Rural myths don’t represent today’s urban Canada

Canada became a predominantly urban nation in 1973

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TORONTO, ON July 27, 2015/ Troy Media/ – I blame Gordon Lightfoot for delaying the urbanization of Canada. While he wrote about the city in Home from the Forest, most of his iconic songs glorified small towns and rural settings.

In Did She Mention My Name, the young man calls back to the small town to see whether his old flame remembers him. Alberta Bound celebrates the vastness of our country.

So does Ian Tyson’s Four Strong Winds chronicling the migrant worker’s challenges. If you can really listen to this and not cry, try playing it again.

Ironically, these celebrations were occurring when Canada was rapidly urbanizing. In the early 1960s, just as Lightfoot and Tyson were coming up, future prime minister Brian Mulroney had the plumb job of travelling with and aiding Agriculture Minister Alvin Hamilton. Those were the days when Agriculture was a senior cabinet portfolio.

By the time Stompin’ Tom came along, the glorification of rural Canada in Bud the Spud and Tillsonburg, the stories and characters were more camp than true.

Not the true picture

I like all these and other Canadian iconic songs, but they don’t reflect the urban nature of our country. And since I like them and like the singers, I forgive them for misrepresenting my country.

But I can’t forgive the late Peter Gzowski. He was  one of the youngest ever editors of Macleans Magazine. Good editor, they say.

Peter then joined CBC as host of the network radio program This Country in the Morning. He left for late night TV talk show 90 Minutes Live and then back to radio for his final run on Morningside. In between, there were some books of recipes and home-spun anecdotes.

I began my CBC career baby-sitting the network feed at the Fredericton station, and ended it as a regular on Morningside, but with Don Harron as host.

Out of step with urban Canada

Peter’s take on Canada was out of step in two ways. The first was that his perspective came from the 1960s, embodied in his TV commercials in which he noted his work clothes were made of denim. This was a little after the fact by the time modernity ended in 1973.

The other was the content of the show. To be sure, some of his political interviews  were spot on. But most of the show fetishized oddball, rustic characters from the nooks and crannies of this country. We also heard recipes and never-ending letters from listeners who tried to write in Peter’s baroque style. Interesting to be sure, but not representative. My recollection is that we were more likely to hear from Goofy Ruffy in the Fredericton market than from someone dealing with pressing urban issues, or more likely to hear major coverage of minor hockey than Quebec or Western issues.

This Country in the Morning was a fantasy land – a “Group of Seven” picture of Canada in which no one was there – only squiggly lines adding up to the land. Most of the people who were on the show were squiggly caricatures of people – not real people.

An acquaintance of mine was the New York Times Canadian correspondent when Peter was about to retire. Anthony de Palma had all the resources and smarts in the world, so got it right. He summed up the beloved show in The Times. He noted the importance of rhubarb pie recipes, and getting to the bottom of the thorny issue of avoiding the pie filling being too stringy.

Canada has an enviable history of resource-sector development, pioneering and farming. But we must not ignore our current reality – urbanism for most of the population.

Allan Bonner has consulted on the major planning and public policy issues of our time on five continents over 25 years. He loves cities. His next book will be entitled Safe Cities.

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