Who won Canada’s rural vote?

Tories took the majority of rural seats, but Liberals found their spots
Aerial view of farmlands. Fraser Valley near Vancouver, BC. Marlene Ford/Getty Images
Aerial view of farmlands in the Fraser Valley near Vancouver, BC. (Marlene Ford/Getty Images)
Aerial view of farmlands in the Fraser Valley near Vancouver  (Marlene Ford/Getty Images)

Canada’s big electoral map gives the impression that rural Canada largely rejected the victorious Liberals. The splotches of blue and orange make it seem as if Conservatives and New Democrats won the hearts and minds of the sprawling hinterland where one-fifth of Canadians hang their hats. Aside from the massive northern territories—always a boon to parties who want to be put on the map—how many rural Canadian ridings do Liberals represent in Ottawa? Look at that map again and fancy a guess.


The answer: Liberals hold about one-third of rural ridings, by our count. Feel free to quibble.

How did we arrive at that conclusion? It’s complicated. When academic researchers classify ridings as urban or rural, or something in between, they often look at population density. Farmers Forum decided that any riding with fewer than 100 people per sq. km counts as rural. Louise Carbert, an associate professor of political science at Dalhousie University, divided ridings into four categories for a paper on an enduring deficit of female representatives in rural ridings. Statistics Canada used to make it easy: The agency helpfully offered density for the 308 now-defunct ridings based on the 2011 census.

Unhelpfully, StatsCan no longer provides that data at the riding level. It’s hard to come by. A Wikipedia page lists population density, but its sourcing is inconsistent. The best measure of riding density we consulted was via Google Earth, a mapping platform that allows users to measure the area of digital shape files. They generally match up with the land areas on that mysterious Wikipedia page. But even Google Earth provides an imperfect measure, as shape files don’t remove bodies of water from land-area measurements. Our own calculations of density are, therefore, flawed. But we gave it a try, anyway.

Even after those density calculations, a small subset of ridings pose a unique challenge: They dip into heavily urban or suburban areas, but also include a wide swath of populated rural land. Farmers in those places might wildly disagree with being called urban. Suburban homeowners might laugh at being called rural. Our solution: Sort riding densities listed on the Wikipedia page, and classify every riding with a density between 150 and 300 per sq. km as “rurban.” (We double-checked the densities of those particular ridings against Google Earth’s measurements.)

Here’s our list of “rurban” seats in Parliament.

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When we split urban, rural and rurban ridings into the regions, the charts spoke for themselves. The Tories won 46 per cent of all rural ridings, including 54 per cent outside of Atlantic Canada. The Liberals, who swept all 24 rural seats in the Atlantic, won only a quarter of those in the rest of Canada—and only four west of Ontario. The NDP took just 13 per cent of rural Canada, on the heels of big losses in Ontario and Quebec. Nobody had an advantage in “rurban” Canada.

Here’s how it all plays out, by region. (We omitted the Atlantic in these charts because that’s where Liberals won it all: every urban seat, every rural seat, every “rurban” seat.) Readers who have a more precise way to calculate the urban-rural divide, please get in touch. We’d love to hear about it.