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Manitoba History: Review Essay: A Living and a Life: Trajectories in the Study of Rural Canada

by Shannon Stunden Bower

Number 48, Autumn/Winter 2004-2005

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to

Raymond Blake and Andrew Nurse (eds.) The Trajectories of Rural Life: New Perspectives on Rural Canada, Regina: Canadian Plains Research Centre, 2003, 167 pp., ISBN 0889771529, $29.95.

Barb Glen, editor and columnist, describes her recent experience in a bookstore for the readers of The Western Producer. Thumbing through a pictorial survey of Canada, Glen remarks that Saskatchewan was summarized in two images: “the sun-scorched Great Sandhills, bereft of life signs; and a broken-spoked wagon wheel in the foreground that framed a dilapidated granary.” Is this, she asks, “how fellow Canadians view Saskatchewan—a beautiful yet desolate place nostalgic for an earlier century?” [1]

The editors of The Trajectories of Rural Life: New Perspectives on Rural Canada would say in reply that, yes, this depiction of Saskatchewan remains predominant—and requires confrontation. Raymond Blake and Andrew Nurse argue that, despite the development of a body of work that emphasizes solid research and critical analysis, there remains a need to suggest other ways—“demographic, social, economic, political, cultural, and ecological”—of seeing rural life. Though exemplifying not so much new perspectives as perspectives applied anew to rural Canada, the works in this collection offer useful insights to those engaged in the study of Canadian rurality from academic perspectives and may prove especially valuable to researchers and administrators explicitly concerned with the formulation of public policy.

The origin of the volume in a conference hosted by the Saskatchewan Institute of Public Policy at the University of Regina is apparent. There are sixteen pieces in the 160-page book, giving authors little space in which to present their work. Substantive research is further compressed as many authors begin with a discussion of the meaning of rural. Certainly an important consideration, but it would have been more economical and it may well also have been more effective had the editors surveyed such matters in a more extensive introduction and asked contributors to dispense with all but the most succinct of definitions.

Including such a large number of short articles does much to highlight the multiplicity of perspectives available for those engaged in the study of rural Canada. Authors use their limited space to good effect, presenting the insights that can be derived through the application to rural communities of techniques of social scientific research. Interviews, questionnaires, and focus groups are the favoured methodologies. By and large, these articles present qualitative over quantitative information. Wendee Kubik and Robert J. Moore, in “Changing Roles of Saskatchewan Farm Women: Qualitative and Quantitative Perspectives” are particularly successful in rendering a vivid sense of their subjects’ experiences through the effective use of quotations. Consider the guilt and,perhaps, exhilaration behind such a forthright description of housekeeping practises:

That picture of perfectness would be there and the responsibility, you know, to not let any of it fall and to keep going day after day after day. That’s how my mother did it, that’s how his mother has done ... it and I haven’t. [2]

Such a comment also indicates the extent to which rural residents are already engaged in the critical analysis of their own lives. They certainly do not need to be convinced of the fallacy of what the editors call romantic perspectives, nor of the possibility that their lives could be improved.

An emphasis on policy development is evident throughout the work, and turns on the conviction that improving rural lives demands cooperation between multiple actors and, significantly, attention to social indicators beyond the economic. Authors stress the importance of appropriate government programmes, and explicitly lay out the elements they believe necessary for programme success. An important insight, especially significant within a collection that aspires to address rurality on a national scale, is stated most explicitly in the article by Polo Diaz, Randy Widdis and David Gauthier on “Social Cohesion and the Rural Community.” To be successful, the authors assert, policy must be “sensitive to the unique characteristics and resources of communities.” [3] This assertion is further underlined by the fact that, though the collection defines its topic as Canadian rurality, most contributors focus in on some geographical entity smaller than the nation such as the region, the province, or the community.

Given the large number of short articles, a remarkable degree of thematic coherence emerges. There is an emphasis throughout on groups that have been marginalized in the romanticizing of rural Canada. Rural life is not easy for anyone, but these articles draw attention to the particular challenges encountered by women, recent immigrants, and Aboriginal people. Andrew Nurse’s article speaks to the construction of notions of rurality in twentieth century Quebec. Moving from his work to other pieces in the collection, readers might be inclined to move beyond authors’ descriptions of how they have defined rural in their work. They may reflect on how romantic notions of rurality have been constructed through the deployment of particular conceptions of gender and ethnicity, and what or whose purposes such notions have served.

There is a danger in emphasizing the experiences of the marginalized in a work so deliberately concerned with finding solutions to rural problems. Women, aboriginals, and immigrants could be identified as the origin of the trouble, rather than as groups deserving of assistance in their efforts to emerge from the various sorts of oppression to which they have been subject. The authors are not blind to this, and analyses of the pathologies of rural life distinguish between the illness and the symptoms. Manju Varma considers how whatever prejudice persists in rural communities might be addressed as part of government programmes to encourage newcomers to settle in rural locations. Similarly, in an analysis of wife abuse, Jennie Hornosty and Deborah Doherty assert that “communities must learn to name unacceptable behaviours and speak out against all forms of abuse.” [4] Nevertheless,these pragmatic authors are aware that change takes time, and are keen to enact measures that may in the interim alleviate suffering among marginalized groups.

