The Great (New) Migration: How the Pandemic Is Pushing Canadians Out of Big Cities

A large two-story house with beige vinyl siding, a shingled roof, a large outdoor deck and patio, with outdoor furniture situated on a freshwater lake. There is a a dock with a sitting area and equipment for water sports.

From changes to the way we work to how or when we plan to retire, the pandemic fallout has many Canadians thinking about a move out of the city. Photo: GettyImages/ Cheryl Ramalho

Work from home, early or forced retirement, budgets compressed,
big-city life all but grinding to a halt – the pandemic fallout is prompting many Canadians to make life decisions at an accelerated speed. As Jason Kirby reports, a major population shift has been put into play


Even before COVID-19 touched off a global rethink of life in the big city, Raheema Brettingham’s husband, Larry, often mused about selling their home in Toronto’s west end and moving to Vancouver Island. As the lockdown measures tightened and the couple saw their world reduced to strolls around the neighbourhood, he began to press the idea more intently. Even so, the 59-year-old self-described “city girl” felt she wasn’t ready to leave Toronto. “I used to love hopping on the subway to go downtown and meet friends,” she says. “So, every time he talked to me about it, I said, ‘No, no, no.’”

Then in June, Larry, 67, sat down to pen an email to his wife detailing his case for ditching Hogtown. It wasn’t just that pandemic restrictions had robbed them of the urban lifestyle they both enjoyed, he wrote. COVID-19 offered a unique financial reset for the couple. In 2019, both were suddenly laid off within a month of each other – Larry from his job as a software engineer and Raheema from her position at a financial advisory firm – and the pandemic brought their job searches to a halt. While they could get by staying in Toronto, it might entail working for another decade or more. But if they sold and moved to Comox, B.C., where his sister lived, they could easily erase their $400,000 mortgage and have enough to retire right away and, once the pandemic ends, travel the world.

Shortly after reading Larry’s email, Raheema decided to take the leap and, within a month, their detached house was on the market. Purchased for $845,000 in 2011, it quickly sold for a little more than $1.8 million. Meanwhile they were able to snap up a more spacious house just minutes from the ocean for $785,000 in the town of Comox, population 15,000. “I was apprehensive at first, but we’re already settled, and I love this house,” says Raheema, who joined a local newcomers group that is full of other eastern city expats. “I never thought I could enjoy nature the way I do here, and the city is not shut down like Toronto. We made the perfect decision at the perfect time.”

It’s a choice many others are making or at least considering. With so many people suddenly stuck at home, COVID-19 has put a new premium on space. At the same time, companies have embraced technologies like the Zoom video conference service that allow employees to work remotely – according to Statistics Canada, 2.5 million Canadians who don’t usually work from home were still doing so as of November. With surveys showing the majority of workers want to maintain some level of remote work after the pandemic ends, those able to shift to remote work or a hybrid model that mixes in-office and at-home work are freed from the daily commute. That’s allowed many to look to the suburbs, exurbs beyond the suburbs and communities even farther afield for their next home.

The evidence is in the real estate figures. While property prices in major cities have boomed during the pandemic – thanks in large part to the Bank of Canada’s moves to slash interest rates to 0.25 per cent and its massive bond-buying program that aimed to push down mortgage rates – prices have soared even higher in what have been described by some as “Zoom towns.” For instance, in southwestern Ontario, areas like Hamilton, Simcoe, Dufferin, Brantford, Kitchener and even Windsor have all outpaced Toronto in house price gains as new buyers flooded their markets. It’s a similar situation around Greater Montreal and Greater Vancouver, realtors say.

In its year-end outlook for the Canadian housing market in 2021, Re/Max stopped short of describing the population shift from cities to smaller communities as an exodus but found the trend is real. “We’ve seen a lot of anecdotal evidence since the summer that households are considering significant lifestyle changes by relocating to less dense cities and neighbourhoods,” noted Christopher Alexander, regional director for Re/Max in Ontario and Atlantic Canada. “This has sparked unprecedented sales this year in suburban and rural parts of Canada, and we expect this trend to continue in 2021.”

Ravi Punia, a realtor in Langley, B.C., about an hour east of Vancouver, has seen a surge in demand from people exiting the downtown area. The enquiries are generally coming from two groups. The first is younger millennials renting downtown who want to return to the far-flung burbs where they grew up. “They can’t justify paying the high rents when the offices are closed, and the entertainment, sports and nightlife is closed down,” he says.

The second is more senior workers who are laying the groundwork for retirement or have already retired. “They want more space, and there’s more of a thought and conversation around multi-generational living,” says Punia. “If you have a bigger home, you can put a suite into it and take care of your parents.” Those who do sell in Vancouver to buy in smaller cities and towns to the east can pocket big gains. The benchmark price for a detached home in Greater Vancouver is more than $1.5 million – though in several areas it exceeds $3 million – whereas in Surrey the benchmark price is $1.2 million while farther afield in Langley, Abbotsford and Mission, it ranges from around $800,000 to $1.1 million. Either way, says Punia, there’s now a “higher degree of aversion to tall condo towers.”

