As a blasé urbanite who pooh-poohed rising populism warnings among rural Canadians, I got a shock this summer. As vulgarians like the Ontario premier and myth merchants like the new Alberta premier gained power, the alarms rose. At a big city cocktail party you’re not likely to hear muttering about refugees or the nanny state’s latest indignity. It’s a different world in small town rural Canada.
My neighbours in northeastern Ontario are quick to vent their rage about all manner of foolish government regulations and about guns, opioids, and their children’s futures. Trudeau pounding on about women, climate and Indigenous Canadians are the angry backyard chat among our friends. They are not racists, but they are deeply angry about two things: no good jobs for their children unless they leave for the city, and being talked down to by smart aleck politicians.
At the gas pump or the mall, they are the picture of polite deferential Canadians. But scratch the surface on “cruelty to farm animals” or cutbacks to their health clinic and they erupt. They are neither conventional conservatives nor narrowly populist. Their irritations are sparked by too much spending on sex education and too little on the “basics;” too much CRA harassment over GST payments while ignoring “the real rich tax cheats:”; and too little spent on roads in rural Canada versus “billions for big city subways.”
There are two troubling connectors in this welter of grievances: first, governments and politicians are all frauds and corrupt — even “Tyrants!” Second, everything is “rigged” against them by “George Soros and Trump’s gang of billionaire friends” and the politicians they control. The range of enemies runs from “the rich guys” to “the politicians they own,” to mainstream media appearing to sneer at their concerns.
One must tread lightly in digging deeper into the sources of this anger, it is explosive. The combinations of villains and issues may seem bizarre, but perfectly defensible to people who feel they are now permanently cast as outsiders, and “losers.”
“Why should my son work for less than minimum wage and yours makes three times that in town?! He worked just as hard at school? I am terrified he is going to fall into the opioid hole,” says an angry father to a richer neighbour, as I quietly eavesdrop at our local diner.
The so-called “big muscle jobs” at the small industrial plants are gone, the township jobs are being held onto to by elderly men who should have retired but can’t afford to, and there’s no money in farming. For an 18-year-old high school grad in these towns, someone with no family farm or business to fall back on, there are very few local choices. She can be a small-town cashier or domestic helper. He can serve summer tourists or be a handyman — the original insecure gig economy jobs.
Too often those left behind find relief in beer and fentanyl at the bar. The opioid crisis is shattering lives in small town Ontario at an accelerating rate. One Ottawa Valley town had five overdoses in one week this spring. Three out of four deaths are young men in their twenties and thirties.
These small towns have proud century-old histories of prevailing against the elements, logging robber barons and giant agribusiness. Now they watch their towns shrink as the aged die, joined now by too many of their young, too early. It is understandably enraging.
Not many of them will vote for Mad Max (Maxime Bernier). Most of them will still open their communities to arrivals from faraway places. But don’t ignore their deep anger at how far they have sunk in one of the most prosperous nations on earth. Politicians will run into unusual levels of bitterness with them this fall — they will need better answers than the usual political happy talk if they hope to win back these voters.
More than 85 per cent of Canadians live in big towns and cities, but the remaining 15 per cent have a lot of clout. The leeway given to the size of rural ridings means that seats with a significant rural population make up nearly a third of the total.
More than enough to decide who becomes the next prime minister.