Why Rural Areas Matter

Commentary, Agriculture, Robert Sopuck

Critics of Canada’s rural communities and the heroic efforts to keep them alive have recently become quite bold. Some commentators have gone so far as to recommend that we “let rural communities go, since they are a drain on the rest of Canada.” They are as wrong as one can be.

While it is tempting to take offense from such comments and lash back, perhaps we rural advocates instead should reflect on what we are doing and why. Our task is to develop counter-arguments to the question, “Does rural even matter?” We have a strong case.

One thing’s certain. The survival of rural communities matters to the various community development agencies and organizations that exist across rural Canada. We have Community Futures, Economic Development Boards and Rural Secretariats, among others. So many, in fact, that the Association of Manitoba Municipalities (AMM) recently asked if we are getting any value for the funds expended on such groups. That’s a fair question, but the proliferation of such agencies proves the point that folks really do care, both at the community level and at higher levels of government, the federal government’s vaunted “Cities Agenda” notwithstanding.

Let’s look at the question, “Does rural even matter?”

First off, our rural communities supply raw materials and food to the rest of society. I often ask people to look around whatever room they happen to be in. Try and find something that was either not grown or dug out of the ground. It can’t be done. It all starts in the countryside.

But the “provision of natural resources” argument is problematic because of success. Gains in mechanization and efficiency mean that more and more resources can be harvested by fewer and fewer workers. Not only are the returns from such activity falling as prices decline, but the population base, the lifeblood of rural societies, continues to shrink.

Others argue that rural communities are somehow “better” than urban ones because of the values inherent in small towns. Unfortunately, the claim that any set of values is “better” than another is a slippery slope indeed, in this relativistic day and age. I would avoid that direct argument.

But the “values” argument does provide a glimmer of understanding and hope. While it is difficult to articulate the differences, StatsCan has noted that urban versus rural residence “serves as an important distinguishing dimension on many social statistical measures.” This means that, when surveys are done, very real differences between rural and urban Canadians are apparent. Just look at the last federal election result if you need proof. So rural values are different from urban values, that’s for sure. We can’t say they’re better, even though, for the record, I do prefer them. That’s my choice.

But the argument for preserving them can be made objectively as well. As a biologist, I like diversity in nature, as do all ecologists. It stands to reason that we want a diversity of values in our human dimension as well. The rural value system is worth keeping alive for its own sake, since it provides an important counterpoint to a relentlessly dominant urban viewpoint.

Rural communities are repositories of certain values that this country can ill afford to lose. Rural does matter. That is why we all need to work hard to ensure a prosperous and thriving rural Canada.