Saving the rural route: a countryside in crisis

Deborah Aarts, ArtSci '04
Deborah Aarts, ArtSci '04

It ain’t easy to be a country girl sometimes. I’m from Watford, a little community in southwestern Ontario fettered by neither stoplight nor strip mall.

My high school had fewer than 300 students and my teenage social life consisted of crop tours and shed parties. Whenever I am compelled by the ebb and flow of small talk to explain this, however, the response usually involves variations on, “Oh, isn’t that quaint?” followed by an insincere smile.

The curious thing about those sorts of responses is my reaction. I inevitably end up invoking a Daisy Duke-meets-John Deere persona, extolling the aesthetic pleasure of corn rows, the satisfying crunch of wheels on gravel roads and the sweet (yes, I said sweet) smell of cow manure.

The truth is, I was never so down-home as all that. As a teenager, I craved urban excitement. I drew anarchy symbols on my Finder Binder and augmented Garth Brooks with heavy doses of Radiohead. I longed for culture and a break from the stultifying routine of rural life.

So why am I so compelled to revert to stereotypes of pastoral kitsch? It must have something to do with my overprotective nature.

Rural Canada is in a state of crisis. The agricultural industry, so instrumental in supporting the national economy, is struggling to survive in an era of competitive global markets, urban expansion and most recently, the two-horned attack of the mad cow disease and the Asian bird flu. The grievances of farmers make it into the news reports on a daily basis. Most concerning to me, however, are the residual effects such disasters have and will impose on communities such as my hometown. And the results are hardly limited to the agricultural sector. In the past five years, Watford has been witness to three school closures, the sale of the previously autonomous weekly newspaper to a neighboring media conglomerate and environmental devastation in the form of an encroaching landfill of Toronto’s garbage. While these events appear unrelated, they are all contingent on the economic feasibility of rural autonomy. A healthy, booming community depends on the status of the industries that sustain it. Given the struggles of agriculturalists nation-wide, it is not difficult to see a correlation with denigrated rural identity. Quite simply, Canadians are abandoning country life because it is no longer socially appealing or economically practical.

These themes are hardly new. Over a century ago, the lure of industry and mechanization led to the virtual eradication of sustenance farming in the western world. A similar phenomenon is occurring today in the context of globalization. While industrialization in the 19th century increased urbanization, isolated small areas managed to thrive because of collective educational, religious or commercial endeavours. Today, in a secular, downsized, omni-corp society, such binding agents are significantly weakened. In most cases, rural communities are either being abandoned or eaten up by urban sprawl that is growing faster than ... well, insert your own barnyard analogy here.

A strong relationship between agricultural enterprise and regional rural identity is beneficial for the former and vital for the latter.

Neither factory farms nor plagued livestock nor barren fields are conducive to a prosperous rural community. Preserving rural Canada will involve more than my affectations of bucolic bliss. Support for locally-based sustainable agriculture must become a key policy concern to prevent the co-opting of towns by ConAgra or some other multinational agricultural conglomerate. A moratorium is needed on cutbacks to country schools, businesses, and social programs. There are countless prescriptions I could spout from my admittedly biased position, but such arguments are a separate issue.

The question at hand is why rural communities are so crucial to maintain. After all, does it really harm anyone to sell the farm, shop at the Wal-Mart in the nearest city or ship their kids off to school an hour away? At the risk of sounding trite, I would suggest the answer is yes. In a country so intent on preserving heritage and national identity, it seems incongruous that there has been such a marked decline in support for the rural communities. The demise of each small farming town diminishes the diversity and unique character of the Canadian landscape. Rural communities were once a vibrant and necessary agent of national prosperity and I believe that they could be again, given the proper supports.

So, the next time you see a student boasting about his or her hick roots, know that it may not just be posturing: they may be trying to preserve more than just a hackneyed stereotype.

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