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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

City and country: still apples and oranges

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 28, 2003

Kentville, N.S. — If you want to know about the two Canadas, pay a visit to the Spurr sisters. Each spent a few years living in Toronto before deciding to move back to the Annapolis Valley to take up the family's apple and potato farming business.

They did not choose the easier life. These days, Melissa Spurr, 22, and her sister Lisa Jenereaux, 27, get up before dawn to tend the orchards seven days a week, working constantly until their nightly spraying is finished just before midnight. If you're lucky enough to find them amid the 17 varieties of apples, they will be glad to tell you about the divide between Canada's urban and rural communities.

"People are different here, and I don't think people in the city really understand a lot of the issues involved in agriculture," Ms. Spurr said. "I didn't find it hard to get along with people in either place, but I don't know if they'd always understand us. People here have their own views."

Like most of the farmers in their 20s around here -- and the ones who don't leave for the city are a small group, typically only two or three in a high-school class -- the Spurr sisters decided to stick with the rural life because they love it. Their other four siblings have chosen urban lives.

"I was very happy living in the city," said Ms. Jenereaux, who, like her sister, has studied agricultural management and attends farming conferences in the United States. "But after a while I realized that I really wanted to get back here. The work is harder in agriculture, but it's far more rewarding to be working for yourself and see the results of your work all the time."

Are these young farmers part of an entirely separate Canada, one that is alienated from a nation run by urbanites? Is Canada deeply divided into a "red" rural heartland and a "blue" urban strip, as the United States has been since the polarizing 2000 election there? Are there really two Canadas?

There is a difference between city and country in Canada. But, according to new polling analysis conducted for The Globe and Mail and the Centre for Research and Information on Canada, it isn't the difference people expect. The latest generation of farmers are almost nothing like their parents.

While Canada's rural residents used to be divided from city-dwellers by social issues, today's greatest divide involves the world of work, money and business. Rural life nowadays is a business, not a lifestyle, and young farmers are almost indistinguishable from their urban counterparts.

The question has deep political implications. Some observers believe the next election could turn on rural-urban resentments.

"I think this is the sleeper issue of the coming election. It's the new divide," said Donald Savoie, a veteran civil servant, economist and political adviser at the University of Moncton. "If politicians don't learn how to handle the rural-urban divide, they're going to be in trouble."

Mr. Savoie points to his province's Premier, Bernard Lord, who was almost unseated this month by angry voters from New Brunswick's rural north. Likewise, the federal Progressive Conservative Party was dramatically transformed at its last convention by a band of largely rural protectionists led by farmer David Orchard. Ontario's Conservatives have enjoyed a decade in office at the hands of largely non-urban voters.

In the 1997 federal election, the Canadian Alliance Party is believed to have won its Official Opposition status in large part on rural issues, including fury at Liberal gun-control policies.

But the rural vote has its limits. Canada is one of the most urbanized societies in the world, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Its large cities are home to almost 80 per cent of its population. Only city-states like Singapore and Hong Kong have smaller percentages of their population in the country. And only about 2.5 per cent of Canadians are directly involved in agriculture.

Rural power tends to be regional: New Brunswick, for instance, is 50-per-cent rural (a threshold that Ontario has not seen since 1917, although Ontario and Quebec are home to most of Canada's agriculture).

It certainly isn't hard to find young farmers out here who are seeking a political voice for their rural identity.

"I have a lot of time for the Alliance Party's issues; those are a lot of things that I feel strongly about," says Sonny Murray, 25, who advises dozens of farmers on a large co-operative on pesticides, crop diseases, irrigation and other crop-science matters. He believes that gun control was a bad idea. He also feels that employment insurance has made it very difficult to run a farm. "You can't get anyone to work from around here, because they make more money sitting around collecting [EI] than you can pay them to pick anything," he said. It is a popular sentiment.

But Mr. Murray and his friends should not be mistaken for agrarian conservatives. On most social matters, their views are as liberal and cosmopolitan as any urbanite's.

"I was surprised when I moved here," said Mr. Murray, who hails from Pictou, 200 kilometres away. "People here are pretty conservative. They're a bunch of religious fanatics." He is referring not to his fellow young farmers, who tend to share this view, but to their parents and grandparents.

While the Valley still has plenty of adherents to a variety of fire-breathing Pentecostal denominations, people in their 20s mostly say that religion doesn't govern their lives.

The same applies to questions of race and immigration. These farmers are acutely aware they are living in a homogenous and somewhat intolerant community, but none of them actually exhibit any of that intolerance.

"I guess you would call this a pretty racist place, except that everyone looks the same so there isn't anyone to be racist towards," Ms. Jenereaux said. This isn't just an abstract issue for her. She and her family are among a small group of farmers who want to bring in workers from Mexico and the Caribbean for the intense picking season, but she is worried that local xenophobia would make this difficult. Like most people her age here, she feels that more cultural diversity would be a boon to the area.

