Oh.. by way.. Britain was later than Ontario.. We already had Agriculture downgraded to a subordinate postition to "rural affairs" Deathray's counterpart is called OMAFRA.. Notice the spin is the same over here...

Urbanite rural life is new look of Canada

IF THERE'S one thing that British Prime Minister Tony Blair is better at than any other national leader - especially now that Bill Clinton has moved to the sidelines - it's the politics of symbolism. Word comes back that Diana has been killed in a car accident in Paris and Blair instantly intones into the microphones that she was "the People's Princess." Since his latest (second) election victory, Blair has made one highly interesting symbolic change in his government. The old Department of Agriculture has been renamed and reorganized as the Department of Rural Affairs, Food and the Environment.

What that says is that the principal function of the countryside is no longer seen to be that of producing food, of which there is in all countries (all developed ones) an immense surplus because of technology and chemicals and large-scale farming, all now multiplied almost to infinity by the promise (and threat) of genetic engineering. Indeed, Lord Haskins, whom Blair has just appointed to develop a plan to restructure British agriculture, has begun his inquiry by forecasting that one in two farmers will be out of business by 2020.

Instead, that telling phrase Rural Affairs conveys the impression, as is intended, that the principal function of the countryside has now become to provide an environment for urban dwellers, who in Britain, as in all industrial democracies, now constitute the overwhelming majority of the population. For a country like Canada, the risk is real that we are on our way to becoming a kind of national string of pearls - of ever-larger concentrations of people in constricted areas, with, in between them, vast and ever-emptier white spaces.

Not a remedy but a partial response may be on its way. Just as the old parts of the cities were revived by "gentrification," so a form of gentrification is taking place in the countryside and likewise is reviving it.

Two examples. A few weeks back, I was at the country house, north of Toronto, of an urban exile. Talking to another urban refugee at the party, I mentioned that it seemed to me all these types from Toronto were damaging the area because they were pushing the price of land beyond the reach of those already living there.

True, but only half true, came the reply, because urbanites leased out their extra land to local farmers for a nominal rent so that they would keep it clean and mown, which is how urbanites want "their" countryside to look.

I've just come back from a glorious month at our summer place on the Eastport Peninsula in Bonavista Bay, Nfld. As everywhere in rural Newfoundland, the population is dwindling as young people leave. Moving in instead are "townies" from St. John's and a gradually increasing number of CFAs (Come From Aways). So many are coming I'd be worried that the character of the area would change, except that two of the seven Eastport communities have fish plants and so are deeply rooted on the Rock. These urbanites, who are looking for a "lung" in which to breath outside the city and who, perhaps, also have some sense of wanting to be part of the less rushed, less showy and simply more real life of the countryside, constitute an important support group in rural areas. Their connection with rural life is, of course, limited to a few summer weeks or months or even year-round, but with money earned in the city, their primary interests and loyalties are still there. But at least they are there in the country - part of the time or all of the time in part.

The fact is that more and more Canadians - most immigrants, for example - have no experience of, or interest in, the Old Canada of small towns and farms and fishing outports and hinterland. A recent poll by Ekos Research of Ottawa found, as president Frank Graves reported, "For most Canadians, the plight of farmers is not a burning issue. Canadians are inclined to say, `lots of other people have it tough too'."

There is no question but that our rural population is going to continuously shrink. And as it does, its political influence will dwindle also. Urban refugees are at least part of the answer. The real answer will have to be a policy to develop what could be called a post-food countryside or one in which agriculture is simply one among a host of economic, social and cultural activities that will sustain the regions beyond our cities. If we don't develop that kind of policy, we're going to become a bunch of urbanites staring out at a wilderness.