How urban Canadians influence Canadian political decision-making

Written by By Shaun Tandon , CNN Canada

Voters in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta live in a more unequal society than other Canadians and have felt less represented in Parliament, according to a new study.

The study, led by researchers at Simon Fraser University and Victoria’s Macdonald-Laurier Institute, found that voters in these three provinces have experienced a lack of trust and respect from provincial and federal governments, and, more specifically, from their political leaders.

The findings challenge the assumption that “average Canadians” are the strongest influence on government policy, and suggest that the Canadian system of parliamentary democracy, with its decentralized regional governments, is ill-suited to deal with these concerns.

At the root of the problem is a lack of dialogue and transparency in policy decisions that affects all Canadians, regardless of where they live, the study argues.

In Ontario, a province where 70% of the population speak English as a first language, the study found that urbanites are less satisfied with their level of political participation than rural people. Rural Canadians, by contrast, are more satisfied than urbanites with their level of political engagement.

“Voters want to see more collaboration between local, provincial and federal governments in areas like health care and education, but they don’t feel that governments are doing anything about it,” said Nathan Gonzalez, associate professor at SFU, and study co-author.

This lack of collaboration, the study argues, is informed by the ideological contrast between liberals and conservatives. Urban voters are more likely to be liberal and liberal-leaning while rural voters are more likely to be conservative and conservative-leaning.

Rural and regional governments may not be equipped to adequately address the specific needs of these communities, especially when it comes to concerns around housing, employment, health and education. This means that these issues are not accurately analyzed and sufficiently addressed by national lawmakers, the study argues.

“The fact that rural voters are less satisfied than urban voters suggests that these voters are not engaged in the democratic process,” Gonzalez said.

Historically, the question of why rural voters aren’t more involved in democratic processes has been a source of debate. Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in the 1960s wondered why the Trudeau government’s policies were more in tune with Ontario voters, while prime minister Pierre Trudeau decried rural voters as part of a “hostile majority.”

Gonzalez says there’s no one-size-fits-all solution that would address this lack of engagement. There are a number of factors that contributed to this lack of interest, he said, such as the absence of direct democratic mechanisms such as weekly town meetings.

Urban Canadians and Liberal politicians have emphasized the importance of local politics, while rural and regional Canadian politicians have downplayed the importance of the caucus and political party level, and emphasized the need for government to approach local community issues.

They are not in the right mindset, Gonzalez said. “I’m not sure that (new) Canadian governments understand the importance of politics in rural and regional Canada.”

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