"We're watching communities die, we're watching industry die," Saskatchewan grain farmer Megz Reynolds told National Observer. "That was the fear that drove so many people to the polls."
Canada’s federal election in mid-October laid bare fractures between different parts of the country - resurgent separatists in Quebec joined by disgruntled provinces out west. And that division out in the prairies seemingly only got worse once the votes were counted. Talk of western separation and Wexit followed the new minority Liberal government back to Ottawa.
But one of the biggest (and perhaps hardest to solve) fractures the vote exposed was not just between east and west or between Quebec and the rest of Canada, but between urban and rural voters.
National Observer has since taken a closer look at some of the reasons for the divide between city and small town, urban dweller and farmer. To do that we went digging through data, we went talking to farmers, and we went looking for academics working outside of the urban context, where questions about the federal carbon tax, pipelines and the oil and gas industry, gun control and agriculture are perceived very differently than in cities.
What emerged were signs of deep frustration that rural concerns are largely ignored in the country's political discussion, which typically panders to a more urban way of thinking.
Many of the country’s least dense ridings voted Conservative last month, with Andrew Scheer’s promise to cancel the Liberal carbon tax attractive to farmers and other voters in rural areas where Ottawa's price on pollution pinches hardest — those who cannot traverse the distances they need to navigate without an automobile.
"It's harder in rural areas to make the changes they're hoping that people make to their everyday lives by having a carbon tax," said Reynolds, whose family works 2,100 acres of grain land in southwestern Saskatchewan.
Reynolds grew up in Calgary and has worked in the film industry there and in Vancouver. She said she no longer has the easy options available in cities to alter her behaviour based on higher prices for activities that generate more pollution.
"Where I live right now, if I want to go to a hospital or to get my eyes checked or to get my teeth cleaned, I'm driving for an hour," she said. "If I want to go to a Costco, I'm driving for two hours."
Rural voters have very different preoccupations than urban ones, farmers and academics say, and in Canada's federal election last month they were largely ignored. @5thEstate reports
(The federal environment plan that returns carbon-tax revenues to taxpayers does provide an extra 10 per cent supplement for residents of rural and small communities, in recognition of their increased energy needs and reduced access to alternative transportation options.)
While fuel for farm machinery is exempt from the carbon tax, that for grain dryers is not, she said. And the machines, necessary to remove moisture from product in inclement weather, have been used a lot in her part of the country this year. It's an extra cost that can be hard to stomach.
"We're watching communities die, we're watching industry die," Reynolds said. "That was the fear that drove so many people to the polls."
Yet while politicians invested most of their attention on the campaign trail on issues affecting city dwellers and their suburban brethren, those in more remote ridings got short shrift.
“Rural has become a forgotten place at election time,” said Roger Epp, a professor of political science at the University of Alberta. He excluded Quebec from his comments, given a closer regard for rural concerns in the mostly French-speaking province than elsewhere in the country. “By default, rural has become part of the Conservative party camp at election time, but I think even there, they're taken for granted most of the time,” he said.
The Conservatives won 121 ridings with an average density of 423 people per square kilometre. That compares with an average density of more than 2,000 people per square kilometre in the 157 Liberal-held seats and almost 1,900 in the 24 NDP seats. (The national average density per riding is 1,418.)
The lesson that Jane Rabinowicz from SeedChange drew from the election result was two-fold.
"The Liberals can't afford to ignore the Prairies," the executive director of the Ottawa-based sustainable farming NGO said. "And the Conservatives can't ignore climate change."
She said government policy, both federally and provincially, should be focused on ways to reduce agricultural emissions by encouraging better farming practices, improve the insurance and risk management profiles of farms to account for climate change-related impacts, and to actively encourage a younger generation of sustainable farmers to enter the profession.
Experts say that the density split in the Oct. 21 vote reflects a fundamental difference in how rural and urban Canadians view the world and the role of government in it. They say it's a disconnect exacerbated by miscommunication. And that’s something a chastened Liberal minority government carried by urban and suburban votes must now seek to mend.
(The Liberals were also expelled from their last urban footholds in Alberta and Saskatchewan, giving Justin Trudeau no elected representatives from either province to add to his cabinet, while a resurgent Bloc Québécois will also complicate the new Parliament’s dynamic.)
Outside of Alberta, the next densest Conservative victories were in Ontario’s Oshawa, an auto-dependent city where GM is about to close its vehicle-assembly plant, and B.C's Richmond Centre, a mostly ethnic Chinese district outside Vancouver.
Independent versus interdependent
Urban social organization came from “modernity and capitalism” and resulted in an "interdependency where each person is invested in the other’s welfare," said Sandeep Agrawal, an urban and regional planner at the University of Alberta.
Rural areas, on the other hand, are more independent. “There is a lot of mutual trust that happens, they look after each other and things like that, but they are a little bit more independent as to how they want to live their life, and that is what is reflected in how they look at the rest of the world,” he said.
