The Need for a Rural Strategy

Apathy and polarization won the June 2nd Ontario election. With voter turnout at record lows, Doug Ford's Conservatives may have a majority government elected by the fewest voters in Ontario history (fun fact: over 400,000 fewer individuals voted for the Conservatives this time around than in 2018). You can say this is an indictment on the opposition parties, who many pundits suggest ran lacklustre campaigns. You can blame the corporate media, including the Toronto Star, who ran puff pieces throughout the election that didn't really challenge the Conservative's horrible record of governance. You can also blame the nearly 60% of eligible voters who decided that old people dying of thirst in Long Term Care facilities didn't merit their attention.

The reality probably features elements of all three.

But a look at the map of Ontario highlights another issue: the ongoing urban-rural split that affects Southern Ontario. The NDP continued to do well in cities like Kitchener, Toronto, Hamilton, and Ottawa, as well as successfully holding onto most of their seats in Northern Ontario. The Liberals managed an increase in votes (but not seats) in suburban ridings. Rural areas, however, voted PC Blue.

Why? What policies did the Conservatives offer that made life better for rural residents moreso than urban residents? What policies did the opposition parties fail to offer in order to attract serious attention from farmers?

My guess is that you probably don't know, and not just because the Conservatives ran a bubble campaign and failed to release a costed platform. I challenge urban voters to answer: what were the rural issues that were on the minds of rural citizens in this election. Anyone?

While it's true that the province is becoming increasingly urbanized, and increasingly where the votes are, it's more than just a tactical mistake for three of the four parties in Ontario to write off large swaths of the province. Rural residents are citizens too. They deserve representation. They deserve to have their concerns heard and addressed. And I hazard a guess that a lot of them care about some of the same issues that urban voters care about, just in different ways. I think many farmers are concerned about what Climate Change is going to do their way of life -- droughts, or climate-shifted pests and diseases will affect everybody along our food supply network, but they will affect farmers first. And farmers have to retire like the rest of us; how comfortable do you think they feel they are to do so, given the high levels of debt that farms take on?

Maybe rural voters feel that, right now, the Conservative party is the only party that speaks to them, and maybe that might be an incentive for other parties to write them off, but do you know who suffers the most when we take that approach? They do.

Under this arrangement, the Conservatives are increasingly going to believe that they own the votes of rural Ontario by default. They don't need to campaign for them. They don't need to serve them. So, ironically, if three of the four parties in Ontario refuse to reach out to rural residents and build a rural strategy that meshes with how they address urban voters, the fourth party isn't going to provide them with any rural policies beyond urban-scapegoating pablum. And nobody in this province is well-served by that.

So, this is a challenge to the three opposition parties: starting today, start thinking about how to reach out to rural residents. For the NDP, this may mean looking at why they are resonating in Northern Ontario and why not in southern rural Ontario -- how are the two lands different, and how do you adjust to that? For the Greens, this probably means addressing countryside rural issues, and showing why caring for the environment doesn't mean cutting farm incomes or production. It probably means really amping up the "Farms Feed Cities" slogan into being more than a slogan, and building serious urban-rural connections and alliances. As for the Liberals? They can point out all the ways the Conservatives have failed farmers, failed their elders in Long Term Care, failed to serve them as they deserve to be served.

What issues can an urban politician find that provide a real alternative to what little the Conservatives have to offer? Perhaps start by going out and talking (and, more importantly, LISTENING) to a whole bunch of rural voters. Stand up for what you know to be right, but also address their serious concerns that should be the serious concerns of anybody trying to build a life in this day and age. Advocate for the golden rule: love your neighbour, and treat others with the respect you yourself want to be treated with.

It won't be the same as what you offer urban voters, but it could be what the province as a whole needs in order to embark on the path for better government.

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