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Philip Cross: The resurgence of rural Canada

·5 min read

Crises always have many unexpected side effects. The Second World War edict requiring a 10 per cent reduction in cloth used in women’s bathing suits led to the bikini. One consequence of the COVID pandemic is contradicting the narrative that rural Canada’s economy is in decline and its population is an elderly and vanishing minority. In their book The Big Shift, Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson wrote that “the countryside everywhere is in decline … its population is thinning, its economy is fragile.” Instead, rural Canada is thriving, as reflected in the Quebec Statistical Institute’s recent 195,000-person downward revision of its 20-year ahead population projection for Montreal and Laval, forecasting a shift to outlying regions as telework grows in popularity.

Rural areas have long been viewed as healthier places to live and not just during such crises as war or pandemics (nine million Germans moved to the country during the Second World War, a migratory pattern being copied today in Ukraine). Muskoka advertised itself back in 1896 as the “land of health and pleasure,” trumpeting its pure air and clean waters. As Canada industrialized and urbanized, city residents regularly returned to their rural origins as a panacea for what ailed their body and soul. Much of Canadian Tire’s post-war growth was based on selling automotive products and recreational equipment to increasingly affluent urban dwellers travelling to the countryside to camp, hunt and fish.

Rural residents know water, forests and rocks are quintessentially Canadian and their abundance means they can be exploited for our collective benefit. Anyone who worries Canada will ever run out of them has never flown over or driven through the Canadian Shield. The overly-protective and economically-damaging attitude of city-dwellers who want to preserve every living thing is exemplified by the hysteria that greeted a plan by Longueuil, Que., to cull an over-abundant deer population. The reality is rural residents understand the poet Alfred Tennyson was right to describe nature as “red in tooth and claw.”

People living downtown have limited contact with nature (except the occasional mouse, pigeon or racoon). As a result, Laurentian University Professor Mark Kuhlberg, who specializes in forest history, has described their collective conception of nature as being “based less and less upon a first-hand logical understanding of it. Instead, its foundation increasingly consists of a romanticized notion of how the flora and fauna around us ought to look and behave.” It is telling that among the most popular segments of CBS’s Sunday Morning program is the “Moment in Nature” featuring picturesque and bucolic montages of landscape and wildlife, devoid of any human presence. The dangerous implication is that nature only exists without humans, as if we are separate from and not part of nature.

Former French president Jacques Chirac called farmers “the gardeners of our country and the guardians of our memory.” In an age of disruptive innovation, we increasingly need the permanence of values and place that country life instills. Rural Canada’s resilience reflects how its lifestyle cultivates such basic moral principles as honesty, hard work, neighbourliness and faith, as well as such social norms as being friendly and participating in community events. Canadian author Roy MacGregor has described how the disproportionately large proportion of hockey greats from rural areas shared an ingrained “humility gene.”

Conservatism is rooted in a sense of place, which is more easily established in rural areas. The result, in the words of conservative columnist George Will, is that “conservatism always has had its most loyal adherents in the country, where man is slow to break with the old ways that link him with his God in the infinity above and with his father in the grave at his feet.” Rural Canadians resent government because they miss out on many public services but are subject to draconian government orders. In his book When Politics Comes Before Patients, medical doctor Shawn Whatley cited an example in which residents of Vancouver received an average of $609.50 of annual specialized health care, while people in Peace River received only $231.60. This helps explain why rural areas vote heavily for parties favouring limited government, even though their below-average incomes should make them receptive to government handouts and interventions.

Rural resentment of their treatment by government is festering. Many Canadians live in rural areas because of what should be a lower cost of living, but are now penalized by a carbon tax that does not fully compensate them for their higher fuel consumption necessitated by colder temperatures and longer driving distances. The French government’s exclusive preoccupation with cities inflamed what geographer Christophe Guilluy calls “peripheral France,” resulting in their so-called “yellow jacket” rebellion against fuel taxes starting in 2018. Rural America was the bedrock of support for Donald Trump in the past two presidential elections. David Brooks recently recounted in The Atlantic that “the rural working class admire(s) rich people who earned their wealth. Their real hatred is for ‘Washington’ — a concept that encompasses the entire ruling class.”

The pandemic proved rural Canada is not in decline and remains the foundation of what it means to be Canadian, even if more than ever it is alienated from a federal government that lavishes attention on the inner cities that are its principal and increasingly only bastions of support. A resurgence of rural population growth will force future governments to be more sympathetic to rural needs and aware of the importance of maintaining its infrastructure.

Financial Post

Philip Cross is a Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.