Philip CrossRecognizing our rural roots and inheritance acknowledges that the conservation of traditions and values plays a crucial role in building acceptance of change by reducing the fear that important elements of what makes a society unique will be lost, writes Philip Cross.

By Philip Cross, Aug. 25, 2017

Like many Canadians, I spent my vacation exploring the countryside. Rural Canada plays a much larger role in our society that is conveyed in our political discourse or by media pundits. Beyond its natural beauty, the countryside houses our cultural inheritance of traditions, experiences and wisdom in a way that our increasingly homogenized and globalized cities no longer can. A good example of the growing divergence between cities and the hinterland was the stark difference between the “Brexit” vote in cosmopolitan London and the rest of England.

The rural hinterland is widely regarded as the repository of any society’s core principles and character. Former President Jacques Chirac called French regions “the guardians of our memory.” When the writers of the West Wing TV series wanted to establish the moral bona fides of the ultra-liberal President Bartlett, they set his roots in rural New Hampshire to emphasize his connection to fundamental American values. To celebrate Canada’s 150thyear, Parks Canada wisely granted free access to our national parks and historical sites so Canadians could reconnect with their roots. This reflects how rural areas are regarded as the “heartland” of any nation.

The conservative historian Donald Creighton wrote that conserving the past is as important as innovating for the future, although the latter dominates government agendas these days. An age of disruptive technological innovations more than ever requires the permanence of values and place that is based in the country. Recognizing our rural roots and inheritance is not “ancestor worship,” but acknowledges that the conservation of traditions and values plays a crucial role in building acceptance of change by reducing the fear that important elements of what makes a society unique will be lost.

Rural areas are regarded as the “heartland” of any nation.

Statistics that say 81 per cent of Canadians are urban imply rural residents are of little importance. However, if people were asked whether they spent time in rural areas, the share would be much higher than the 19 per cent implied by the official stats, another example of how society cannot be understood by numbers alone. Most city-dwellers flee their azoic habitats to spend their vacations and weekends in rural settings, often in cottages and cabins to reconnect with their rural heritage and to revert somewhat to the way of life of previous generations. Here in Ottawa, the local CBC weekend morning radio program is called “In Town and Out” in recognition of the fluidity of the rural/urban distinction at that time of the week. This constant movement of people between town and country is one justification for not requiring rural election ridings to have populations as large as city seats, since the snapshot of geographic location captured by the census numbers ignores the flow of population at regular intervals.

Unfortunately, the bridge between city and country carries some societal problems. Drug problems, once the scourge of inner cities, have migrated to the rural U.S. due to the opioid crisis, while also making inroads into rural western Canada. Economic problems are also spreading out of city centres as gentrification forces lower income people to leave the inner cities, creating what is called “slumburbia.” Soaring house prices in downtown city cores are rapidly aggravating this phenomenon.

Cities are becoming less representative of their country and region.

However, a stark urban/rural divide remains in some areas of economics and politics. The urban trend to sharing assets such as cars, homes and even office space has no counterpart in the country, where exclusive ownership reigns. And the isolation of individuals in cities, aggravated by social media replacing actual human contact, helps breed political divisions while its anonymity fuels the inflammatory rhetoric that harms political debate and consensus-building.

Cities are becoming less representative of their country and region. This is especially true for Toronto and Vancouver, which are increasingly attached to the global economy and distanced from their rural hinterland. They are plugged into global supply chains (including for people, who often move between cities in different countries) that have little connection with nearby regions. As noted by Edward Luce in The Retreat of Western Liberalism, cities increasingly drain labour from surrounding areas while buying less in return. One implication of major cities becoming more standardized is that rural areas increasingly are what make each region distinctive.

Cities were originally built to keep out the surrounding barbarian savages. Today, rather than building walls around cities to insulate them from the outside world, we need to foster their contact with rural areas to preserve our values, traditions and way of life. This may also help preserve the economic advantage of cities. Luce speculates that the increasing isolation of elites in cities threatens their economic dominance. Cities traditionally were more productive because of the constant cross-fertilization of competing ideas they encouraged, but now they are becoming an echo chamber for the politically correct liberal elites that dominate downturn cores.

Philip Cross is a Senior Munk Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

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