This is the most startling thing about the latest generation of rural Canadians, according to The Globe and Mail polling: Unlike any generation before them, their views on social matters are almost indistinguishable from those of urban Canadians.

This new unity is especially startling on issues of immigration, race and diversity, issues that traditionally pointed out deep fissures in Canadian society. Now, rural and urban opinions are identical.

"Rural youth, despite their lack of contact, have fully embraced the Canadian mythology about multiculturalism," said Matthew Mendelsohn of Queen's University, who helped conduct and analyze the polling data.

Even tolerance of gays has become nearly universal in the country -- slightly more than in the city, in fact: Asked if they would be "uncomfortable" learning that a close relative was gay, 30 per cent of rural residents said yes, compared with 32 per cent of big-city dwellers.

While rural young adults show only a slightly higher propensity to hold strong religious beliefs, they are far more likely to be tolerant of others with such beliefs. In the country, 92 per cent of people in their 20s said they would be comfortable working for a Christian fundamentalist boss, compared with 71 per cent in the city.

In other words, rural Canadians today have a high level of tolerance for the more traditional and conservative environment they live in -- but they themselves are not very traditional or conservative at all. Not, at least, on the social matters that are supposed to divide city and country.

Some political figures have recognized this dramatic transition. "I think any politician would be making a big mistake if he acted on the belief that there are separate rural and urban views in Canada," said Ian Davey, a Liberal who until recently was campaign manager for John Manley's leadership bid (he quit last month amid a factional dispute). "Mass communications have narrowed the gap between urban and rural communities, to the point that those kind of distinctions just don't hold any political water any more."

Yet there are differences between urban and rural Canadians, even the young ones. If they aren't the social and family-values issues that were supposed to divide us, then what are they?

To find out, it helps to hang around the barn for a while. Here is Alicia King, 24, tending to a healthy-looking herd of Limousin beef cattle. Ms. King and her husband Danny are beef and cattle farmers, businesses they learned from their families, and they are currently gathering money to open a daring agricultural tourism enterprise, in which visitors from the city would stay in chalets here and experience the agricultural life.

"Farming for me is a way to really get in touch with your own labour, and to have a relationship with the environment," she said. Ms. King minored in environmental biology at agricultural college, and like many of her farm friends, considers herself an environmentalist. Her views on most social and environmental matters would be familiar to any young person in downtown Halifax or Vancouver.

But ask her what is the biggest problem facing Canada: "Free trade, no question," she said. "We have to keep those borders open: If we can't be making money from export, then there's no future for Canada."

And on the important rural question of who she trusts more, big business or big government, there is no hesitation: "I sympathize with big business a lot more, because the people in business are in it for the same things that we are."

You will be hard pressed to find any young farmers who answer differently. This is surprising, since farmers have traditionally trusted government (which offered grants and loan guarantees) over big business (typically represented by the bank that foreclosed on the farm).

"Years ago, if you were on the farm, there were all sorts of things for the government to help you out with," Ms. King said. "Now there's no government involvement at all. If anyone helps us out, it's the companies who are suppliers and customers."

That's where the largest urban-rural difference surfaced in The Globe and Mail's poll: on the question, "Which is the biggest threat: big labour, big business or big government?" Hardly anybody (10 per cent in each group) answered "labour." But among rural young people, 60 per cent said big government and 28 per cent said big business. In the city, 49 per cent said big business and 38 per cent said big government.

"The old rural populism, directed toward large corporate power, is not very prevalent," Mr. Mendelsohn said.

Rural young people were far more likely than urban ones to agree with the statement, "If you don't succeed, it's your own fault." The farmers here in the valley, like the rural Canadians who responded to the poll, generally agreed with the sentiment that poverty arises from a lack of effort. City dwellers were more likely to see it as a matter of victimization or circumstance.

Indeed, one issue that almost all the young farmers in the Valley mentioned was the difficulty of finding farm workers. Almost all said this stemmed from the employment insurance and welfare systems, which, in their view, keep Nova Scotians from wanting to work.

"It's a real problem, the UI; it makes people lazy," Mr. Murray said. And, Ms. Jenereaux said, Maritime workers are substandard. "They haven't learned a work ethic. The standards of quality on the farm have really increased over the past 20 years, but when you get Nova Scotians picking, they're not willing to keep their quality control up."

This is the real rural-urban divide today: Young rural residents are far more pro-business, pro-trade and antigovernment than their urban counterparts. In other words, the cloistered ideology of the family farm has been replaced with the universal ideology of small business.

The issues that concern these young farmers are the same ones concerning a small factory operator in the city: taxes, trade, red tape, provision of cheap and reliable labour.

"I can't say that I got into this because I wanted to make a lot of money," said Tom Oulton, a 29-year-old chicken farmer. "I do this because I love working for myself, and I know it's not going to make me rich. But it's all about business, and I have a 10- to 15-year plan to make it successful. I don't have the luxury of treating this like it's just a job, because it's my business." ROBTv Workopolis