From Quebec’s long-simmering separatist ambitions to the new ones in Alberta and Saskatchewan threatening to come to a boil, national unity has long been a concern for Canadian politicians. But there’s a new threat to the fabric of the nation bubbling up from underneath the surface: the urban-rural divide.

Alberta’s recent provincial election was just the latest example of how distant urban and rural Canadians have grown from each other. The NDP won all but two of its 38 seats in greater Edmonton or Calgary (the other two: Lethbridge-West and Banff-Kananaskis), while Danielle Smith’s United Conservative Party won 37 out of 41 seats outside those two cities. As a result, she has no elected representation in the provincial capital and a significantly diminished number of mostly suburban Calgary ridings from which to draw her new cabinet.

In a province more urbanized than most, this is going to make things harder than they probably should be for a newly elected government. Ironically, Smith’s predicament is a mirror image of the one Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has dealt with over the last few years, as his caucus has been composed almost entirely of urban MPs. The days of Liberals being competitive in rural Canada (never mind actually winning) seem to be over, at least for the time being, while Conservatives are at risk of becoming an even more endangered species in the most urbanized parts of Canada’s big cities.

As the University of Calgary’s Jack Lucas and Western’s Zack Taylor noted after the last federal election: “The urban-rural gap between the two parties was greater in the 2019 and 2021 elections than at any point in Canada’s history.” This means both parties are effectively incapable of forming a truly representative national caucus, and that has a bunch of negative knock-on effects. “As parties become durably uncompetitive on each other's turf, they lose touch with the concerns of significant portions of the population,” Lucas and Taylor write. “The portion of each party’s caucus that comes from safe seats increases. [And] as the parties increasingly represent different social and economic worlds and speak different policy languages, conflicts will only become more entrenched.”

This entrenchment of conflict in our politics is glaringly obvious right now, and nowhere more so than on the issue of climate change. The Liberals, who represent the parts of the country where the economy doesn’t depend on resource extraction or agricultural activity, have implemented a suite of policies that clearly favour people living in urban Canada. Conservatives, on the other hand, seem almost proud of their refusal to take the issue of climate change seriously, a stance that mirrors the view held by many rural Canadians. In that sort of polarized environment, a true and lasting consensus on almost anything, never mind something as contentious as climate policy, seems virtually impossible.

It doesn’t need to be this way. The many millions of people who live in our urban environments, and who create much of its economic and creative vitality, should remember that rural Canada delivers the food, energy and other supplies we routinely take for granted. And rural Canadians should realize our cities are important magnets for attracting talent, capital and investment — all things that help keep their businesses in business and their livelihoods alive. We need each other far more than we realize, and far more than our political culture wants to reflect.

The only way to narrow this divide, and prevent further polarization between rural and urban Canada, is to repair that culture. Democratic reform could easily address some of these cleavages, most notably by replacing our outdated electoral system with one that doesn’t actively reward regional divisions and a winner-take-all mindset. In a perfect world, we’d consider something like rural-urban proportional representation, a complex hybrid of the best elements of mixed-member proportional and single transferable vote systems that seems perfectly suited to Canada’s geography.

In a less perfect world — in other words, this one — we would at least consider some kind of electoral reform that makes it theoretically possible for Liberals to get elected in rural Alberta and Saskatchewan and Conservatives elected in downtown Toronto and Vancouver. We could pair that with a return to the per-vote subsidy model of political funding, one that encouraged parties to take a broader view of the electorate — and was eliminated when Stephen Harper became Prime Minister. It’s not a coincidence that polarization was risen dramatically ever since, alongside the rage-farming and micro-targeting that now drives much of the tactical thinking in our political class and their relentless drive for donations.

We could even invest in new programs and institutions that try to break up the two solitudes of urban and rural Canada and encourage people from one to experience the other. Maybe that’s a national exchange program that sends city kids to the farm and rural kids to the big city, one with all the necessary and attendant safeguards. Maybe that’s something else. But one way or another, we have to find a way to start talking to each other again — and actually listening.

As the Alberta election results showed, the divide between Canada's urban and rural areas just keeps getting wider. If we care about national unity, we need to find a way to bridge that before it's too late. @maxfawcett writes for @NatObserver

If we don’t, we’ll find ourselves living in a country where any functional sense of national unity is a thing of the past. That will impair our ability to meet challenges, capture opportunities and ensure that our politics aren’t being driven by the loudest and meanest in our midst. In some respects, that’s been happening for a while now. That’s why the time to act is now, before it’s too late. That is, if it isn’t already.

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I believe electoral reform implemented through the mechanism of a Citizen's Assembly would likely result in a form of Proportional Representation in Canada that would go a long way towards closing the urban-rural divide. This would force political representatives from both 'sides' to talk respectfully to the other and respect the viewpoints of the other and recognize the realities of life on each side.

