Cottages vs. farms. Malls vs. land. Urban cash vs. rural clout. This is Canada's next culture war

CHARLIE GILLIS November 29 2004


Cottages vs. farms. Malls vs. land. Urban cash vs. rural clout. This is Canada's next culture war

CHARLIE GILLIS November 29 2004



Cottages vs. farms. Malls vs. land. Urban cash vs. rural clout. This is Canada's next culture war


THE FIRST SHOTS came from a cannon on a hill—a vineyard, actually, on a ridge in the centre of B.C.’s Okanagan Valley. Propane guns are harmless weapons meant to protect fruit crops, firing blank rounds to scare away feasting robins and starlings. But when Alex Lubchynski set one up among the grapevines on his property west of Kelowna, B.C., it set off a war.

That fall, the middle-class suburbanites whose homes crowd around his land filed a complaint over the noise—a kind of concussive thudding, like a backfiring car—to a provincial

board governing farm practices. A petition against Lubchynski followed, and the 50year-old farmer had words with his neighbours. “I know where you live,” one man told him after a particularly nasty exchange, which Lubchynski interpreted as a threat and reported to police. No charges were laid, but relations continued to sour. According to his neighbours, they sent a representative to speak with him, but Lubchynski refused to silence the cannon. One woman actually placed his fields under surveillance, perching behind her picture window with a set of binoculars to log comings, goings and incidents of noise for the benefit of the farm practices board.

You could dismiss it all as old-fashioned bickering: stubborn farmer versus overentitled city slickers, each deserving the other’s mulishness. But when he’s not spitting mad, Lubchynski seems despondent— shocked, even—about the rift that’s opened between him and his neighbours. On a tour around the neat rows of Pinot Noir grapevines in his central field, he points out the homes of his harshest critics, wondering how they can begrudge him the right to make a living. “I don’t know how much

longer we can farm here,” he says. “Urban and rural side by side—in this country it’s just not working.”

IT’S BEEN 26 YEARS since Hugh MacLennan described Canada as a “nation of small towns,” and, with due respect to a literary icon, he couldn’t have been more wrong. By the mid-1970s, fully 75 per cent of us were living in cities, whose clubby familiarity was rapidly giving way to bustling cosmopolitanism. Immigration and the centripetal effect of an increasingly whitecollar economy have sped those changes through the 1980s and ’90s. Vancouver and Toronto, in particular, have ballooned into multicultural super-cities, with large ethnic populations and suburbs pushing ever farther onto surrounding lands. Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton are following similar paths, while highway-hugging “micropolises”—Kelowna, Red Deer, Alta., Kitchener, Ont.—grow outward from their

small, loose downtown cores.

The numbers tell the story: in the 10 years leading up to the 2001 census, the urban population grew by more than three million; during the same period, the number of rural dwellers dwindled by nearly 300,000. Fully 80 per cent of Canadians now live in cities and only 20 per cent in the country— an exact reversal of the ratio at the time of Confederation.

What the stats don’t show is the ill feeling that shift appears to be breeding. Nationally, pollsters and political scientists are charting a “town-andcountry” split on issues ranging from gun control to gay rights, similar to the divide that featured so pivotally in the recent U.S. election. And as the Lubchynski case demonstrates, there’s a deep disconnect between the two sides at the local level. “Eve been telling my classes for some years now that urban versus rural is the most significant division facing the country,” says Hugh Segal, the former Progressive Conservative strategist who now

‘URBAN versus rural is a far more important division in this country than French and English or East versus West’

teaches public policy at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. “It’s far more important than French and English, and far more important than East versus West.”

Segal blames much of the discord on economic disparity. Rural Canadians feel excluded from the longest sustained boom in the nation’s history, he theorizes, watching in envy while financial and human capital gathers around the cities. Urbanites, on the other hand, are aggrieved by rural dwellers’ disproportionate influence on the electoral system, a resentment that grows more acute as the countryside’s population shrinks. And their leaders are starting to speak up. The last two years have seen an unprecedented alliance among big-city mayors arguing they’ve been “systematically disadvantaged” by senior governments, and demanding a greater share of the tax pie and representation in Parliament. It’s a gambit that’s bound to win them few friends in the country: the cities already have the bulk of the population, a steady inflow of educated talent and the engines of the nation’s wealth. Now they want political clout to go with it.

