English Canada Rural Society | The Canadian Encyclopedia


English Canada Rural Society

In Canada, rural society has been shaped by geographic and cultural diversity and by population mobility.

Rural Society, English Canada

In Canada, rural society has been shaped by geographic and cultural diversity and by population mobility. Canada was settled in a series of westward movements which created dispersed rural communities differentiated by their dependence on primary production (agriculture, FORESTRY, fishing or MINING), ethnic mix and time of settlement. ACADIAN communities in the Atlantic region are 150 years older than settlements in Alberta; landholding divisions in Lower Canada (see SEIGNEURIAL SYSTEM) are distinct from the "quarter sections" of the prairies.

Wars, depressions, technological advancement and URBANIZATION have all affected established communities. Thus, in contemporary rural society, local and regional diversity is strong. However, when compared to urban society, rural society retains a firm sense of solidarity and difference.


Canadian rural society has been influenced by 4 consecutive phases of population mobility: rural settlement, labour migrations, depopulation and return migration. 1. Early mobility was usually westward and towards the frontier. 2. Labour migrations were also westward, eg, the movements of workers who manned the threshing crews on western grain farms in the early part of this century (seeHARVEST EXCURSIONS). 3. The third and longest phase, rural out-migration, began at the beginning of the 20th century and persisted until the 1970s. People, mainly rural youth, left farms, villages and towns to seek jobs, education and better opportunities in Canada's growing urban centres. 4. The fourth phase saw a return of people from urban to rural areas in the 1970s, a movement that created large-scale commuting between rural areas and large cities. Today, there is also high population mobility between rural places.

Role of Technology and Urbanization

Technological change has profoundly affected the composition of rural society. Mechanization in the primary industries has led to constant rationalization of production, with reduced need for manual labour and increased demand for technically skilled operators. Farming has become more of a business and farmers are referred to as "producers," a term that reflects their specialized production orientation.

Farm size increases have accompanied technological change and caused many to leave the land. Farm amalgamation and loss of farm population have caused economic viability problems for local service centres. Small towns and villages have also suffered from technological change because modern equipment and materials tend to be produced and distributed from cities and processing of foodstuffs now takes place in major urban centres.


The values of rural society have been profoundly influenced by urbanization. Agricultural values - the inherent belief in the virtue of working the land to provide for self and family - developed into a form of "agrarianism," extolling the value of country life while combining the ethics of hard work and frugality to produce a food surplus.

Technology has brought many benefits to rural society such as automobiles, electrification, modern homes and the INTERNET. It has also introduced some new values, which have often conflicted with those of small-town life. Many small towns have continued to have dual communities, the established and the poor.

Urbanization is particularly evident in the rural-urban fringe. A backflow of migrants from the city to surrounding rural areas has caused many changes, including conflicts with locals over "rights to farm," on the one hand, and community expansion on the other. Curiously the value conflicts are often the reverse of what might be expected: many ex-urbanites hold firm conservationist principles, whereas locals often favour progress and development.

Rural Institutions

The traditional rural institutions of church, school and family have been affected not only by technology and urbanization but also by internal rationalization. Although the rural church, which was ubiquitous in rural Canadian settlements by 1900, has declined in numbers and significance, it still plays an important role in family life and continues to draw many of its ministers from farm and countryside.

The rural church tends to be more fundamental in doctrine and social in function than its urban counterpart (see EVANGELICAL AND FUNDAMENTALIST MOVEMENTS). In recent years, many new variations of CHRISTIANITY have been established in rural areas.

Rural education changed rapidly in the middle of the 20th century. The basic shifts in attendance, curriculum and location, particularly from the local schoolhouse to the central facility, have had a profound effect on rural society. The shift provided standard educational opportunities, and central schooling also helped prepare rural youth for out-migration by detaching youngsters from their local environment.

The most enduring institution of rural society is the farm family, a unit of socioeconomic organization that has persisted from pioneer settlement (see PIONEER LIFE) to the modern era of industrial farming. Although the number of farm families has shrunk considerably, the essential feature of the unit has remained intact: family control over land, labour and capital. In order to finance large, modern farms, families can incorporate and share the benefits of limited liability and increased access to capital (see FARM LAW).

Farm families were, in the 1980s, subject to considerable stress from the cost-price squeeze, high debt load and low commodity prices. The rural family has survived the trend of decline in the extended family and has adapted to new household formations. Rural families are smaller than they were but still have a preponderance of males. The ethics of mutual aid, co-operation, hard work over long hours and community involvement still characterize rural family life (see CO-OPERATIVE MOVEMENT).

Contemporary Issues

Three emergent trends illustrate the changing social relations of contemporary rural society. First, women have become more active in the formal labour force and are an accepted part of the decision-making process in many rural economies.

Roles and responsibilities in the rural household have changed. A demand for DAY CARE, rural transportation, more and better human services and job opportunities for women reflect a changing work ethic and an acceptance of occupational pluralism.

Rural women are dealing with stress in the family, are capable of rapid occupational mobility and are adept at acquiring new skills. They are also forming new organizations to voice their opinions and needs.

The second contemporary feature is the AGING of the rural population. Demographically, rural Canada is already a mature society, but the growing number of seniors is a newfound strength in rural society. Many seniors are active and join volunteer services; they often can pay for their own needs and bring vitality to rural communities. Inevitably, they also have special needs (eg, medical care), the servicing of which will form the core of social policy in rural areas in the latter part of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st.

A third development is the rise of the New Rural Economy in Canada. This refers to new types of service jobs derived from direct consumption of the countryside (rural tourism, direct marketing, niche products and services for the aged). Restructuring of manufacturing, downsizing of primary sector jobs and the growth of information services has produced a new labour market in various parts of the country.

Further Reading

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