Throwback Thursday: “That terrible disease, [urban] consumption” — Rural Depopulation & the Slow Decay of the Traditional Way of Life

March 20, 2014

Image of a farmer's field with animals and people harvesting a crop of hayWhile it may not be so obvious anymore, especially for those living in large urban centres,  Canada was even more of a  rural country than it is today, with a majority population of dedicated farmers working the land, harvesting crops, and raising livestock. There were no sprawling suburbs or overpowering skyscrapers dominating the landscape or the skyline.

Now, if one drives through the country back roads, one can easily come across old abandoned farm houses with broken window panes, engulfed by overgrown foliage. It is an unfortunate growing trend, and one that started even before the First World War, as urbanization created rural isolation. As a result, a growing fear of a gradual breakdown and eventual extinction of rural social institutions spread in the minds of Ontario farmers during the early 1900s.

Rural depopulation was becoming a worrisome epidemic as urbanization increasingly drew rural offspring from the country and into the cities, where there was both more opportunity and better pay. The swelling numbers of great cities was described by local newspapers as what furnished the “natural conditions for the creation of despotic government,” which  included “elements of vice and weakness and squalid helplessness” (Young 295).

From protesting rural conscription to the creation of the United Farmers of Ontario, farmers started to fight back against urban domination while at the same time revealing the unwillingness of governments, both federal and Image of the United Farmers of Ontarioprovincial, to take agriculture into their political calculations.

Interested in finding out more about the farmers’ experience, subscribe to read more of W.R. Young’s article “Conscription, Rural Depopulation, and the Farmers of Ontario, 1917–19,” published in the Canadian Historical Review in 1972.

Do you feel the rural is still being bullied by the urban? Tweet us your thoughts at @utpjournals!

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