THE FLAGBEARER of the urban offensive does not come across as a guy who has it out for country folk. On this day, Toronto Mayor David Miller is proudly sporting a faded tartan necktie that once belonged to Tommy Douglas, father of medicare and prairie-grown hero of New Democrats everywhere. It’s a homey touch, but on Miller the tie is unmistakably an artifact. This, after all, is a man who has spent his first 12 months in office promoting the idea that cities—big cities—matter more than any other order of community in the country. “For Canada to succeed, cities have to succeed,” he likes to say, by which he means they need more money, and more power. Hard to picture Douglas on that bandwagon.

For a while, Miller seemed to be making headway. Prime Minister Paul Martin entered last spring’s federal election campaign touting a “cities agenda,” to applause from Canada’s big-city mayors. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty promised a share of the provincial gas tax for Toronto’s beleaguered public transit system, proclaiming a fresh era in relations between the city and the province. Then, as quickly as it started, the urban drive

hit a wall. Beset by rural backbenchers who wanted a slice of the pie for their constituents, Martin watered down his proposal into a “communities agenda,” under which more than $4 billion would be spread over five years among all municipalities. A few weeks later, McGuinty unfurled a threeyear, $680-million transit funding package that, instead of going almost exclusively to Toronto, would be divided among 78 municipal transit systems throughout Ontario.

Miller fumed. But it was a valuable lesson in the real locus of political power in Canada. “I think part of the problem is that the House of Commons over-represents rural interests,” he now says, kicking back on his office couch. “I’m not trying to diminish those interests, but the urban MPs are marginalized.” His solution, not surprisingly, is electoral reform. It’s an old NDP saw, which surfaces whenever the party’s seat count fails to measure up to its share of the vote. But it’s enjoying new life this fall, thanks to the growing sense within cities that government is ignoring their concerns. Anyone who has examined the federal electoral map can understand the gripe: an MP in Cardigan, P.E.I., represents roughly a quarter of the number of voters that one in Ontario’s suburban riding of Mississauga-Erindale does, and this pro-rural skew applies in varying degrees across the country. “The system,” says Miller, “is enormously out of whack.”

The good news for cities: electoral reform initiatives are now afoot in five provinces, with B.C. leading the way, and even the federal government is considering alternatives. Duff Conacher, co-ordinator of the non-partisan advocacy group Democracy Watch, warns that fixing the federal system will be hard, because it’s held together by the Constitution and a patchwork of laws dating back to Confederation. Any meaningful change would require constitutional negotiations, in which less populous provinces would be loath to give up their influence. “We’re about as paralyzed on this,” he concludes, “as we are on Senate reform.”

BESIDES WHICH, rural people are hardly feeling over-enfranchised, no matter how many MPs they have. Sal Tangaro, a cherry grower in Winfield, B.C., had few political



1867: 4 in 5 Canadians iive in the COUNTRY

2004: 4 in 5 Canadians iive in the CITY

“In proportion as he simplifies his life, the Saws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness” -Henry David Thoreau in Walden, his 1854 paean to the pastoral “If you can only have one great love, then the city just may be mine. And I don’t want nobody talkin’ shit about my boyfriend.” -Carrie in Sex and The City


1861! U.S. Civil War splits urban north and rural south. While slavery drives passions, manufacturing vs. agriculture is a key point of conflict.

City wins.

1925! The Scopes monkey trial splits urban and rural America on the issue of teaching evolution. Country wins.

2004! The U.S. election splits city and country on the issues of gay marriage, abortion and stem-cell research. Country wins.


