Saturday, February 04, 2006

Divide? What Divide?

Most of the good burghers of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, in their attempt to reconcile the election results, have made much of an “urban-rural divide” in Canadian politics. Funny that one never notices that someone is getting a raw deal until that someone is you.

The urban-rural divide might be breaking news to the Toronto Star, but it has been a reality in the lives of Canadians living in small towns and the countryside for decades. This sudden realization of two Canadas and a power imbalance is akin to someone discovering “Dear Lord, there are starving children in Africa!” Yes, when the cold, wet mitten of reality backhands you in the face, it’s not a pretty sight.

It was never always like this. At one time, rural Canadians were in the majority. Political power rested in the heartland. Funny enough, but no one at that time argued about cities getting a raw deal. In fact, they did quite well.

Despite the ugly stereotype, rural people are more sophisticated than one would be led to believe. In the beginning, they willingly paid the cost of developing cities, letting their tax dollars go to the building of large metropolitan areas, shipping ports, railways and the like.

Why? Because they were smart enough to see their own self-interest. Cities meant customers for their products. Factories meant farm equipment and fertilizers. Banks meant access to capital, and railways and shipping ports meant even more customers for their produce. Strong cities meant strong rural areas. To these forward-thinking people, it was not subsidizing, it was investing.

But things changed. Urban Canada outpaced the countryside in population and in economic clout. Moreover, the population was being fed by groups of people, either from outside Canada, or who had lived their entire lives in the city – neither of which possessed a collective memory of our nation’s rural roots. The urban-rural compact that functioned so well through the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries was broken.

The new regime was this. There was no partnership. Urban Canada calls the shots – we have the power and the money. You grow food and make it cheap to buy, and in return we’ll make sure you get support.

Generous deal, huh? A dairy farmer works 12-hour days, sometimes longer if you count their part-time job that helps pay the mortgage. They have to buy a ‘quota’ in order to sell milk in the supply management system – sometimes as high as $25,000 for a single cow. Then, they get mere pennies for what you pay dollars for at the supermarket. According to some reports, to make any money at dairy farming, you would need to buy at least $2 million in milk quotas. This does not even account for land use regulations, increased costs, and the like. Agriculture in Canada has become a social program, but for those who eat the food, not the ones that grow it.
In 2005, the Ontario government committed more money to loan guarantees for General Motors than for the entire Agriculture Ministry’s budget. While farmers still struggle, the extra investment in GM bought nothing more than a couple of thousand layoff notices.

What rural Canada knows is this. Urbanites want us to grow food so cheap that we cannot earn enough to live, then turn around and offer us “support” and “assistance.” Urbanites will freely spend $10 for a cup of ‘fair trade’ coffee at Starbucks to ensure that coffee pickers in Colombia earn a ‘living wage,’ and yet are prepared to see 5th generation family farms outside the GTA be put to the auctioneer’s hammer.

We hear urban voices lecture us about preserving the rich ecosystem in rural Canada, and the lobbying for laws to prevent farmers from moving a rock or cutting a branch off a tree. At the same time, when the GTA needs a place to put its trash, those voices become conveniently silent.

The epitome of this disconnect I saw first hand. As I was pulling out of a parking lot at a Napanee, Ontario supermarket, I caught glimpse of a young woman running through a neighbouring cornfield, holding a camera high in the air. Climbing over the fence, she joined her friends who were waiting in a black Acura with a dealer’s decal from Woodbridge – a tony Toronto suburb.

That field is, to that farmer, the equivalent of the production floor of a factory and backyard combined. I then asked myself what would be the natural consequence of a farmer and his wife pulling their pickup to the curb outside a Bridle Path home, climbing over the hedge, and taking some photographs of the nice swimming pool and rose garden. While I cannot be certain, it probably involves handcuffs and a ride in a Toronto city police cruiser.

There truly is a divide, but it is not a divide defined by local customs and lifestyle. It is a divide in respect and in appreciation of the diversity in communities other than our own. If urban leaders are disturbed by the prospect of a deaf ear in the corridors of power, they will only be getting a taste of what rural Canada has experienced for decades.