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The countryside on the defensive : agricultural Ontario's views of rural depopulation, 1900 - 1914 Young, William Robert

Abstract

Rural observers of the acceleration in Ontario's urbanization witnessed, in the years before the Great War, both the concentration of industry in urban areas and the spread of communications and technological advances from the towns to the surrounding countryside. All sections of rural society, however, recognized that to them, the drift of population from the rural concession lines to the cities formed urbanization's most important aspect. Debate generated by increasing urban dominance centred around this depopulation of the countryside as the rural inhabitants tried to explain and to solve 'The Problem.' A split over the issue of depopulation developed in the ranks of the vocal section of the rural opinion-makers. One group, led by W. L. Smith of The Weekly Sun, H. B. Cowan of Farm and Dairy and W. C. Good of the Grange, registered increasing alarm at the continual seepage of the rural population into the towns. To them, depopulation placed a series of challenges before rural society. As migration proceeded, they perceived that farmers lost their philosophy of life, Canadian democracy and political morality was threatened and rural social life ruined. Blame for the economic uncertainty facing Ontario agriculture could to a great extent be laid at the feet of the diminished numbers working the farms. A second group, however, comprising the Ontario Department of Agriculture, the staffs of The Canadian Countryman and The Farmer's Magazine, declined to espouse this complete pessimism. In addition to the less beneficial results of depopulation, the latter group viewed the rationalization of land usage, the consolidation of the schools and churches as well as the modernization of rural social attitudes and practices as advantages ultimately accruing to the rural population by reason of their diminishing numbers. ‘The Problem’ resulted in much heart-searching among these two affected groups who spent much of their time and energy determining possible origins and their solutions. In their reappraisal of the purpose of the rural family school, church and newspapers, both groups agreed that these institutions could provide valuable aid in stopping the population lead from the countryside. By reforming these basic foundations, traditional agrarian values would be reaffirmed and deficiencies in urban life highlighted. Lack of social amenities became, in the eyes of rural observers, a cause of outmigration which could be remedied by bringing to the countryside the urban telephones, electricity and running water which exercised such an attraction for rural folk. Increasing profit by improving agricultural methods gained popular approval by the farm press as a means of arresting the cityward trek. All these causes and remedies were generally endorsed by the Good-Drury faction and the Farmer’s Magazine-Canadian Countryman group . The former held, contrary to the latter, that these reasons were not sufficient explanations of all factors underlying depopulation. This more radical group believed that solving these issues alone would not stop depopulation. In fact, some of the Good-Drury followers pointed out that adoption of many of these urban-developed mechanical devices and cosmopolitan social outlook would only modify traditional rural society beyond recognition. Rural life as a copy of urban life style could be but a pale and unsatisfactory imitation. In addition to promoting unique social institutions for rural areas, the Good-Drury 'radicals' extended their economic arguments farther than the more adaptive group were prepared to follow. Depopulation, the radicals averred, resulted mainly from economic inequities perpetrated by the control over the system of distribution exercised by urban bankers, railroaders, manufacturers and land speculators. These men, by controlling the political system and instituting devices such as the tariff, raised their own and lowered the farmers' profits. Specifically, the radical farmers proposed lowering tariffs and stricter control over land-sale profits and railroads in order to check urban exploitation of the countryside. They recognized, however, that a general solution could only completely end depopulation and economic serfdom if rural voters united and captured control of the political system. Throughout the years prior to the Great War, both the 'radicals' and the 'adaptors' gained adherents among the rural population in numbers large enough to maintain an equilibrium. A rural political revolt against urban domination did not succeed, but agitation to reform the system of distribution continued. Only the pressures of the Great War and the organization of the United Farmers of Ontario finally caused depopulation to dethrone the provincial government in 1919.

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