Election 97: the regions speak – the rift


September 1, 1997

The urban-rural rift in Canadian voting patterns.


As you read the following information, highlight words and phrases that will help you summarize it.

There used to be a popular saying earlier this century that if something went wrong you blamed the CPR. The CPR (the Canadian Pacific Railway) represented the private interests of wealthy urban shareholders. This was a meaningful expression for farmers living in rural Canada who depended heavily on the railroad for transporting wheat in particular. The statement was a simplification of an urban-rural rift between farmers and city-dwellers and was indicative of a much bigger clash between the culture and values of the city and those of the farm. Although the expression blaming the CPR has gone out of fashion, there are many modern examples of the urban-rural rift. In many of the ridings of Canada’s big cities the Reform Party’s results placed it well down the list with the also-rans. But in rural Canada, Reform scored well into five figures for total votes, even in ridings the party lost. Polling done by Environics Research illustrated that Reform is mainly a movement with its roots planted in the countryside. The polling, which the firm did in rural Southern Ontario during the election campaign, showed that the smaller the community voters lived in, the more likely they were to be potential Reform voters.

One of the main reasons for the urban-rural rift, according to John Richards of the C.D. Howe Institute, comes from the divergence of views between immigrants in Canada’s major cities and rural dwellers, especially third- and fourth-generation Canadians who settled the Canadian West. During the election, Reform’s views on immigration proved to be unpopular in the cities where many recent immigrants reside. Richards said immigrants mistrusted Reform and that mistrust was reflected in Vancouver and Toronto where the party was rejected.

The Vancouver Scenario

A newspaper article titled “City’s elite saved Chrétien from humiliation” argued that the Liberals’ ability to capture five seats in the heart of Vancouver made the difference between a majority and minority government. The five Vancouver ridings that voted in Liberal candidates are home to thousands of Asian immigrants, and they also contain a rich upper class who live in houses that go for $500 000 or more. In the heart of Vancouver, a cosmopolitan elite backed the Liberals, while in working-class satellite communities like Surrey, North Vancouver, Coquitlam, and Port Moody, the Liberal candidates were not even close. The five Vancouver ridings in Liberal red are surrounded by a sea of Reform Party green, a voting pattern that shows a divide opening between the city and the rest of the province. Often it is called the two solitudes of British Columbia: the chasm between rich and poor, rural and urban. Without those five seats, the Liberals would have been reduced to 150 seats and they would not have achieved a majority of the 301 seats in the House of Commons. (A majority government exists only when the political party that wins the most seats has more than 50 per cent of the seats in the House. In 1993 there were 295 seats in the House, but because of the redistribution of ridings, today there are 301 seats. The magic figure to reach a majority government has therefore risen to 151 seats.)

The Prairies Pattern

The urban-rural rift was also evident in the major cities of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, which elected mostly Liberals and New Democrats while the Reform Party ate into traditional Tory turf in the countryside. Political pundits said that Westerners whose immigrant ancestors helped settle the Prairies probably supported more assimilation of the immigrant population because they were forced to assimilate. This factor may also explain why so many rural Canadians were against official bilingualism. By the same token, the Liberals’ national gun registry and their handling of the Canadian Wheat Board’s grain monopoly were seen to have contributed to their unpopularity in rural Western Canada. Paul Earl, policy manager for the 6000-member Manitoba-based Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association said the Liberals lost seats in rural areas because of their unwillingness to allow farmers to bypass the wheat board and sell their own barley. The Liberals were upholding a policy that had been in place for many years and supported by both Conservative and Liberal governments in the past.

A Growing Dichotomy

Voting patterns since the 1950s have seen the Liberals focus on urban Canada and the Conservatives on rural Canada. With the emergence of the Reform Party 10 years ago, the competition for the rural vote has intensified and split in many communities. Because of this urban-rural dichotomy, in the future, the ability of the parties to make breakthroughs in rural and urban Canada may be difficult. This has led some leaders like Premier Mike Harris of Ontario to endorse a merger of the Reform and Conservative parties. This has been flatly rejected by Conservative Leader Jean Charest, as he finds the Reform Party’s position on Quebec irreconcilable with his party’s views.

Many Seats in the House

An examination of the distribution of seats in the House of Commons following the 1997 election demonstrates Canada’s regional differences. In Ontario the Liberal Party took 101 out of a possible 103 seats. Some analysts are critical of the fact that an inordinately high percentage of the Liberals’ support came from only one province. In Quebec, the Liberals captured 26 out of a possible 75 seats. As a result, some people are concerned that the Liberal government’s support reflects a Central Canada bias; Of the Liberals’ 155 seats in the newly elected Parliament, 127 of these are from Ontario and Quebec. Less than 20 percent of the Liberals’ seats come from outside Central Canada. Nationally, only 38 per cent of the eligible voters supported the Liberal Party. The Reform Party, led by Preston Manning, dominated the Western provinces, and Reformers were elected partly on their ability to promote Western interests in Ottawa. In British Columbia they captured 25 seats out of 34, and in Alberta 24 out of 26. The Conservatives never got beyond third place in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Only in the Atlantic provinces did they make substantial gains. This also held true for the NDP, who captured 6 out of 11 ridings in Nova Scotia. In Quebec the Bloc Québécois finished with 44 seats but had fielded no candidates outside of the province. These figures suggest that, numerically at least, not one of the five official parties is a true national party. How will parties that wish to influence a national agenda overcome this obstacle?

Indicates material appropriate or adaptable for younger viewers.


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