BEST URBAN & RURAL COUPLES ■ Harrison Ford & Kelly McGillis in Witness ■ Daniel Day Lewis & Madeleine Stowe in The Last of the Mohicans ■ Sully & Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman ■ Miss Piggy & Kermit ■ Jane & Tarzan ■ Maid Marian & Robin Hood

WHEN CULTURES COLLIDE! CAPTURED ON VIDEO! THE SIMPLE LIFE: Skinny party girls terrify country folk! AMISH IN THE CITY: L.A. vice corrupts rural innocents! COMING SOON THE REAL BEVERLY HILLBILLIES: Just like the ’60s show, but with honest-to-goodness hicks!

$3.3 million Top price paid this year for a cottage (with five bedrooms, on 2.45 acres) in Ontario’s Muskoka region, one of Canada’s priciest.


911! CANADA’S SMALL TOWNS ARE DESPERATE FOR DOCTORS. INCENTIVES ON OFFER: ■ interest-free loans ■ free housing ■ free golf-club and gym memberships ■ choice of boat or snowmobile ■ cold hard cash

THE GREAT URBAN MAW: Since 1971, Canada’s cities have expanded by more than 75%, with half that growth eating up farmland.

EVERYONE LOVES A COWBOY Most fashionable Ralph Lauren cowboy Richest cowboy Ted Turner Most mysterious Marlboro Man cowboy Most powerful George W. Bush Sexiest cowboy Brad Pitt (Legends of the Fall) cowboy Best Canadian Blue Rodeo’s cowboy Jim Cuddy

In the remake of Dukes of Hazzard, alpha country girl Daisy Duke (originally played by small-town-raised Catherine Bach) will be played by alpha city girl Jessica Simpson

When I was a younger man Got lucky with a rock ‘n’ roll band Struck gold in Hollywood All that time I knew I would Get back to the country -Neil Young, “Back to the Country.” You got a fast car/And I got a plan to get us outta here... / We won’t have to drive too far/ Just ‘cross the border and into the city/ You and I can both get jobs/ And finally see what it means to be living -Tracy Chapman, “Fast Car”


THE DOOR is still open, but with each day, fewer customers pass beneath the weatherbeaten sign to shop at Hicks’ General Store. It’s become a rite of autumn for the Milford, Ont., business: a sharp drop in sales as the area’s growing number of part-time residents return to their city homes. “We’re doing half what we were in summer,” says Jane Morris, 52, co-owner of the store that’s been in her family for three generations.

Milford is an historic hamlet located in the heart of Prince Edward County, which is fast becoming a refuge for Toronto’s well-to-do. Known simply as “The County” among its 25,000 inhabitants, the area is one of several around the country experiencing what geographers call a “backflow” of population into rural lands. Hungry for space and scenery, affluent urbanites are buying houses in B.C.’s Gulf Islands, on Nova Scotia’s South Shore and other hot spots. “They’re early retirees, often professionals,” says Tony Fuller, a rural development expert at the University of Guelph. “It’s about being part of a meaningful community.”

The phenomenon has its benefits, such as helping to offset the scourge of rural depopulation. And in some regions, the newcomers’ distinctly urban tastes have brought the comforts of fine restaurants or pricey wine at the local grog shop. But there are costs, too. In long-time vacation areas, rural municipalities are struggling to fund services for the growing number of year-round homes. Last fall, a spat erupted in the cottage country around Lake Winnipeg over the rising cost of sewage disposal due to increased demand placed on the system by ex-urbanites and their large country houses.

What worries Morris is that the newcomers leave as soon as the weather turns, putting businesses like hers on a shaky footing. So far she’s hanging on. She’s stopped stocking hardware and hopes to get a liquor outlet to boost sales. “To keep the economy moving,” she says, “you need young people with families.” Whether they’re urban or rural doesn’t matter much to her, as long as they stick around-and shop. C.G.

allies last year when he was fending off noise complaints from his suburban neighbours. He now figures it’s only a matter of time before urbanites are “telling us what to do.” Neal Hardy, president of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, shudders at the idea of concentrating more power in urban hands. “The truth is,” he says, “we don’t have much political power now. Having a strong voice [in Parliament] at least gives us an opportunity to make our points and, I think, keep the country going.”

