Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Counterurbanization and the 'Rural' Right

The flagship of the supposed 'Rural Revolution' - the Lanark Landowners Association - has finally set a date for action. Unless their 11 demands are met, January 14th has been set aside as a day to block the 401, while February 28th is the day that the fully-loaded 4x4s are to roll over Queen's Park.

Accordingly, the LLA is not particularly interested in the true causes of rural woes such as global economic realities and foreign subsidization. Instead, these hobby-farmers and their band of 'rural' ideologues are bent on combating what really affects their niche special interest group and its landed gentry way of life - property rights. Namely wetland protection, 'Species at Risk' and those damn commie land use designations.

Counterurbanization is a phenomena which has been gaining steam. Better transportation, telecommunications and early retirement have allowed urbanites to move to rural areas while still maintaining links to the city. Their prime motives are to 'escape the disamenities of city living or to experience life in a more 'rural' environment'1. As in the Township of Wilmot outside of Kitchener, the majority of households in many rural areas are predominated by urbanites. To boot, many isolate themselves from their adopted community, choosing to remained focused on their social and economic contacts in the city. While this may be good for the economy, without a doubt it significantly alters the existing economic and social linkages. With their higher incomes and education coupled with a zest for the ideological rural idyll, former urbanites have the means and time to frame and control the political sphere. This may be why they hate amalgamation so much...

One of these urban migrants and leader of the Lanark Landowners Association, Randy Hillier, is as stereotypical a newcomer as it gets:

"Randy Hillier was born in Ottawa in 1958 and has lived in Lanark County for 22 years. He is a licensed construction electrician. He has a degree in electrical engineering technology and worked for eight years as a project manager with the federal government."

A 'newcomer' is the academic term for an rural resident who has been raised in an urban area. Highly educated and financially independent from the land, many newcomers are generally vehemently individualistic and are in search of the ideological - yet elusive - 'rural idyll' where apparently everyone can do what they like, when they like and however they like. In fact, Mr. Hillier fits the bill quite nicely.

How do I know this? Read the premise of this diatribe.

"Our forefathers cultivated a lifestyle of individual liberty, independence and self reliance through sustainable fishing, farming and forestry."

Too bad it never existed. Having grown up in a small farming community which predominantly consisted of full-time farmers and few newcomers, I can safely state that there is no other place on earth which is as communal, interdependent and 'in your business' as a rural township. Remember the UFO and CCF? The F stood for Farmers. I think Mr. Hillier's urban-formed notion of the rural idyll is clouding the reality. Wearing suspenders as a fashion statement doesn't help either.

Paradoxically, it's been my experience that after a century of cutting and draining, the full-time farmers are now the ones who have voluntarily fenced off their waterways, maintained forest cover and protected their wetlands. The recent land use interventions are directly aimed at the new class of urban migrant and factory farmer who contrary to past rural practices, are ideologically inclined to see no harm in theoretically destroying environmentally significant aspects of a landscape - all in the name of property rights. As usual, ruralites are caught in the 'line of fire'.

While many will sign-up to the Hillier scheme, I can't see all farmers buying into the radical notions of property protection as expressed by this newcomer special interest group. I'd like to think that farmers understand that regulations are imperative to agricultural economic viability and the preservation of agricultural land. When a wetland is drained, my water table drops. When a woodlot is cleared, my soil capacity declines via increased erosion. When manure streams down a field and into the river upstream, it affects my surface and groundwater quality - not to mention river bank stability. I'm not about to wait until an environmental feature is destroyed so I can spend 10 years in court proving hardship as frankly I lack the resources. Besides, it's even more onerous to have to put a wetland back in. And I'm certainly not about to put my family's economic viability and my ability to succeed on the line simply so somebody from Ottawa, Toronto or wherever can clear their property and play farm - just because they can. Farming is not operating a Bed and Breakfast or making soup cans, it's environmentally interdependent by its very nature.

If the LLA were truly interested in the viability of agricultural land, they would at least acknowledge the fact that environmental protection at least makes good long-term business sense. Besides, it's about time the agriculture industry got around to instituting some semblance of minimum standards.

"Farmers and small businesses are being held accountable to ideas that are dreamed up in the city by government bureaucrats who don’t understand the rural way of life."

Add 'newcomer' to 'government bureaucrats' and I think we get a clearer picture of reality.

