Rural-Urban Divide Part 1: Exploring the division

Rural-Urban Divide Part 1: Exploring the division

This blog is the first in a two part series that will explore the rural-urban divide in Ontario. It establishes the baseline for the Institute’s study of what it means to be rural, and some broad implications from that designation.

There is a growing divergence between urbanites and ruralites around the world. Ontario is not immune to this phenomenon with clear differences already emerging between urbanites and ruralites in culture, ideologies, demographics, and political affiliations. In many ways, two distinct nations appear to be emerging, creating a chasm between population centres and the countryside within the province.

Rurality in Ontario

The concept of rurality is often discussed and debated with clear statistical definitions, yet remains surprisingly nuanced. According to Statistics Canada, a rural area is defined as “any territory lying outside population centres.”[1] To study the fissures between rural and urban at the census subdivision level, the Institute adopts Statistics Canada’s “Statistical Area Classification” methodology for ranking a region’s level of rurality on a scale ranging from one (urban) to seven (rural) (Exhibit 1). For a simpler analysis, where necessary, the urban-rural cut-off is placed between three and four. Any census subdivision that is not part of a census metropolitan area (CMA) or census agglomeration (CA) will be considered “rural” and the remaining will be treated as “urban.” Applying this methodology to regions across Ontario makes it possible to visualize population centres and their spheres of influence.[2]

Exhibit 1: Statistical area classification codes

Ontario divides itself into several distinct regions. Most urban areas are located in southern Ontario along the Highway 401 corridor including major population centres such as: Ottawa, Kingston, Peterborough, Toronto and the Golden Horseshoe, London, and Windsor (Exhibit 2). Some exceptions to this rule are Greater Sudbury and Thunder Bay. Beyond these regions, the trend is uniform with the degree of rurality increasing with isolation. Indigenous reserves are outliers in that many of them that are not part of a CMA but are considered rural despite being close to population centres, indicating that people living on reserves tend not to commute to nearby population centres.

Exhibit 2: Census subdivisions by rurality, Ontario, 2016

Source: Institute for Competitiveness & Prosperity analysis based on data from Statistics Canada 2016 census subdivision cartographic boundary files.

The demographic divide

Out of Ontario’s 13.4 million residents, approximately 1.4 million (10.4 percent) live in rural areas. In addition, ruralites are generally older than their urban counterparts with a greater proportion of their population between 51 and 90 years of age. In contrast, urban areas have a greater proportion of their regions made up of those between newborns and 50 years old. Urban areas are particularly advantaged as many residents are aged between 20 and 50 years old – the core working-age group (Exhibit 3).

Exhibit 3: Rural and urban population pyramids, Ontario, 2016

Note: Urbanites are considered to be those living in census metropolitan areas and census agglomerations. Those living outside of population centres are considered rural.
Source: Institute for Competitiveness & Prosperity analysis based on data from Statistics Canada 2016 Census Catalogue no. 98-400-X2016004 and 2016 census subdivision boundary files.

A smaller and older population puts rural areas at a disadvantage on multiple fronts. Fewer people will remain in the workforce as the population rapidly ages, which will in turn affect the economic potential of these regions. The services required for an aging rural population are different than for the bulk of the province where people are proportionally younger.

Division’s impact on personal lives

One can see divergent views on a number of issues between rural and urban Ontario. A 2019 report by the Mowat Centre revealed that, in general, rural areas are more likely to want a decrease in taxes and increased healthcare spending. They are more likely to advocate for less international trade and for reducing the inequality gap between the rich and poor. They are also less likely to believe that Canada should accept more refugees, and less willing to continue reconciliation with Indigenous groups, but are more willing to improve relations with the US than their urban counterparts. Addressing climate change is not a major priority and they are also more likely to believe that government has a negative impact on people’s lives.[3] Similar sentiments are shared by ruralites in the US and UK and in both instances were enough to effect significant sociopolitical change.

Policy makers must understand the reality and motivation for these sentiments. 2016 census data show that the more rural a region is, the more economically disadvantaged are its people with lower household income (Exhibit 4). Many rural Ontarians simply cannot afford to concern themselves with the aforementioned issues. Rather than passing off the other side as being insensitive or selfish, we must understand the feelings of Ontarians from different regions. One of the province’s strengths is that it is a place where constructive discussion can occur which will be the first step in bridging the gap and offering more hope to both sides of the division.

