Rural Regions and the Federal Election

Commentary, Agriculture, Robert Sopuck

We’ve just been through an exciting federal election and in the end we got the first minority government since 1979. What do these results mean for rural Canada?

First, the urban “drift” of the federal NDP has accelerated under their leader, former Toronto city councillor, Jack Layton. Given Layton’s biases and the continued urbanization of Canada, this was expected. Layton sees more hope for NDP growth in cities, one reason why he was willing to support policies like the despised firearms registry which completely undercut his rural candidates. From the viewpoint of votes, it’s a sound political strategy.

The Liberals also did fairly well in cities like Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Vancouver. But the predicted rural meltdown did not materialize. The Grits captured seats in rural Ontario and the Maritimes. Some Liberal “stars” from rural Ontario were defeated, namely Agriculture Minister Bob Speller and Rural Caucus Chair, Murray Calder. Both had “fought the good fight” on behalf of rural Canada; Calder’s strong opposition to the proposed federal Animal Cruelty Act was especially notable. Bill C-10 would have opened up normal animal uses to scrutiny by the courts and animal rights groups, and its defeat was welcomed by rural people. Calder’s central role in that fight deserves our gratitude.

Expect Liberal MPs like re-elected Wayne Easter from PEI and Rosemary Ur from rural Ontario to take up the charge on behalf of rural Canada, especially in this minority government situation. Backbench government MPs will finally have the muscle to exercise real influence.

But, a Liberal-NDP-and sometimes Bloc coalition will be bad news for rural interests. Both the Liberals and the NDP will play to the cities, at the expense of both the programs and the political influence of rural Canada, especially in the West. Their strategists will tell them that much of the countryside, especially west of Ontario, is a lost cause. They’ll try to move a relentlessly urban agenda.

Prime Minister Paul Martin, who has a genuine interest in the health of rural regions, may partially counteract this drift. But I fear that the push to the cities will just be too strong for him to resist. Battling to a draw is about the best that rural interests can expect.

The Conservatives retained a large measure of support in rural Canada, with pre-election polls showing that over 70% of farmers voted Tory. But they won enough urban seats in Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg and, interestingly, St John’s, Newfoundland, to claim a respectable urban presence. Newfoundland and New Brunswick stood the pattern on its head. It’s the Tories that represent urban ridings and the Liberals the countryside. (Nothing to do with Employment Insurance, of course.) It would behoove the Tories to begin polling in southern Ontario to determine exactly why their vote melted down in the waning days of the election. They just might learn something.

What is clear from this minority government is that anti-rural legislation like the Fisheries and Oceans Act, Species at Risk Act, the Firearms Act and the proposed animal cruelty bill would have a very difficult time passing. Rural interests have the opportunity to work with sympathetic MPs from all political parties to advance a more sensible agenda or at least to stave off policy disasters. Let’s hope our rural leaders understand that.