Rural drain to revival

We all know it. North Grenville is, increasingly, a bedroom community to Ottawa. This state of affairs is produced by a number of factors, but there are two key demographic shifts at play that reflect broader social and political circumstances.

Since confederation, rural life in Canada has slowly given way to urban living. In 1911, only 45% of citizens lived in cities. 100 years later, over 80% of Canadians live in urban areas. In studies of human geography, ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors are identified to make sense of the movement of people. Push factors make people leave, while pull factors attract people to an area. The ‘brain drain’ is a well‑documented phenomenon in which the most educated members of an area consistently leave it, because they are pulled toward better and more numerous career opportunities elsewhere. I would argue that there is also a different, equally powerful drain in which people who do not fit the social and political norms of rural areas leave them in order to find places where they are accepted and valued.

At the same time, from 2019 through the present moment, large Canadian cities are seeing record numbers of people, particularly young adults and families, leave cities in favour of bedroom communities. This movement has only been reinforced by COVID‑19; people have had the time to take inventory of what matters in life. With the freedom to work from home, many have happily traded an active nightlife for easier access to nature, or a small downtown condo for a rural house.

With the geographic movement came changes in behaviour. Many stereotypically rural activities have gained more mainstream appeal: loosely identified as the “slow living” movement, many former urbanites have learned the joys of tending gardens or chickens, baking bread, hanging laundry on a line, knowing the farmers that grow their food or the owners of the businesses they choose to frequent.

This is to say — in general, people leave more rural communities because they do not offer the variety of opportunities or the diversity in ways of being that people need in order to thrive. But, in the last couple of years, people have been choosing to venture slightly closer to rural life by choosing bedroom communities like ours. For all of us, this is an opportunity for rural revival; our small towns and hamlets do not need to be void of life. The question is: how do we make this sustainable? Sustainable for those who have always been here, for those who have just arrived, and for the earth we live on.

As we work to figure this out, it seems to me that we must bear in mind those push and pull factors that led people to favour urban life in the first place. Reliable access to high speed internet is crucial for people to be able to access gainful and fulfilling career prospects. In the absence of social justice, however, I suspect that many of the former urbanites who are giving rural living a try will not be able to make satisfactory lives for themselves out here. Everyone needs access to work, a safe place to live, and a community in which they can be themselves and establish social relationships.

The dominance of conservative values in Canada’s rural areas is one of the reasons that people have left. And to be clear, this is not necessarily a partisan issue; it is a matter of how we treat one another. There are always members of a community who face the impacts of structural difference; whether these are ones of class, gender or sexuality, race, ethnicity, ability, religion, or any combination thereof. But the impacts of these differences in shaping people’s access to the fundamental things they need have been swept under the rug for too long.

This is in some ways a plea. To older members of our community: continue in the ways of life that make rural living special. But it is also crucial that you come to understand why so many young people left these communities to begin with. For rural areas to stay vibrant and full of life, people need access to the things they need. To those young people: you might need to leave in order to find out about yourself and your values. I certainly did. But once you do, please consider bringing all that you’ve learned out in the world back home.

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