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JOHN DeMONT: Beware anger in the countryside

Historically, the urban-rural divide is crystal clear when it comes to Nova Scotia politics
Columnist John DeMont says It is mathematically possible to take political power in Nova Scotia without faring well outside of the Halifax city limits, but it seldom happens. (TOM McCOAG / Local Xpress)

Everywhere we look across the Western Hemisphere, we see fault lines. Accurately describing the chasm, as Damon Linker pointed out the other day in The Week magazine, is where we stumble. “Neoliberal centrists versus antiliberal extremists? Elites versus populists? Globalists versus nationalists? The establishment versus the working class?”

Linker, instead, makes a compelling case that the best way to look at everything from Brexit and Trump to the results of the recent Turkish referendum is through the lens of the city versus the countryside. Every politician and war-room operative about to go to battle in the approaching Nova Scotia election should take note.

As ammo for his argument, Liker points to an essay last month in the Washington Post in which a deep thinker named Will Wilkinson examined United States President Donald Trump’s consistent slagging of American cities and chalked it up to something undeniable from the 2016 U.S. election: that party affiliation increasingly reflects the “gulf between big, diverse metros and whiter, less densely populated locales.”

Noted Wilkinson: "The bigger, denser and more diverse the city, the better Hillary Clinton did in November. But Trump prevailed everywhere else — in small cities, suburbs, exurbs and beyond."

What matters, from our point of view, is why. Linker and Wilkinson landed on the same conclusion: the populations of American cities, due to their size, prosperity and density, tend to be more diverse, better educated and more highly skilled. They are more hopeful about the future and, therefore, are more likely to welcome, and vote for, change.

In the lesser-populated and underdeveloped countryside, where life is more challenging, people become, in Linker’s words, “darker and less hopeful, more pessimistic and angry about the injustice of living in a country where the pace of change constantly accelerates, and the resulting changes consistently make life harder and less fulfilling.”

Things may not be good the way they are. But the way the rural folks see it, change will only make the situation worse.

Now, Canadians are different than Americans. Hit the countryside in Nova Scotia and there’s no sense of defeat, none of the whiff of despair, for example, that is evident in Hillbilly Elegy, the bestselling book that is used to explain the disaffected white rural voters who fuelled the rise of Trump.

But the plight of our rural folk can’t be denied. The numbers tell the story: the last census showed that all but three of Nova Scotia’s 18 counties saw their populations decline from 2011 to 2016.

For some — Guysborough (down 6.4 per cent), Queens (a 5.6 per cent drop), Cumberland (a dip of 4.3 per cent) — the decline was substantial.

Moreover, the shrinkage has been going on for quite some time: Guysborough’s population is less than half what it was at around the time of Confederation; Inverness County is two-thirds what it was during the days of coal mining; Cumberland County has seen a 29 per cent population decline since its heyday in the 1920s; Cape Breton, the second-largest county in Nova Scotia after the city-state of Halifax, has seen a 25 per cent decline in population since the 1960s.

Tellingly, only Halifax County, which was plus 3.3 per cent during the period in question, had any real population growth in the past five years, and even that lagged below the five per cent population growth for Canada as a whole.

Why am I bringing this up? Because a group of people can only take so much.

Historically, the urban-rural divide is crystal clear when it comes to Nova Scotia politics.

When John Hamm took control of the legislature in 1999, his Progressive Conservatives only won seven Halifax seats. Most of their support — and the reason they held onto minority governments in the next two elections — was found in towns and rural areas.

The other guys have traditionally depended upon Halifax for their strength. Even so, whether it was the Liberals in 2013 or the NDP four years earlier, the party that ended winning the Nova Scotia countryside also wound up governing.

It is mathematically possible to take political power here without faring well outside of the Halifax city limits. It just seldom happens.

No wonder there’s already a scramble on by the parties to position themselves as the true caretakers of rural Nova Scotia.

The ruling Liberals recently announced steps to increase rural Internet coverage and the number of nurse practitioners and family-practice nurses in rural communities. The NDP has promised to reverse cuts to rural nursing homes and to invest in collaborative emergency services, while the PCs have introduced legislation making it easier for seniors to stay in their homes longer and promised, if elected, to begin the process to bring vocational training to all public schools.

I, for one, am happy to see them trying to do something to stanch the exodus from rural areas. It’s the right thing to do. As they know, in this province — as in so many other places — it is also the road to power.


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