The need for more space and the significant cost savings on offer outside Vancouver were the big draws for Mark and Angela (not their real names), though the couple, in their early 40s, found their COVID-19 escape farther west on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast. They asked for aliases since Angela’s employer, a Vancouver engineering company, has yet to sign off on her working remotely on a permanent basis. After they rented in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood for several years, the pandemic drove home the need for more work space. They found it in an $800,000 bungalow, complete with bunkhouse, external garage and an above-garage unit they plan to use for short-term rentals once the pandemic is over – about the price of a cramped two-bedroom condominium back in Vancouver. “This was something we’d talked about for a couple of years, but COVID really pushed it over the line for us,” says Mark. “It made us realize this was doable.”

Smaller cities and towns everywhere have been quick to seize on the opportunity to lure urbanites to their communities. Over the summer, in between social media posts touting North Bay, Ont.’s low COVID-19 case numbers, Mayor Al McDonald reached out to Torontonians “stuck in traffic/small condos” with photos on Twitter of pontoon boats and Muskoka chairs waiting with cans of unopened beer. “This is what you are missing. #LiveHere.”

At the same time, the city of 50,000 about three and a half hours north of Toronto launched an aggressive social media ad campaign aimed at Torontonians under the tag line “Move up.” Early indications are the message resonated. Bidding wars on properties, something unheard of before, became common over the summer, says McDonald, and by the fall there was an “onslaught” of real estate deals in the city. In December, the average resale price of single-family homes in the city hit $270,400, a 26-per cent jump from the year before. A representative from one of Canada’s largest moving companies even reached out to McDonald. “They said never in their history had they moved as many people from down south to North Bay,” he says.

The reality is that, across Canada, the pandemic has accelerated a population shift that was already getting underway.

In the Maritimes and in Nova Scotia, in particular, there has been a growing influx of people from other parts of the country. In 2019, Nova Scotia experienced its fastest population growth in nearly half a century. That same year, Kris Snarby, a realtor in Liverpool, N.S., says his firm began to notice a drumbeat of buyers from the Toronto and Ottawa areas. The virus only amplified that trend, he says, noting that more than half the buyers he worked with in 2020 were from Ontario. “For a lot of the people moving here, it’s not that they have a lot of money, but they’re using it as an exit strategy to retire,” he says. “You can sell your house for $900,000 in Ontario and get something nicer here for $250,000.”

For Carol Fines, 67, and her husband, Loris Azzano, 66, the idea to move from Hamilton to Nova Scotia dawned on them during a visit in November 2018 after they met a friendly local in Liverpool, N.S., and saw the price of homes on the market. Within a year, Fines wound down her decorating company and moved to a $300,000 home nestled on the Mersey River, with Azzano following a few months after he retired from his bank job. The flow of newcomers joining them has only picked up speed during the pandemic. “People are coming sight unseen,” says Fines. “We have a number of friends our age we feel will probably start looking out here for places as well because, after going through COVID in the cities, they’re just fed up. If they’re in a little condo in Toronto that’s worth $800,000, they could buy themselves a resort out here,” she adds.

As the urban emigration intensifies, it poses challenges that may not be fully understood for some time. For one, the influx of new people is bound to strain infrastructure like health care in areas already suffering from a shortage of family doctors, local roads and access to high-speed internet. To that end, the federal government has pledged more than $3 billion to upgrade the internet in underserved communities, though that process won’t happen overnight.

While the number of people moving out of big cities is unlikely to put much of a dent in population counts, they can still have a disproportionate impact on local real estate markets in smaller communities, as seen by the double-digit price gains in Zoom towns. That has some observers worried. “A person selling their house in Toronto for $1 million and then moving to Halifax and buying an equivalent house for half that amount is going to price out local people working on local city wages,” says Howard Ramos, a sociology professor at Western University who researches so-called “secondary cities.”

There’s also the question of whether the trend of people fleeing big cities for smaller communities will continue once pandemic restrictions are eventually lifted or if city life will enjoy a renaissance. The answer is likely somewhere in between. “For sure, some people are overreacting but, for a lot of our clients, it wasn’t that they just woke up one day in a panic and decided to leave the city,” says John Pasalis, president of Realosophy Realty, a Toronto brokerage. “Many people were planning this. The pandemic just accelerated it.”

Pasalis, however, believes some people will come to regret their decision, particularly those who moved to cottage country or towns that require significant commutes to get to cities. “I do think you’ll have some people who reverse decision and move back,” he says. “The second people need to go back into the office, well, obviously being in a cottage isn’t going to work out for them, and I wonder if some people didn’t make that part of their calculations.”

Some may have their regrets. Larry Brettingham won’t be one of them. He’s happy he persisted in convincing Raheema to quit the city and has vowed to make the most of their new life against the backdrop of the mountains on Vancouver Island. “The ski hill opened on the weekend,” he says eagerly by phone in early December. “I went out and bought some skis.”

A version of this article appeared in the Feb/March 2021 issue with the headline “The “Great New Migration,” p. 54.