A simpler way to avert conflict may be to remove the flashpoints—which is to say, the creeping edge of our largest cities. The most aggressive attempt to date is Ontario’s proposed Greenbelt, a 720,000-hectare buffer zone between the province’s urban epicentre along Lake Ontario and the countryside to the north. The space, running from the Niagara region to the farm country east of Toronto, would become a kind of demilitarized zone with barns and bike trails, reserved solely for agricultural and recreational use. Smaller-scale variations are being studied in B.C.’s Fraser Valley, where planning academics are proposing a system of “greenways” or “mediator zones.” In these areas, new communities would be built around unpaved trails and natural

landscapes, blending seamlessly into the surrounding farmland.

Still, the ongoing cultural shift won’t be stopped by any greenbelts. Fact is, country folk had best get used to living in an urban world, because city values are fast taking over their communities. You can see it in places like Okotoks, Alta., where an influx of Calgary oil executives has transformed a dusty cow town into one of the highest-income postal codes in the country, speckled with ranch-style estates and luxury SUVs. In Whitehorse, you can buy a $4 cappuccino in the morning, and a pint of microbrew at night in the pub. Kenora, Ont., is fighting the gravitational pull of major cities with a downtown revitalization that would create a strip of urban-style shops, bars and cafés— and help persuade its bright young people to stay (see “Kids, come back!” page 58).

As the city steamrolls over the country, it’s often former urban dwellers who fight most fiercely to maintain rural communities’ “authentic” character. A case in point is Ken Giles, a 66-year-old medical equipment executive who 30 years ago moved to Ashburn, Ont., a small town about 60 km northeast of Toronto. After restoring an 1830s-era stone house on a 40-hectare farm, Giles was dismayed to see a commercial mushroom

AS THE city steamrolls over the country, it’s often former urban dwellers who fight most fiercely for rural ‘authenticity’

operation set up shop less than two kilometres upwind. Greenwood Mushroom Farms does its composting on site, unleashing an odour local residents say is so foul they’re reluctant to go outdoors.

Giles wasn’t about to hold his nose, so he’s now joining 150 local residents, many of them re-planted urbanites, in a $10-million lawsuit in hopes of forcing the farm to do its composting elsewhere. He bristles at press depictions of himself and his coplaintiffs as city slickers imposing a twee, Martha Stewart vision of country life on local farmers. “My God, we cleaned this place up. It was a hundred acres of nothing,” he says. “What right do they have to dump this rotten smell into our lives, to cause us not to enjoy our land?”

TWO YEARS AGO, Alex Lubchynski’s neighbours got a chance to ask the same question. At a farm practices hearing in Kelowna’s Ramada Lodge Hotel, several testified that noise from the vineyards was disrupting their lives. They won: the panel ordered the Lubchynskis to ramp down their use of the bird-scaring gun and try protective netting instead. The couple sought a judicial review of the decision in the B.C. Supreme Court but were refused.

For Lubchynski, though, it was never entirely about the gun. He and his wife, Louise, were fulfilling a dream when they carved a vineyard out of abandoned farmland nine years ago, and scrapping with the neighbours was never part of the vision. Stepping into the sunshine from the lower floor of his house, he spots a flock of starlings lifting off his vines, and sighs. Upon reflection, he says, his neighbours might have saved a lot of grief if they’d just been a bit more friendly: “A smile goes a long way.”

Curiously enough, one of the people with whom Lubchynski had argued, 59-year-old Alban Bennett, agrees. He regrets the harsh words he traded with the farmer one afternoon on the road, and insists he wishes Lubchynski success. But in the same breath, Bennett spells out the dilemma facing Lubchynski and every other country person fighting the march of urbanism. “We’re living in a democracy,” he says, leaning in the doorway of his neat, white bungalow, “and from time to time in a democracy the majority decides against you.” [¡fl