And they would know?

December 23rd, 2006
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A recent report by a Senate committee (click here to view) claims that, as the National Post put it in a recent story, “Rural Canada, once the backbone of the nation, is on the verge of an irreversible decline…”

The report and Post story are litanies of woe – rural depopulation, “steady erosion to services”, declining incomes, virtually zero net farm income, overall poverty – that, in the Post’s words, are leading rural Canadians to become “second-class citizens.” Rural poor, it claims, are “worse off than the poor in large cities”.

The report triggered immediate ed-letters from readers and statements of sympathy from farm advocates. But is most of this stuff true? And even if technically true, does it accurately portray rural life today?

I can’t speak for rural Nunavut or New Brunswick, or even eastern Alberta for that matter, but my decade spent based at what an urban journalist would describe as my Remote Rural Compound (which regular readers know as the “RRC”) northwest of Calgary have triggered some observations.

First off, how does one describe as poor men and women who roar around in $70,000 diesel-powered trucks that have more horsepower and payload than an American WWII-era “deuce-and-a-half” that carried 10 infantrymen? Where the typical farm 50 years ago might have one private vehicle, today one can barely see the dwelling for the cars, trucks, dirt bikes, quads, snowmobiles, etc. parked hither and yon.

Farm parcels in my neck of the woods are now worth $3-$4 million per section – enough to fund a comfortable retirement in Arizona or the Okanagan for virtually any aging couple.

My nearest neighbours’ two boys were home-schooled – and after Grade 12 both headed off to university in Calgary. Bad education?

The Senate report laments the “longer and longer” drives faced by rural unfortunates. Last time I checked, Calgary is the same distance from any given Alberta farm as it always has been. The difference: 50 years ago a resident of Sundre, say, faced a grim two-hour drive in the ’49 Ford grain truck or perhaps old Model T over muddy, potholed gravel roads. Today you blast down paved highways in your Pontiac Grand-Am at 130 km/h, and hundreds of people commute into Calgary daily.

Earth to Senator Joyce Fairbairn: today’s drives are shorter, not longer.

The report makes much of the flight of the population from rural to urban areas. In 1941, roughly equal Canadian proportions of 5 million each lived in so-called “urban centres” of more than 1,000 people, and in “rural” areas defined as farms or villages with fewer than 1,000 people. By 2001, the over-1,000-people population had soared to about 25 million, while the under-1,000 population was stuck at a little over 5 million and had begun to shrink.

The reasonable person can only conclude that Canadian towns are evaporating by the dozens or hundreds as younger people flee to cities by the tens of thousands. The clear image is of uprooted populations and social dislocation.

But what about a small town that simply grew, like Sundre, near where I live? At whatever point in the past several decades Sundre surpassed 1,000 people, its entire population would be reclassified from “rural” to “urban”. The statistics would enhance the Senate report’s portrait of rural decline. Yet in Sundre’s case, the same people might well have continued living in the same houses on the same streets – while being joined by many new neighbours.

Were Sundre’s residents suddenly worse off? Did rural life just get worse? It would seem the opposite: as Sundre grew, it would add services – and the real-life town has done exactly that. The benefits would go not only to the townies, but to the surrounding rural population. There’s now a big-box hardware store and lumberyard, for example, and many other retail options. Didn’t rural life just get better for everyone?

The report also appears (I didn’t read it through) to overlook the phenomenon of what in the U.S. are called “exurbs”. These are bedroom communities and more densely populated rural areas of acreages and hobby farms. This is a major phenomenon in Canada as well – there’s a 30-mile-wide belt of this kind completely ringing Calgary (except for one Indian reserve). These tend not to be poor, isolated or declining.

As for lack of services in rural areas, who needs a bank in every village in an era of direct deposits and Internet banking, an era when the commute to work has you passing 20 bank branches with instant tellers (and drive-through service in some cases).

I have no doubt that some rural people, and some rural areas, are finding it tough. And that’s sad. But this report’s tales of woe are vastly exaggerated. I know rural livin’ first-hand – and I’m lovin’ it.

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