The Inside Agenda Blog

Rural Ontario: A Place or a Culture?

by Mark Brosens Thursday February 7, 2013

On Wednesday, Premier-designate Kathleen Wynne was in Bradford West Gwillimbury, Ontario to “reaffirm her commitments to rural Ontario.”

In the 2011 Ontario election, many Liberals MPPs in rural areas lost their seats, including cabinet ministers John Wilkinson, Carol Mitchell, and Maria Van Bommel. Ever since, pundits have been speculating about why this happened and what the Liberals can do to win these seats back. In an effort to show she takes rural issues seriously, Wynne has promised to be her own agriculture minister during her first year as premier.

But when reading the press release for Wynne's event, I thought: even though they are holding this press conference on a farm, there's no way I would consider Bradford part of rural Ontario anymore. It made me wonder what is "rural Ontario?"

To better explain what I mean, I need to tell you about the time a Beer Store truck hit Bradford’s new Shoppers Drug Mart. 

"The Shoppers Drug Mart Incident"

As readers of The Agenda's blog may know, I grew up in Bradford. After I left for university (in 2002), Shoppers Drug Mart decided to move into a large, new building in town. The local newspaper proudly declared that this development showed that Shoppers Drug Mart realized that Bradford was a growing town with a bright future. However, months after the store opened, a transport truck driver was trying to make a stop at The Beer Store across the street when he had a brake problem, which resulted in his truck rolling down a hill, crossing the road, and then colliding with and entering the new Shoppers Drug Mart. 

No one was hurt, but there was a big mess. Residents stood around watching the clean-up for hours. It was the talk of the town for weeks. Most people agreed that the incident and the town’s reaction to it was proof that despite Bradford’s recent growth, it was still a small town.

But Bradford isn’t that same small town today. New subdivisions are quickly increasing Bradford’s population (the population has increased by 16.8 per cent over the past five years). Now Bradford has gyms, a sushi restaurant, and a coffee shop that sells espresso. In my opinion, Bradford isn’t rural anymore. Many people who live there would likely agree with me. 

What Does “Rural” Mean?

Did Kathleen Wynne reaffirm her commitments to rural Ontario in a rural community? Since rural Ontario is a political battleground right now, we should probably know what we're talking about when we refer to "rural Ontario."

Is rural Ontario a Statistics Canada definition? Bradford fits the rural definition that The Agenda used in 2010 to compare combat deaths among urban and rural Canadian soldiers who served in Afghanistan. However, most people aren’t statisticians and the definition of a small town is debatable (tell people that you're from a small town and a certain percentage of the population will tell you that you’re not). 

Rural areas are often associated with farms and concession roads. Wynne’s media event in Bradford happened at such a place on the edge of town:

View Larger Map

It has the feeling of rural Ontario, but Bradford also includes areas of recent suburban sprawl that don’t really fit the rural image:

View Larger Map

Are Southern Ontario’s rural areas being transformed by suburban sprawl, resulting in towns that have both urban and rural qualities? That seems to be the case in Bradford. And it's not just Bradford: during a recent online chat about Ontario politics with Steve Paikin, a viewer complained that Wynne didn't get rural communities like Alliston. But while Alliston has a long tradition of potato farming, now it has a Walmart, a Swiss Chalet, Honda plants and new subdivisions. 

I phoned my parents and they both agreed that, in their view as long-time rural residents, neither Bradford nor Alliston are rural anymore. Perhaps suburban sprawl in and around the Greater Toronto Area is making distinguishing between rural and urban Ontario more difficult.

Thus, do "rural ridings" have large number of voters who are actually suburbanites?

Rural Culture

Is rural Ontario a culture? A criticism I often hear in Bradford is that the people in the new subdivisions are “too Toronto.” This criticism often comes from people who have lived in the developed part of town for decades, but have watched the community change (their concern isn't about density, it's about something else). The way these new residents dress, shop, and behave are considered a little, well, different. This could partially be a case of new people having problems being accepted in a small town. Or it could be that rural Ontarians have particular values and a particular lifestyle. 

These different political values could be seen in Ontario’s wind turbine debate, where local control and cost seemed to matter more to rural Ontarians than environmental concerns (while urbanites seemed to reverse that hierarchy). 

If rural Ontario is more cultural than geographical, then the Ontario Liberals could have a large problem on their hands. When socio-political voting blocks form, they can be difficult to dislodge. For instance, look at the problems that Canadian Conservatives traditionally had attracting recent immigrants, Roman Catholics, and French-Canadians (although in recent years, some of these voting groups seem to be in flux). 

If rural Ontario is a cultural identity whose ridings are being encroached on by suburbanites, will traditional rural voters become increasingly frustrated as they find it difficult to express their interests in electoral politics? In essence their votes become diluted. Or will the opposite happen, where the new residents in these communities become increasingly "rural" in their outlook? 

What Do You Think?

Did Kathleen Wynne make a rural announcement in rural Ontario? I'm not sure. I'd be interested to hear what other people think. 

When we discuss rural Ontario, what do you think we are talking about? Is it still first and foremost based on geography, or has it become more of a state of mind? How do you think rural Ontario is changing? And what does that mean for the way our political leaders need to address rural concerns? 

Update: A photo of the "Shoppers Drug Mart Incident" was added, just in case anyone wondered if Mark was making it up.