The collection also emphasizes aspects of rural life that have not been the focus of much academic research. Both Robert Wardhaugh and June Corman tackle historical subjects that can be difficult to reach through the traditional archival record: the leisure of youth and the dynamics of a small community. Wardhaugh’s strategy is to draw on the scholarship of others to highlight the social trends that affected the lives of Borden’s teenagers. Corman brings to bear personal experience on the meaning of the old school house in the town of Davyroyd. While one reads in from international research and one reads out from individual experience, both succeed in evoking the significance of generational succession in one place. It may indeed be romanticizing to speak of contemporary Saskatchewan in such terms, but this is still an aspect that requires attention in studies of the not-so-distant past. Corman does try to extract lessons for the future in the final paragraph of her article, but these are hardly her most memorable passages. The success of these two pieces emphasizes that the value of knowing our history should not be reduced to its capacity to teach lessons that are obviously and easily applicable to our contemporary situation.

Some of the most provocative pieces are those that turn on the “symbiotic relationship” between rural and urban life. The dynamic between city and country has been analyzed by scholars working in both Canadian and environmental history, and remains one of the most significant intersections between the fields. [5] Notably, John Roslinski foregrounds social rather than economic linkages in his consideration of the relations between urban and rural aboriginal people. His central concern is neither historical detail nor theoretical possibility, but, like all the authors in the collection who address both rural and urban, what practical measures could be adopted to enhance current and future relations.

A useful comparator for The Trajectories of Rural Life is another collection of essays on the rural experience published some two years ago titled Writing Off the Rural West: Globalization, Governments, and the Transformation of Rural Communities.

Despite obvious similarities of topic, these works differ in significant ways. As indicated by the title, Writing Off the Rural West examines one particular region. In consequence, conceptions of rurality emphasize historical and geographical factors and thus do not risk veering toward essentialism. Here we see the application to academic research of what The Trajectories of Rural Life offers as an insight for policy-makers—the continuing significance of history and geography in defining the rural experience.

Both collections emphasize that we are at a critical juncture in the history of Canadian rural communities, and advocate the sort of action each sees as conducive to a better future. The sociological orientation of The Trajectories of Rural Life allows for current conditions to be paired with practical solutions. Without disregarding the effort that would be required for implementation, these are policy recommendations that derive some of their cogency from the comparative ease with which they could be affected. With an orientation more to causes than conditions, the perspective of Writing Off the Rural West emphasizes the insights of political economy. Though contributors are successful in illustrating the play of global forces in the lives of individuals, the scale of change required for rural redress is rather daunting. Which collection is favoured will likely turn on whether a reader is more concerned with changing or with understanding. Anyone particularly concerned with rural Canada should read both.

I find, however, that Writing Off the Rural West provides a more satisfying response to the question of why we should all be concerned with rural communities. The answer turns on the contemporary context of globalization according to a neo-liberal agenda that preoccupies the editors of both collections. I have emphasized that many of the papers in The Trajectories of Rural Life succeed in allowing rural people to speak for themselves. In Writing Off the Rural West, however, rural people speak not only for themselves but also

for all of us whose lives are increasingly subordinated to the relentless demands associated with productivity and competitiveness and who have come to accept such demands as normal.

Rural communities are the canaries in the global coal mine. How they fare will tell us something about what the future holds for us all. As a result,

the defence of rural communities is a matter of much greater significance than their dwindling share of national and provincial populations would suggest. [6]

These two works represent two orientations toward and present multiple perspectives on the study of rurality in Canada. Their publication within two years of each other indicates the growing recognition of the need for a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the matter. Barb Glen noted something like this as, in her local bookstore, she put down the pictorial survey that so inadequately portrayed her Saskatchewan and picked up The Trajectories of Rural Life. In her column, Glen reinforced the importance of abandoning conceptions of “the simple life” for an appreciation of “the complexities of making a living and a life in the rural West.” [7] A living and a life the most valuable perspective on rural Canada would be one that considers both of these, and that offers insight on how to ensure both for all Canadians.


1. Barb Glen, “Rural Perspective Adjustments,” Western Producer, 24 July 2003, (16 November 2003).

2. Wendee Kubik and Robert J. Moore, “Changing Roles of Saskatchewan Farm Women: Qualitative and Quantitative Perspectives,” in The Trajectories ofRural Life: New Perspectives on Rural Canada, eds. Raymond Blake and Andrew Nurse (Saskatoon: Houghton Boston, 2003), 29.

3. Polo Dias, Randy Widths, and David Gauthier, “Social Cohesion and the Rural Community,” in The Trajectories of Rural Life: New Perspectives on Rural Canada, eds. Raymond Blake and Andrew Nurse (Saskatoon: Houghton Boston, 2003), 134.

4. Jennie Hornosty and Deborah Doherty, “Responding to Wife Abuse in Farm and rural Communities: Searching for Solutions that Work,” in The Trajectories of Rural Life: New Perspectives on Rural Canada, eds. Raymond Blake and Andrew Nurse (Saskatoon: Houghton Boston, 2003), 52.

5. William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1991). Footnote 110 of Cronon’s first chapter, “Dreaming the Metropolis”, provides both a concise illustration of this point and a useful list of relevant works.

6. Roger Epp and Dave Whitson, “Introduction: Writing Off Rural Communities?” in Writing Off the Rural West: Globalization, Governments and the Transformation of Rural Communities, eds. Roger Epp and Dave Whitson (Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 2001), xxxiv.

7. Barb Glen, “Rural Perspective Adjustments,” Western Producer, 24 July 2003, (16 November 2003).

Page revised: 9 September 2010

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