The results of the federal election have shown a deepened divide between Canadians living in urban areas who mostly chose Liberal candidates and those living in rural areas who voted for the Conservative Party, experts say.
Allan Thompson, the head of Carleton University’s journalism program, said the results of Monday’s election have revealed increasing polarization between rural and urban Canadians.
The division was very clear in Ontario where the Liberals picked up almost all the seats in the urban ridings and the Conservatives flipped some rural ridings and increased their lead in ridings they’d held before.
“What worries me is just the polarization, that it seems to be more and more split, more of a division where it’s virtually automatic what the outcome is going to be,” Thompson said.
“I think parties do start to make that part of their strategy. I’m concerned that they’re not really even making a serious effort to appeal to voters in the ridings that they have decided are unwinnable, and that’s just a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Before returning to his non-partisan position as a university professor, Thompson led a task force for the Liberals to propose ways to better connect with rural voters. He also ran as a Liberal candidate in Ontario’s rural riding of Huron-Bruce twice, losing to Conservative MP Ben Lobb by about 3,000 votes in 2015 and by about 9,000 votes in 2019.
On Monday, Lobb was re-elected over the Liberal candidate by more than 15,000 votes.
Conservative Michelle Ferreri defeated incumbent Liberal gender equality minister Maryam Monsef in the largely rural riding of Peterborough-Kawartha and Conservative Anna Roberts also defeated Liberal seniors minister Deb Schulte in King-Vaughan on the outskirts of Toronto.
The Conservatives also flipped the riding of Bay of Quinte in Ontario, Miramichi-Grand Lake in New Brunswick, Cumberland-Colchester and South Shore-St. Margarets in Nova Scotia and Coast of Bays-Central-Notre Dame in Newfoundland and Labrador, while maintaining or extending their leads in most of Canada’s rural ridings.
Meanwhile, the Liberals held onto their strongholds in Canada’s largest cities, winning 22 out of 24 ridings in the Montreal area and all of Toronto’s 25 ridings, including Spadina-Fort York where Kevin Vuong emerged victorious even after being disavowed by the Liberal Party.
The party dropped Vuong as a candidate two days before election day over the revelation that he’d been charged in 2019 with sexual assault, a charge that was later withdrawn. His name remained on the ballot, however, and the party now says he’ll have to sit as an Independent MP.
The Liberals won nine out of 10 seats in the Ottawa-Gatineau area and flipped three ridings in the Vancouver area. They also won all the ridings in the Halifax area and picked up a riding in both Calgary and Edmonton.
Thompson said the Liberals and Conservatives have become so entrenched in their respective strongholds that “you start to wonder are they satisfied with devoting their resources and campaign strategy to those communities where they feel they have the best chance of winning?”
Carleton University political science professor Jonathan Malloy said the pattern of Liberals winning in urban areas and Conservatives winning in rural areas is not new. It emerged about three decades ago when the Conservative Party splintered with the creation of the Reform Party, which later morphed into the Canadian Alliance before reuniting under the Conservative banner.
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That drew the Conservatives more towards rural areas while the Liberals became more entrenched in the cities, Malloy said.
“Toronto used to be quite a Tory center of voting, that’s like 50, 60 years ago,” he said.
“The trends we have today have been growing, accelerating, particularly in Ontario, I would say, for the last 20 or 30 years.”
Malloy said it’s hard to determine when this trend started exactly, partly because some communities have grown so much in the last few decades.
“Brampton, (Ont.) used to be a fairly small town, maybe 50 years ago you would maybe call it mainly rural and a small town. Now of course Brampton is a city of about 600,000 people,” he said.
Malloy said the policies each of the two parties propose during their campaigns play a role in increasing the divide.
For instance, the Liberals’ promise of $10-a-day child care was more appealing to people living in the cities where the cost of child care is more of a concern than the availability of the service.
“It really plays out differently in different areas and for a lot of rural and suburban areas … and remote areas, it’s just about the capacity of supply of government services, not the cost,” Malloy said.
There was also a very clear distinction between the Liberals and the Conservatives on the issue of guns that played out differently between urban and rural populations, he added.
“No one has a need for a gun in a Canadian city. And so, the Liberals tend to be fairly restrictive on firearms, because most urban people don’t own firearms, they have no need for firearms and so they’re happy to support strong restrictions on them.
“In rural areas, firearms are more practical, whether for hunting or for protecting your farm animals. There’s practical reasons to have guns in rural areas.”
Malloy said both the Liberals and Conservatives are aware of these differences and they tend to build their policies to appeal to their bases.
Whether voters view the party leader as a city or a rural person also plays a role in their choice, he believes.
“Urban voters view Mr. (Andrew) Scheer and Mr. (Erin) O’Toole as relatively rural even though they are properly urban or suburban,” he said. “Mr. (Justin) Trudeau, fair to say, is identified with urban. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that.”
While both parties try to attract voters from one another’s bases, Malloy said they do so only after making a strategic calculation on whether attracting new voters might potentially cost them some of their existing support.
Thompson said the pattern of division between rural and urban Canadians is jeopardizing the effectiveness of democracy in Canada and parties should put more effort into bridging the gap.
“It’s as if you live in a particular riding you don’t get a chance to consider the other point of view, and that’s not healthy,” he said.