July 5, 2008
A devastating new report from Canada’s Senate – Beyond Freefall: Halting Rural Poverty – shows how hopelessly dependant, dysfunctional and uneconomic rural Canada has become. Name a sign of decay – depopulation, crime and domestic violence, illiteracy and poor education, substance abuse, decrepit infrastructure, substandard housing and homelessness – and the 365-page report will have detailed the morass.
Rural life, the report explains, has never corresponded to the romantic images that accompany it. As it summarizes, “historically and to this day, rural life has often been filled with hardship, danger, and sometimes despair: hardship imposed by difficult climates and fluctuating commodity prices; danger from the occupations that have historically defined economic life in rural Canada . . . despair from a sense of isolation, both social and otherwise.”
Little wonder that the rural population now, like the rural population since before Confederation, has steadily opted to leave the rural areas for the relative ease, security and opportunity that accompany city life and city industries. What should spur wonder, however, is why the Senate should work to thwart the will of rural folk who would seek a new life in urban Canada.
The rural population is now below 20% of the national total, a new low. Without unrelenting government intervention over the decades, the migration to the cities would have happened much earlier and on a larger scale, sparing many the grief they now face. Instead, the government systematically worked to keep people out of cities.
During the First World War, the “Soldier Settlement Act: An Act to Assist Returned Soldiers in Settling Upon the Land and to Increase Agricultural Production” was passed to ensure that the 600,000 returning servicemen would remain rural. It provided land grants for veterans of up to 160 acres, generally at little or no cost, in good part because the government feared that the soldiers would settle in cities, then seen as hotbeds of union activity and social upheaval.
“We believe that we cannot better fortify this country against the waves of unrest and discontent . . . than by making the greatest possible proportion of the soldiers of our country settlers upon the land,” stated Minister of the Interior Arthur Meighen, in introducing the legislation.
After the Second World War, the government was at it again with the Veterans Land Act, designed to “bonus” the returning veteran out of the city into the country, as put by Milton Gregg, the minister of veterans affairs. Between the world wars, before and after them, the story was the same. Scarcely any rural activity can be found that has not been subsidized over most of Canada’s history, from water, electrical, postal and telephone utilities to rural industries such as farming, forestry and mining. The fruit of the subsidies has often been bitter, as the catalogue of rural horrors in the Senate report demonstrates.
Self-sufficiency, and the pride and sense of self-worth that comes from it, can not be provided by governments. Yet the Senate report, learning nothing from history, wants to pile on layer upon layer of additional programs in order to keep people from urban areas, or move urban people to rural areas.
As one example of how it would accomplish the latter, the report recommends that the government move at least 10% of the federal employees who now live in urban areas to rural Canada. As an example of the former, the report would ensure that rural Canada receive its “fair share” of immigrants by changing the points systems to favour rural folk.
All told, the report makes 68 recommendations – from guaranteed annual incomes of $25,000 per family that stays in rural areas to giving rural industries richer subsidies. That rural areas might thrive best by losing those enticed by the dole, and retaining only those for whom rural life needs no further enticements, never seems to cross the report-writers’ minds.
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute and the author of Toronto Sprawls: A History