Rural residents more active in community, says study

First published: August 16, 2006

Rural Canadians are more likely to be involved in their community compared to people who live in cities, according to a national survey released last week.

This is no surprise to anyone living in Northumberland County. Just go into any arena or sports field to see these people. Or, just show up to any public meeting, the Waterfront Festival or Apple Blossom Time or Rural Ramble or the Canadian Jazz Festival. The list is nearly endless when it comes to examples of people being involved.

Statistics Canada released its Rural and Small Town Canada analysis bulletin taking a close look at participation in four key areas that are most likely to affect community development: volunteer, belonging to an organization, political activity and attending public meetings. The conclusion of the study was clear. In all four areas, people who lived in rural Canada were more involved.

The study also looked, not just at involvement, but also education levels for those people. That was even more revealing. Across the board, rural residents, regardless of education level, were more involved in the community. In cities, mainly large urban centres, those who get involved in their communities tend to be the most educated people – those with a university degree. People with high school diplomas or less tend not participate. This leaves them feeling isolated and unconnected. When it comes to politics, these people are under-represented and alienated, disenfranchised from a system that is meant to represent everyone.

Notably, rural residents with university degrees are far more active than their city counterparts. They volunteered more. They got involved in politics and other types of organizational activity to a greater extent. And they were three times more likely to come out to a public meeting compared to city folks with the same level of education.

The real kicker is when it comes to those who do not have the higher education. Traditionally, researchers don’t expect these people to get engaged. But the study showed they tend to be more involved, as volunteers in the community or in politics or in service organizations.

But, the biggest difference amongst this group was attending public meeting. More than double the number of rural residents who did not have a high school diploma go to public meetings compared to urban residents with the same level of education. For some reason, people living in rural areas means people feel they can be connected in this way and more involved in contrast to city residents with the same educational background.

The report concludes that rural/urban settings do influence civic engagement, according to the four areas studied. The authors, Neil Rothwell and Martin Turcotte, conclude these results could have implications for the future of civic engagement in rural Canada. With additional education – making sure more young people get a university or college degree or diploma – then even more rural residents will get involved and be better citizens.

The study leaves Northumberland residents with plenty to think about, especially with a municipal election getting into high gear in a few weeks. We will be electing politicians who will represent us on councils and school boards. It is vital we think carefully about the study results.

It is important to note the vital role education plays in creating concerned, engaged citizens. As this study, and many others have proven time and again, education is synonymous with citizenship. Not just going out to public meeting, but also when it comes to belonging to service clubs like Rotary or Lions or helping out with Boy Scouts and Girl Guides or sports teams.

Beyond this, these same people will also volunteer more often. And when services within rural communities, like Northumberland, are receiving fewer and fewer dollars from the provincial and federal governments to run programs in the region, these groups turn to volunteers to help raise money or help provide the services.

An interesting aspect of the study shows that it doesn’t take a lot more education for the community to benefit. A careful review reveals any additional learning beyond high school pays huge dividends back to the community.

Sadly, other studies show most people with higher levels of education tend not to live in rural areas. The majority of people with post-secondary education live in urban areas, according to other Statistics Canada surveys. While there are probably a host of reasons, the most significant is the lack of jobs. Certainly, this is the case in Northumberland.

While we enjoy higher civic engagement in rural Canada, the numbers are also revealing. Still, only 41 per cent of rural people participate overall, leaving the other 59 per cent (that is the majority) out of the picture. It is a sad statement. And politicians need to respond. It is interesting how many new candidates are pushing to make councils more open to public input. This will likely be a major theme this fall.

But, this spirit of openness needs to be extended further into social organizations and service clubs, along with volunteerism. Donating time is more precious than money in a world that pushes people to commit a large portion of their time to earning income and managing complex lives at home. The social and economic pressures are immense, leaving organizations struggling to get people to help out. This is another area where a transformation must take place to accommodate these intricate demands.

So, when it comes to the fall elections, citizens should be asking tough questions of candidates for council and the school boards around their respective visions for enhancing our privileged position. While we do enjoy an abundance of civic engagement, what is being done to make it even better?

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