City & Politics, Essay

Changing communities: Rural life is a diverse life

People seem to think life in the country is pretty isolated life. If everything you know about small Prairie towns comes from “Corner Gas,” you might have the idea that we’re all pretty much the same: wise-cracking white people who’ve known each other for decades and are all, deep down, pretty much the same.

Not that there’s anything wrong with wise-crackers, and I liked Corner Gas as much as the next guy, but — at least in my pocket of the Prairies — it’s really not that way.

We’re not all the same.

In fact, rural people deal with much more diversity every day than most city-dwellers. And the level of diversity is increasing.

Economic diversity

Whether you live in a brand new development in the suburbs, a trailer court, or a trendy co-op condo downtown, if you live in the city, it’s very likely that most of your closest neighbours have incomes and lifestyles a lot like yours. Even in the most racially and economically diverse cities, people tend to self-segregate into neighbourhoods where residents dress and act in ways that are pretty similar.

This isn’t about tolerance or political correctness. It’s just a fact that people are more comfortable living among similar people. And cities are set up in ways that make it easy to do this.

Think about it: when you start earning more money, you might move to a bigger house in a more expensive neighbourhood. If you lose your job, you might downsize, and live among other people who make less money. New in town? You’ll likely look for an area with kids the same age as yours. Or the kind of coffee shop you like best.

Not so in the country. Out on the grid roads, extravagant acreages nestle in next to working farms. Some of our neighbours have done very well in the oilfield, and would probably build themselves new houses in shiny exclusive developments if they moved to Winnipeg. Other neighbours might wind up in a city trailer park.

If these two different neighbours lived in the city, they wouldn’t run into each other at the post office on a Tuesday morning. They would curl in entirely different bonspiels. And not only would their children certainly not go to school together, they most definitely wouldn’t spend an hour a day riding on the school bus together, five days a week.

While we have our share of teachers, mechanics, nurses, farmers and office workers, we also have the chronically underemployed and the over-achieving investors. And when the community centre bar is open during the bonspiel, you’ll see all these people sitting side by side, drinking beer.

Reasons why

There’s not as much zoning out here. There are no bylaws about the style of house you can build on your farm. Most (very) small towns don’t have rules about the colour of the siding on your house, or the minimum size.

There’s also not as much geographic mobility. If a farmer has a really good year, he might think about adding on a garage, or — once in a lifetime — building a new house in the same yard. Even acreage owners generally stay put. They moved to the country because they like it. Having more or less money might change their vacations or cars, not usually where they live.

More diversity

Over time, rural income differences are growing, not shrinking.

Oilfield economics has brought in people with more money, and more expensive tastes. The internet makes it easy for the wealthy to see what other wealthy people around the world are buying and doing, so they can do it here too. New gadgets, exotic vacations and expensive clothes and cars make their relative wealth more obvious to the rest of us.

On the other hand, some of the come-and-go jobs in the oilfield attract people without many economic resources. They’ve relocated to find work that may not be reliable, well-paid, or pleasant.

I’ll admit we don’t have people on the extreme ends of the socio-economic scale. None of the one per centers live in Griffin, Saskatchewan. And people on the other end of the scale typically end up in bigger centres where you don’t need to buy a car and fill it with gas to buy bread or visit a doctor. But the rest of the scale is well-represented.

Economic diversity comes with pros and cons.

Where there are income differences there is always some jealousy, and some difficulty getting along.

However, people who live in an area with more economic variety have a close understanding of different ways of life. In the city, a wealthy woman might see a not-so-prosperous looking man on a corner on her way home to the suburbs. Here, that woman might stop and ask him if he needs a ride. Their kids probably sit together on the bus.


Leeann Minogue is a Saskatchewan-based writer.

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