Former Prime Minister Rt. Hon. Joe Clark has a few ideas. They came to the fore last month for 700-plus participants at the Grain Farmers of Ontario popular March Classic, in London, ON.
The organization made a good choice asking the former Prime Minister to speak at this annual gathering of farmers and suppliers. If anyone appreciates straight talk, it’s farmers. And to me, that’s what Clark was always good at – aw-shucks, down-home, out-west style straight talk.
As politicians go, he always seemed sincere, reassuring and approachable. Unfortunately for him, that didn’t sell back in the early late 1970s and early 1980s, when members of society were trying to act modern, sophisticated and debonair – like Pierre Trudeau.
Clark didn’t have Canadians’ confidence, and as a result, his tenure as Prime Minister, as our youngest Prime Minister ever, was short lived. His legacy as Joe Who? though, went on and on.
But with some tweaking, his unspectacular style would probably sell in many circles today. We’re returning to our roots. We’re put off by too much polish. Teflon is no longer an admirable political trait. We’re craving honesty.
And what Clark delivered to the grain farmers was indeed honest, as well as jarring.
Clark noted how despite the lip service Canadians pay to all things local, they don’t understand much about the rural parts of our country, including what’s happening on farms.
Clark said rural Canada is an unknown entity to most of the country. The so-called homegrown aspects of our culture it represents are lost. We may be gravitating towards our roots, but he doesn’t think people appreciate rural Canada’s value.
And no wonder. Rural Canada is continuing to lose its punch, because urban Canada keeps gaining people. Increasingly, rural Canada’s advocates are not those who live there. And neither are its critics.
A new entry on Statistics Canada’s website called “Canada Goes Urban” bears witness to the population situation. Statistics Canada says that while the number of Canadians living in rural areas has mostly stayed flat, those living in what it calls population centres has been rising steadily.
In Ontario, for example, in just another 10 years, more than half of the province’s population will live in the Greater Toronto Area.
In fact, Statistics Canada says the proportion of Canadians living in a rural area is the third lowest among G8 countries, after the United Kingdom and the United States (nations which should likewise take heed of such figures).
And, contrary to what most people think, seniors don’t represent a larger share of the rural population compared with other areas. On the contrary – it’s small and medium-size towns that often have a large share of seniors.
But what really makes rural Canada unique, in an unfortunate way, is the small proportion of young adults aged 15 to 29 who live there.
In 2011, 17 per cent of people living in rural areas were aged 15 to 29. That’s three per cent lower than the national average, and part of a trend that is pretty discouraging.
Why do young people leave? Statistics Canada cites pursuing postsecondary studies, looking for employment in the labour market and forming a relationship. They can’t all own a farm. And history has shown that few want to work as farm labourers.
At the March Classic, Clark said rural Canada has to make its value known “quite starkly” to urbanites who care more about playing golf there than supporting agriculture.
And sure, statistics might help. Recent figures from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada underline how rural Canada is feeding the world. It’s the planet’s fifth-largest exporter of agriculture and agri-food products. Canadian export sales grew by 5.5 per cent in 2013 to $46 billion.
But even those statistics don’t really speak to values, or passion, or understanding. Rural Canada has a long road ahead to not only tell its story to other Canadians, but to make them believe it too. It can’t wait for someone else – from Prime Ministers on down — to do that job for it.