Though I haven’t delved too far into the Canadian literature on this topic, my recent read, ‘The Big Sort’ by Bill Bishop, leads me to think that there are some Canadian equivalencies to this American phenomenon. He identified that ‘Americans could move to places that reinforced their identities, where they could find comfort among others like themselves. These weren’t political choices, but had political consequences.’ The question becomes: does this happen in Canada and if is so does it happen only within cities or across provincial lines?
Canada is like the United States in that both countries were formed by various waves of migration that settled further and further west. An important difference finds itself in the fact that the Canadian migrations took place along a narrow band defined by two railroads with few people venturing into the fields between them. The political identities of these places, I’ve seen argued by David Smith and others (though I wish I could find the ‘other’ articles), did not exist before the boundaries were created but came after; the only initial difference between Alberta and Saskatchewan was a line. Since then, these places have differed considerably in economic, social and political aspects.
Now, as thousands move west, the question returns to the top: are Canadians moving to specific neighbourhoods or provinces for purely economic or also social reasons. After all, Charles Tiebout’s seminal 1954 article ‘A Pure Theory of Local Expenditures’ argued that economic reasons would be the main reasons people would select one sub-federal jurisdiction over another.
These Canadian-movers, at least the ones I have met, have moved to new provinces for almost exclusively economic reasons: there are no jobs back home so they head West. Still, do their values influence their choice of location? Or at the very least influence where they live in a city? “The Big Sort has been a national manifestation of the economist’s theory – a post-materialist Tiebout migration based on these non-economic goods, as people have sought out places that best fit their ways of life, their values, and their politics.’
I would argue, with no data to back me up, that the Big Sort is happening to a smaller degree in Canada and it does not cross provincial lines. People are just as likely to move into communities that are self-designated as a gathering place for their ethnocultural communities as they are to divide around values such as ‘safe streets and space’ or ‘vitality and culture’ which are my polished ways of saying the suburbs and downtowns respectively.
But people do not choose Saskatchewan over Alberta because they prefer Saskatchewan’s culture. That day might come, but now they choose the economic opportunity that brings them there first. At least, that is my initial thought. People who move to Alberta for the ‘blue skies and free mountain air’ might truly be doing so because of the freedom it represents; naturally, socially and economically. And people might to B.C. for its attitude and take the cost of living as the price to pay.
The main argument emanating from Bishop’s understanding of the Big Sort is that it has had a perverse effect on democratic debate and therefore elections in the US. That is something we haven’t seen as much in Canada as there is still a high degree of volatility in the Canadian electorate, Canadians are truly less attached to their parties than they are in the US and a lot of the overwhelming majorities in certain ridings stem from such a long-time ago that they couldn’t be chalked up to these moves. And 2011’s Liberal collapse shows that even the strongest local majorities are not set in stone.