Exhibit 4: Median household after-tax income by rurality, Ontario census subdivisions, 2016

Note: Each point is a census subdivision organized by its degree of rurality and median household after-tax income.
Source: Institute for Competitiveness & Prosperity analysis based on data from Statistics Canada 2016 Census Catalogue no. 98-400-X2016099 and 2016 census subdivision boundary files.

Clusters as a tool for intraprovincial integration

As alluded to at the beginning of this blog, the rural-urban divide is ultimately a divide of Ontarians: populations, economies, opinions, aspirations, and economic outcomes. Any solutions to remedy this divergence must focus on bringing Ontarians back together in a way that benefits everyone. Economic clusters can achieve this by focusing on regional strengths and integrating ruralites into the broader economy. A potent method for linking urban and rural areas as discussed in Unfinished Business: Ontario since the Great Recession is the use of economic clusters.

Consider, for example, Smiths Falls located between Kingston and Ottawa. This picturesque town of 9,000 residents has a rurality score of five, implying that between five and 30 percent of its workforce commute to a CMA for work. Through the support of several organizations, the town itself has embraced clusters as a means of economic development and is itself a member of an advanced manufacturing cluster.[4] Manufacturing employed 750 in 2015 with some firms having served the local economy for decades. Smiths Falls’ central location has made collaboration simple between several universities and the town’s manufacturing firms. With the advent of technology, smaller firms are able to use new production techniques such as additive manufacturing (3D printing) to locally manufacture goods and increase competitiveness by reducing transportation costs. Tourism, ICT, and agri-food processing clusters are also being developed and grown. Smiths Falls has taken advantage of its central location to justify the marketing of its services as well as exportation of goods outside its jurisdiction.[5]

Taking action now

The divide between urban and rural peoples is real and if left alone will only increase. Divisions in incomes, demographics, and equality of opportunity has already begun affecting the province’s sociopolitical situation. The experience of rural communities in other countries such as the United States paint a bleak picture of what Ontario could become if grievances are not soon addressed. Strongman politicians rising to power in countries such as Poland, Hungary, and Turkey; as well as the rise of the right in the UK, France, Italy, Thailand, and Germany all have their roots in rural frustration.

Yet, it does not have to be like this in Ontario. With the right political will, there are ways to reintegrate disadvantaged rural populations and reverse the trend of declining industries and outdated policies – especially since the Great Recession. Traditionally, policies aimed at bridging the divide treated Ontario as a unitary body with little consideration for regional differences. There are, however, flaws in that approach. The inherent differences between regions within Ontario diminish the benefits of a “one size fits all” approach. A minimum wage increase is less effective in Toronto than a smaller town; childcare will end up benefiting families in cities as most children live in urban areas. Perhaps now with the emergence of distinct urban-rural areas, a regional approach to policy making whereby policies are tailored to achieve a more equitable outcome would be more appropriate.

Written by: Weseem Ahmed 

Photo credit: Bigmouse108


[1] Smiths Falls is supported by Ontario East, Economic Development Council of Ontario, Economic Developers Association of Canada, and Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food and Ministry of Rural Affairs.

[2] Cooper, Cyril, and Ingrid Bron. “Town of Smiths Falls Economic Development and Tourism Plan 2015-2018.” Economic Development & Tourism. 2017.

[3] Alwani, Kiran and Andrew Parkin. “Portraits 2017: Regional differences in Ontario.” Mowat Centre. 2019. https://mowatcentre.ca/wp-content/uploads/publications/184_portraits_regional_divide.pdf

[4] Statistics Canada. “Illustrated Glossary.” Last modified November 15, 2017, accessed March 21, 2019. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/en/pub/92-195-x/92-195-x2016001-eng.pdf?st=BimwLQLd

[5] Rurality ranks are determined by the proportion of a region’s population commuting into a CMA or CA for work. Full statistical area classification definitions can be found here.

Category: Clusters, Economic Progress, Economy, Income, Life satisfaction, Public Policy, Social Policy