It is indeed a 'revolution', unfortunately there's too little rural and too much special interest group. I find it especially interesting that these 'landowner associations' are mainly cropping up in areas with high urban migration.

I do agree with them on one point... rural amalgamation has indeed been a disaster.

1. Thomson, M. and Mitchell, C. (1998) Residents of the Urban Field: A Study of Wilmot Township, Ontario, Canada. Journal of Rural Studies, Vol 14, No. 2 pp. 185-201


Blogger Nick said...

Ahh, a topic near and dear to my heart. My folks are so-called "newcomers" to the Lanark area. Through years of patient waiting in order to time the market, they found a good deal on a 1908 red brick farmhouse swimming in 75 acres of unremarkable land, and bought it post-haste. Now, my dad drives 45 minutes into the city every day (past the Native-sounding "This Land is Our Land" slogan -- and they want to claim ancestral rights over that land!). My pops is a dyed-in-the-wool Conservative, and he sides, mostly, with these folks, though the Christian angle to their spiel creeps him out. Then again, my Dad's a Saab-driving cityboy, not one of them.

A lot of their arguments make sense. The City of Ottawa amalgamation has been a disaster for rural communities. The shoehorning of every district within 100 miles of Parliament Hill into the same legal jurisdiction has led to some truly odd bylaws. Did you know that farmers are required to register all their cats? Yes, even the stray barn cats that hang out in the rafters of that broken-down barn on the other side of their 150-acre property. Another area of contention is wildlife: the deer are out of control in Lanark, and nobody's allowed to grab the shotgun. Now, this issue leads us into a thicket of moral conundra not easily answered (do I want my neighbours lickin' shots past my window? At 4 in the morning?), but one can imagine the inconvenience of having to call a wildlife official while the deer happily munch your garlic crops, too.

Part of this tussle between city and rural life can be ascribed to the City of Ottawa and their bylaw-fever. If there is a more agonizingly bureaucratic city government in the universe, I would like to see it. They banned hockey after dark and they banned ice cream on the streets of Vernon. Someone complains? Pass another bylaw. That's my home town.

Of course, on the other side, perfectly good Lanark farmland is being converted to desolate tract housing developments at an alarming rate, and I'm sure nobody is happy about this except: 1) the devlopers and 2) the noble and idyll-lovin' Ma and Pa Kettle farmers who sold them their fields.

Anyway, I must run, but another lovely post from the Dick-master General.

7:51 AM  
Blogger Dick said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

10:56 PM  
Blogger Dick said...

I think I need to add a few thoughts. I agree that many of their arguments make sense and represent a cross-section of rural interests. In particular I have no problem with deer hunting or ruralites possessing firearms. It’s a necessary part of life. Furthermore, tagging stray-cats, facilitating rural curbside garbage pick-up and paving every bloody by-way and sideroad is asinine… as are full-time firefighters in rural areas. I think 90% of the rural population would agree - and why the Landowners Associations have a broad appeal. It also has a lot to do with the naïve and disastrous Harris amalgamation agenda and its subsequent standardization of services and regulations. The problem being that there is little room for multiple directions in a large organization - and when two or more merge, the largest always dominates. People feel disenfranchised because they are. Sadly, now they’re painting everything regulatory with the same bloody brush – even if it does serve to protect property rights.

What bothers me is that these 'Landowners Associations' are taking advantage of true government nonsense and the outcry it has created in a frugal constituency. Rather than addressing the concerns of government mismanagement, they’re rerouting this resentment into their own property rights agenda. However, hijacking popular dissatisfaction for a specific agenda has been employed for eons by both left and right and is by no means a new idea. It certainly isn't 'revolutionary'. The Lanark Ratepayers Association shows how starved rural society is for leadership of any type.

All I ask for is a little common sense and an end to the dogmatic (whether libertarian or socialist/environmental) black-or-white way of thinking. It never is ‘all or nothing’, but rather a varying shade of gray. Environmental land use protection in a rural agricultural area has merits and benefits to the viability of surrounding operations. Despite the claims of the LLA, environmental consequences have no respect for property lines, and I derive a great deal of my income from the viability of my property. Environmental protections are a necessary investment in the health of my economic and environmental well-being and that of my community's long-term future.

5:35 PM  

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