boon to rural communities, since their mandates revolve around geographies (such as Atlantic Canada, Northern Ontario and the Prairies) rather than specific sectors. But these agencies are headquartered in urban centres. And in late 2020, the minister responsible for the regional development agencies – before that portfolio was split up in October so that agencies are now overseen by seven different ministers – instructed officials to direct funds to “help the downtown cores of Canada’s biggest cities” and unveiled new funding for Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa. The federal government’s regional development measures apparently now mean anything and everything to everybody, everywhere.

Cities need rural communities. They need them for food and energy, for minerals and paper products, and for beautiful places to visit. The solution, however, is not to simply throw more government funds at them. Instead, the machinery of government in Ottawa and the provinces must be equipped with rural lenses to help see Canada as rural Canadians do, and to deal with its unique challenges.

One potential fix is by loosening regulations. Canada’s agricultural sector is dealing with some of the highest costs compared with their Group of Seven peers, thanks at least in part to overlapping federal and provincial regulations. The head of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce recently observed that “sustainable and smart farms” would be better able to deal with climate change “if they weren’t taxed and regulated to near-extinction.” About 27 per cent of agricultural business owners maintain that government regulations are a key obstacle to their “survival.” Dealing with regulation overload does not require more government spending – only a capacity in the machinery of government to recognize the problem, and the political will to deal with it.

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Migrant workers plant strawberries in Mirabel, Que., in 2020.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Another way is to tailor existing policies to reflect unique rural needs. The food sector, for instance, is suffering through a serious labour shortage, with a fast-aging population on our farms and in our fish processing plants. The average farmer in Canada is 55 years old, and it’s about the same for fish plant workers. The average age of Canadian fish harvesters is 50, and recent research shows that inshore captains are finding it extremely difficult to find crew workers; there have been critical shortages in some fleets. Both sectors are increasingly relying on temporary foreign workers. The Canadian government has successfully tailored its immigration policy in recent years to see new Canadians move to smaller urban centres. It now needs to do the same to encourage new Canadians to bring their energy to rural communities.

The health of Canada’s democracy and economy can never be detached from rural Canada, and the urban-rural divide cannot go on unattended. Public opinion surveys and the 2021 election have revealed a disconnect between urban-centric governments and rural communities. One public opinion survey found that 72 per cent of rural respondents believe that the government does not care about them.

Canada needs to overhaul its political institutions to give a greater voice to rural Canada. A substantial majority of rural workers do not even belong to a union or to organizations to voice their concerns, and while rural Canada has a voice at election time, it tends to wind up in opposition or on the back benches, where it can easily be ignored. But to show that governments respect the reality that urban and rural economies are each different but necessary, our governments need to bridge the gap by trying to genuinely understand rural Canada. For the sake of the country as a whole, we should all do the same.

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