One could hope.
But the rural-urban divide has been alive and well for at least 35 years.
And it gets more pronounced, right along with the education gap between rural and urban areas. The truth of the matter seems to be that an education is needed to access a good job "in the city." And it needs to be a good job, in order to have a roof over one's head.
From the POV of rural folk, they deserve everything they get and more, because in their view, they're the ones who are actually working: because to them, that means physical work, while the likes of politicians, journalists, academics, and various professionals "never worked a day in their lives."
Each side, of course, believes their own work to be the kind that's valuable.
As far as proportional representation goes, even there, the devil is in the details. And the one thing to bear in mind, first and foremost, is that the ranked ballot method is just another way of arriving at first-past-the-post: and in fact disregards all choices except for those in favor of one of the two "biggest" parties.

I am often in disagreement with Mr. Fawcett, like when he touts carbon capture and in general the Liberal "We can stop climate change while doing lots of fossil fuels" approach. But this is an excellent article. I definitely think some sort of proportional system (I favour mixed-member proportional with a "best losers" approach to picking regional top-up MPs) would be helpful both for this problem and quite a few others. And I agree that the per-vote subsidy was important and should be reinstated, along with some serious tightening of campaign finance rules. I'm sure there are many other policies that would be useful.

I also think we need some heaping helpings of media reform, both of "traditional" media and the social media environment. On the social media side, for instance, I think it should be illegal to pay people to promote products or do politics on social media, or to hire firms that pay people to do so. It should be illegal to deploy "bots", again whether directly or indirectly. It should be illegal for social media platforms to employ algorithms that promote conflict, or suppress or systematically amplify particular political viewpoints. And when I say illegal, I mean real illegal, the kind with jail time, not corporate illegal where they pay a small fine and keep on doing it.

On the traditional media side, we need major antitrust action--bust 'em up into little pieces. There is ten times as much concentration as there was last time a Royal Commission pointed out there was too much concentration and something needed to be done. But contrariwise, we probably also need subsidies to those smaller pieces. The problem is that there isn't much money in doing actual journalism, like finding stuff out and telling the public. It's cheaper for the media to just parrot things they're told, by governments, by social media, by corporate press releases, and meanwhile the traditional media revenue model has kind of fallen apart and not been replaced except for a couple of outfits with worldwide reach, like the New York Times and the Guardian. There has been some success by online news sources like the National Observer that have gone back to a subscription model combined with a strong identity people will pay to read, but so far it's pretty niche. Subsidize real news media, and make sure they aren't corporate behemoths flogging the monolithic viewpoint of their billionaire owners.

Interesting choice of examples: NYT and the Guardian. NYT won't let you read anything without giving them your personal information, and permission to track you around the net. The Guardian, OTOH, asks for donations, but has a mandate to bring the news to everyone: no pay wall at the Guardian, and you can opt out of all cookies.

Fawcett: "The Liberals, who represent the parts of the country where the economy doesn’t depend on resource extraction or agricultural activity, have implemented a suite of policies that clearly favour people living in urban Canada. Conservatives, on the other hand, seem almost proud of their refusal to take the issue of climate change seriously, a stance that mirrors the view held by many rural Canadians."

A suite of policies that clearly favour people living in urban Canada — such as doubling down on fossil fuels, buying the Trans Mtn pipeline and building its expansion, sending large oil companies $1.7 billion for cleanup and $2.5 B in total COVID support. Approving LNG and offshore projects. Permitting O&G exploration in marine refuges. Shielding O&G companies from significant carbon pricing. Putting up potentially tens of billions of tax dollars for carbon capture, SMRs, and blue hydrogen to give the O&G industry a lifeline. Grossly under-reporting O&G emissions.
Do the Liberals take climate change seriously?
Do the Big Banks execs that back the O&G industry live in the sticks or on Bay St?

Come on, Mr. Fawcett. Take the blinkers off and toss the Liberal party hat.
Absurd analysis.

Fawcett: "Alberta’s recent provincial election was just the latest example of how distant urban and rural Canadians have grown from each other. The NDP won all but two of its 38 seats in greater Edmonton or Calgary…"

In fact, in the "doughnut" of largely (sub)urban seats around Edmonton, the NDP won only one seat. The UCP took almost all of them. The UCP also won the other Lethbridge seat, and all the seats in Alberta's other small cities (including Red Deer, Fort Mac, Medicine Hat).
That suggests the divide is not simply urban/rural.

Electoral reform & a per vote subsidy would make my vote in Rural Canada actually affect the makeup of the legislatures which is the purpose of having an elected assembly, It is important to have different views based on the preference of the electorate represented, no matter how abhorrent you might think the views are because the light of day can be a great cleanser

Light indeed. Don't forget, though, that it's light passing through the eye that counts, not whether or not the sun shines.

I would have been more interested in an article that described the cultural differences between urban and rural ridings, in particular, their religious, ethnic, and economic make-up. Being from an urban riding, I would like to understand better the beliefs of rural voters, who the influencers are and where they're coming from.

That would be a "city slicker's" way of looking at it. And probably not likely to yield much by way of useful results.