The Liberals and NDP have also tended to align with a view of urban centres as sites of innovation, which can present as akin to disdain of smaller places, said Richard Shearmur, the director of McGill University’s School of Urban Planning.
“They feel comfortable in looking down upon people who rely on oil and gas... because those ideas are reinforced by the cultural elites, who are often located in these very dense neighbourhoods,” said Shearmur, who has spent significant time in rural and remote communities across eastern Canada studying their economic development opportunities.
“It is very stylish in the centre of cities to be terribly pro-climate... to be very proud of the fact that you walked to your grocery store, forgetting that your groceries have all been imported from miles away, so actually your carbon footprint is probably not as low as you think it is,” he said.
Epp said rural people don’t oppose climate action. He said they feel the effects of climate change first-hand, but are also dealing with rising costs (many of them hydrocarbon-related) and could do with their economic interests being understood and taken into consideration.
“In people's guts, they know that there's something going on, but I think people feel like they're being lectured to,” he said.
Reynolds agrees, and says the tone of climate alarmism has raised the ire of some rural folk, including herself.
"I think the way that we've chosen to talk about the environment has been limiting to the conversation," Reynolds said. "And I have issues with the fact that right now the Green party, the NDP, their stance is basically to turn around and yell that the sky is falling."
The carbon tax is an easy target, but voting isn't always and only about money and taxes. Gun control also looks different in a rural setting, Agrawal and others said, since gang violence is far less prevalent than the need to put down an injured farm animal or scare off a larger animal.
What farmers want
Keith Currie farms soybean, wheat and rye near Collingwood, on the southern edge of Ontario’s Georgian Bay. He’s also vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, a farming advocacy group representing 200,000 Canadian farm families.
He says farmers are frustrated that agriculture’s efforts to respond constructively to climate change are not recognized (pasture land does sequester carbon, after all) and feel they are unfairly treated in two ways when it comes to climate change policy: first, by paying “disproportionately more than our urban cousins” on the carbon tax, and then missing out when the proceeds raised are largely funneled into urban infrastructure.
“We're looking for them (federal politicians) to work with us and how we can enhance the government's initiatives on climate change,” he said.
RBC’S Farmer 4.0 report from August estimated that agriculture could add $11 billion to Canada's annual gross domestic product by 2030 (bringing its total contribution to an estimated $51 billion, up from $32 billion today), but must deal with a skills squeeze and invest heavily in technology.
"If I didn't have to put any more fuel in my tractor to get my work done, I'd be a happy camper because I would have more money in my pocket," Currie said, adding that electric farm vehicles, currently in the prototype stages, are perhaps 10 years away from commercial viability.
“It's not like we're trying to spend as much money as we can on fuel to burn it in a combustion engine to pollute the earth.”
Canadian farmers are already struggling, with net farm income down by more than half from $8.1 billion in 2017 to $3.9 billion in 2018, according to Statistics Canada.
“I have a societal responsibility,” Currie said. “But if I go bankrupt doing it, who benefits?”
Currie said farmers want Ottawa’s support when factors outside their control — trade spats with other countries, or increasingly common extreme weather events — affect their livelihoods.
China has banned imports of Canadian soybeans, canola, pork and beef this year in response to Canada’s arrest of Huawei CFO, Meng Wanzhou. The United States wants to extradite the executive of the Chinese telecom company.
That international political spat leaves Canadian farmers in a bind.
“What do we do with that product?” Currie asked rhetorically.
He said both the Liberals and Conservatives gave only vague assurances they would consider reform of a business risk-management system known as AgriStability, which he called ineffective and unpopular.
Currie added that federal outreach to rural communities could start with delivering long-promised high-speed broadband and cellular service for everybody.
“We have lots of people that are still on dial-up across the country,” he said, pointing out that combines, tractors, sprayers and other farm machinery now include cellular modules that require robust connections that don’t exist in many rural areas.
A 2016 study from Ottawa’s advisory council on economic growth also identified agriculture as a potential source of growth. The report — led by Dominic Barton, McKinsey global managing partner and now ambassador to China — called for investment to fix lagging transportation infrastructure and food processing capacity to push Canada up the ag-food value chain.
So there is scope to improve the rural lot, whether it's by improving internet connections, more aggressively supporting farmers in trade spats or even by crediting them for the climate action they do take.
Reynolds said margins in agriculture these days don't provide farmers, whom she called the "original environmentalists," the breathing space to independently innovate. She echoed Currie's call for farming's role in keeping carbon contained to be rewarded.
She said those who live in Canada's cities and in its small towns could work on narrowing the divide by making a concerted effort to "get outside of our bubbles, and try to know what affects other people."
She said rural people need to hear that message too, "because you don't have a divide if most people are not kind of pushing away from the other or not understanding the other."
Editor's note: This article was corrected on Nov. 18, 2019 to remove reference to the Conservatives winning in Montreal's Saint-Laurent riding. We regret the error.