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Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Study: Social relationships in rural and urban Canada


The differences between Canada's urban and rural residents are smaller than they are often perceived to be in terms of various aspects of social engagement, cohesion and participation, according to a new study.

Residents of rural Canada were more likely than their city cousins to know all or most of their neighbours, more likely to trust their neighbours, and more likely to have done some volunteer work.

In addition, they were more likely to have a strong sense of belonging to their community.

However, the study showed that rural people were no more likely to provide help to people that they know, such as relatives, neighbours or friends. And, there was no evidence that that they were less likely to be socially isolated from close friends and relatives than urban people.

In addition, levels of political involvement were similar in communities of all sizes, and the level of trust toward other people in general was similar in both urban and rural places.

Urban-rural differences: Social relationships with neighbours

The more rural a place, the greater the proportion of individuals who said they knew all or most of their neighbours, the study found.

In small rural communities, between 52% and 61% of individuals reported that they knew all their neighbours. This was three times the proportion of only 16% of those in the largest urban centres, that is Toronto, Montréal, Vancouver and Ottawa, who said they knew all their neighbours.

Note to readers

This report provides comprehensive information from the 2003 General Social Survey (GSS) on Social Engagement, which covered just under 25,000 Canadians aged 15 and over.

It was designed to further understanding by shedding light on the many ways in which Canadians engage in civic and social life.

This "social capital" has attracted the interest of researchers and policy-makers. Many of them wish to develop a better understanding of how social networks and norms of trust and reciprocity may contribute positively to individual and social outcomes.

It was in this environment that the 2003 GSS on social engagement was developed. It collected information on Canadians' social contacts with family, friends and neighbours; their involvement in formal organizations, political activities and religious services; their level of trust in people and in public institutions; and their sense of belonging to Canada, their province and their community.

GSS data for the Canadian population as a whole were released in The Daily on July 6, 2004.

In addition, the more rural the place of residence the more likely individuals were to say they had a very strong sense of belonging to their local community.

Almost one-third (32%) of rural residents who had lived in their community for five years or more expressed a very strong sense of belonging to their local community. This compares with only 20% of residents of cities with a population of 500,000 to one million, and 19% of those in cities with a population over one million.

Rural residents were much more likely to say that their neighbours could be trusted a lot. They were also more likely to say that they trusted most people in their neighbourhood.

However, these differences in rates of feelings of trust and numbers of neighbours known were not fully reflected in terms of help received from, and help given to, neighbours.

Among people who had received help in the month prior to the survey, 20% of Canada's most rural residents reported being helped by a neighbour. This was only slightly higher than the equivalent share of 16% for residents of the largest cities.

Among those who gave help, 23% of Canada's rural residents said they had helped a neighbour, compared with 17% in the largest cities.

The study examined rural and urban differences in civic participation by looking at volunteering. The more rural the place of residence, the greater the likelihood of an individual having volunteered over the 12 months prior to the survey. About 41% of people in the most rural areas said they had done so, compared with 29% of residents in the largest cities.

Urban-rural similarities: Involvement in organisations and groups

The differences between urban and rural areas were small when people were asked whether they were members or participants in various voluntary organisations or groups. Just over one-half (52%) of the residents of Canada's four largest cities were members of at least one organization, compared with about 57% of residents in all other areas.

The level of trust within groups or communities is often considered as an important element of "social capital."

While this report showed that residents of smaller places were significantly more likely to trust their neighbours, there was only weak evidence to support the idea that rural residents express higher levels of trust toward people in general.

About 52% of residents in large urban centres said that most people could be trusted, slightly less than the 59% of people in most rural areas. However, the proportions were virtually identical in rural areas and medium-sized cities.

Having no close friends did not differ significantly

An important indicator of social isolation is the absence of close friends, that is, people who are not your relatives but with whom you feel at ease, can talk about what is on your mind or call for help.

The study found that the proportion of individuals reporting having no close friends did not differ significantly in rural and urban areas of Canada. Only 6% of both rural and urban residents reported that they had no close friends. Also, the proportion of individuals who reported that they did not have relatives they feel close to was not significantly different in urban and rural areas.

The share of Canadians who reported having three to five close friends was also similar in rural and urban areas. However, 34% of people in the most rural areas said they had six or more close friends, slightly higher than the proportion of 28% in the largest cities.

The study looked more generally at help provided by Canadians. Across Canada, 78% of individuals said that they had helped at least one person in the past month and there were no significant differences between rural and urban residents.

Among people who were helped in the month prior to the survey, the share helped by friends was actually higher in urban areas, 71% as opposed to 67% in the most rural areas. Among those who gave help, 67% of individuals residing in large cities provided help for a friend, compared with 62% in Canada's most rural areas.

Rural dwellers were not different in the kind of help they provided compared to residents of more urban places. Residents of the largest cities were less likely to help with transportation or domestic/home work, but this kind of help might be less important in large cities. They were also slightly less likely to provide child care.

However, residents of the largest cities were as likely as residents of any other area to provide emotional help, teach, coach or give practical advice or help a person in some other way.

Definitions, data sources and methods: survey number 5024.

The Rural and Small Town Canada Analysis Bulletin: Social Engagement and Civic Participation: Are Rural and Small Town Populations Really at an Advantage? Vol. 6, no. 4 (21-006-XIE, free) is now available online. From the Our products and services page under Browse our Internet publications, choose Free and then Agriculture.

For more information, or to enquire about the concepts, methods or data quality of this release, contact Martin Turcotte (951-2290,, Agriculture Division.

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Date Modified: 2005-06-21 Important Notices