Years ago, Hugh McClellan coined the phrase “The Two Solitudes” to describe the lack or perceived lack of communication between English and French Canada. A long history of separate political and social evolution made it seem to many that the divide might never be bridged. Times change and people and societies change with them and though independence was a real draw for many Quebecois, that tide has receded somewhat. Both Canada and Quebec are better places for the rich exchange of culture and of political ideas between the former separate camps. Tensions continue to exist – after all we spent twenty years building them to their peak in 1995—but still the idea of the two solitudes no longer has the same resonance that it once did.
Except new divisions have arisen in our country. “The Great Divide” is not, as the name suggests, a division that cleaves between east and west but rather a much different partition, that between urban and rural.
Little communication or understanding exists anymore between urbanites and their country cousins. Not only in Canada but throughout much of the world, the values, economies, cultures and politics of many countries have split along urban/rural lines.
Cities tend to embrace more progressive ideas (and parties) while rural areas fight to preserve traditional and conservative values. You can see this in places as diverse as PEI and Alberta. In the former, the Greens swept the urban centres while the Conservatives held sway in the more rural villages and counties. Even normally right-wing Calgary elected three NDP members in the face of the Conservative wave and they were close in several other ridings. UCP majorities were much thinner there, too, compared to the overwhelming support they gained in the countryside.
One can look south of the border where, even in dead red states, patches of blue blossom wherever population densities rise. In England it was the urban centres like London that voted to stay in Europe while rural regions largely voted to leave.
There are a lot of reasons why such hard divisions have arisen and seem to be solidifying. Urban areas are more diverse – people who don’t fit in their rural or small-town communities gravitate to the cities where they can find others who share their views and values or, at least, they can submerge into the greater anonymity that urban life provides. Cities tend to be net generators of economic activity and wealth and are better able to adapt as new industries rise and older ones fail—problems that one industry towns or single commodity rural areas have a harder time doing. Immigrants are naturally attracted to areas of greater economic opportunity and it often takes government subsidies and supports for them to consider more remote parts of any country. Cities also tend to host the major universities, museums and arts centres, as well as being the locus of government.
Yet, there are dire consequences for democracy if these divisions persist and expand, especially since most countries continue to grant rural areas more representation and therefore power (Nebraska, for example, has the same number of Senators as California and, in Canada, the courts have agreed that a 25% variation—more in sparsely populated districts—in seat size is reasonable, giving rural areas five seats when urban populations of the same size only get four). Yet the urban-rural conversation seems almost never to be pursued except by accident.
Maybe it’s time we found a way to change that.
And that’s ten minutes.