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Urban Versus Rural: Examining Canada’s Electoral Divide

October 26, 2019 8:15 AM | Columns

By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, myWestman.ca

Election - Vote

Voters enter the polling station at St. Luigi Catholic School during election day in Toronto on Monday, October 21, 2019. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Tijana Martin)

NEEPAWA, Man. — We hear a lot about the east-west divide in federal politics, but that might not be the whole story. I read a column in a recent edition of the Moosomin World-Spectator about the urban-rural divide in Canadian politics and it got me thinking — what if that’s the cause of much of the divisiveness we see today?

338Canada, which refers to the 338 seats in Canada’s parliament, is a website created and run by P.J. Fournier. Fournier is an astronomy and physics professor and a political commentator. The site features statistics and analysis, including compiling various polls, and an interactive map coloured to represent the party each riding is expected to elect. In the lead up to the election, except for the northern parts, the prairies were coloured dark blue and on October 21, they overwhelmingly elected Conservative MPs. Is this a case of east versus west? I always thought maybe so, but when you look at rural Ontario, it’s also trending blue. Maybe it is something else.

On September 29, Maclean’s published an article by Fournier called, “The urban-rural divide, right along party lines.” It combined data from Statistics Canada about each riding’s population density with Fournier’s seat projections and it showed the starkness of the urban-rural divide.

In the build-up to the election, of the top 20 most densely populated ridings, apart from one considered “safe NDP,” the Liberals were competitive or expected to win in the rest. It’s more or less the same story, until you get to number 54, the Quebec riding of Beauport-Limoilou, with 2,872 people/km2, which was expected to be a toss up for the Conservatives. By number 67, we start to see a more even split between the Conservatives and Liberals, with some NDP representation. Then, at number 200, where there are 104 people/km2, the ridings increasingly favour the Conservatives. This holds until Canada’s eight most thinly populated ridings, which favour the Liberals or NDP.

Fournier notes that in the middle of the list, there is little correlation between population density and projected winner, but that’s not the case at either end. In districts where there are fewer than 100 residents/km2, the Conservatives lead in voting intentions. As the population density grows to over 2,000 residents/km2, Liberals take a significant lead over the Conservatives, even more so in the country’s most densely populated ridings. Of interest, Fournier found that while NDP support was stronger in the higher population density ridings, the party had a steady level of support across the country, with no correlation to population density.

If you think about it, this explains so much of what we see in our current politics. It explains ridings struggling to find candidates, as we saw in Dauphin-Swan River-Neepawa, which was without a Liberal or NDP candidate until close to the nomination deadline. It explains the deep animosity we see between Liberal and Conservative supporters. Parties advance policies that their supporters value and if that support is highly concentrated in a certain type of riding, they won’t make strides to develop policies that will appeal to all Canadians. Do rural Western Canadians not vote Liberal because the party’s policies don’t reflect Westerners’ needs? Or do the Liberal’s policies not reflect the needs of rural Westerners because they don’t typically vote Liberal?

I don’t have the solution to this problem, but I know it does little to help unify the country. Our democracy needs healthy debate and a variety of ideas. We are a diverse country and finding issues that unite us is harder than those that divide, but there are things that transcend where a Canadian lives. In order for that to be a new reality, we all have to make a conscious effort.