Rural Boom: Why millennials are flocking to small town Canada
Surrounded by acres of forest and farmland, Markdale appears cut out of the wilderness. To an outsider, the town of around 1,200 people looks like any other small Ontario town. There’s a quaint downtown strip of a dozen stores selling local goods, a handful of churches, and Canadian flags waving in the wind on every porch. But this sleepy, unassuming little town is in the midst of a revival.
The twin crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and housing affordability have led to a record-breaking number of people leaving Canada’s biggest cities. Urbanites from southwestern Ontario have been driving up Highway 10 and buying up affordable homes in the country where they can put down roots and be closer to nature. It’s a dramatic reversal of the decades-old trend of young people fleeing small towns in favour of urban centres.
“This is one of the most significant changes in migrant flows since the Industrial Revolution,” says Michael Haan, an associate professor at Western University and a demographer who studies internal migration. “It’s signalling the potential for a revitalization of rural Canada.”
Markdale had fallen on hard times after the free trade explosion in the 1990s pushed many manufacturing plants in town to shut down and move offshore. The residents who remained were aging and with few young people moving to town, stores were shuttered and houses sat empty.
But all of that is changing, and rapidly. First came a Tim Hortons, then a supermarket. New businesses are opening downtown run by young adults from Toronto who sought an escape from city life.
A new $66-million hospital is in the works and multiple subdivisions are being built by developers who say their hundreds of homes are being snapped up by young families from southwestern Ontario cities. There’s been more development in Markdale in the past year than in the last 30, according to the town’s mayor, and it shows no sign of slowing down.
“Rural destinations are no longer this backwater, outdated, outmoded place to live anymore because the amenities that previously were only found in cities now exist there,” says Haan.
But the affordability crisis that newcomers were trying to escape has followed them into the countryside. Rental prices have gone up considerably and property values in Markdale have nearly doubled in the past year alone, pricing out many locals in the area. It used to take about four months to sell a home in this area, but lately, they’re selling in 24 hours, according to Eric Robertson, a lifelong resident and local real estate agent.
“What ended up happening is that you almost have these concentric circles of housing price valuation,” Haan says. “It is almost as though there was a drop of water and it just rippled outwards.”
Markdale was grappling with housing and labour shortages prior to 2020, and the migration has exacerbated the situation. It’s led to some tension between newcomers and lifelong residents. While many locals said they are excited to see new faces in town, some worry about how Markdale will manage this boom — and what the bill will be for taxpayers.
“The tension between local and ‘cidiot’ is palpable,” wrote one resident on Facebook. “Sadly, our small-town life is being taken over by the cities who have driven the housing prices right out of reach for our residents,” wrote another who described themselves as an area “lifer.”
In a place where you have to be born and raised to be considered “from there,” big changes — especially when they come by way of Toronto — can be a tough pill to swallow.
This small town revival isn’t just happening in Markdale, or even Ontario. A 2020 survey by RE/MAX found that 32 per cent of Canadians no longer want to live in large urban centres, and instead would prefer a rural or suburban community. Driving this trend are younger Canadians under the age of 55.
Across Canada, rural towns are being challenged and transformed by the big city next door. Global News travelled to Markdale to meet some of the people behind the local boom — and those who find their lives changed because of it.
Simone Weinstein, 27, and Celeste Lopreiato, 24, had always dreamed of operating a small-scale farm. They both grew up in Toronto but were living in a tiny basement apartment in Guelph when the pandemic hit. Lopreiato says the first few months of lockdown were “brutal” — with two dogs, Weinstein working from home, and only 500 square feet, they decided to start looking for a new living situation.
Rising house prices added urgency and distance to their search. When they came across a five-acre property on the outskirts of Markdale last November, they took the leap.
“We just kind of fell in love with the property, but also fell in love with the area,” Lopreiato says. One of the biggest draws: access to nature. The property is on a quiet side road surrounded by dense forest. It’s here they’ve been able to grow the garden that will produce food for their vegan meal delivery service called the Conscious Kitchen.
As a young queer couple, they had reservations about moving to such a rural area where residents tend to lean more conservative. But to their surprise, they’ve been warmly welcomed by their neighbours and discovered a tight-knit LGBTQ2 community in Markdale.
“I’ve just been overwhelmingly surprised with how happy I am here,” Lopreiato says. Weinstein agrees, adding that they have no regrets about the move into the country. The couple hopes to grow their business and adopt children in the coming years.
“This house is too big for just the two of us,” Weinstein says.
Graeme Demarsh, 30, and Ashley Patrick, 30, didn’t envision themselves leaving Toronto. They loved the city. They were active theatre-goers, went to Raptors games, and had date night at a new restaurant every week. But after being cooped up for months in their small downtown condo, talking over each other on Zoom calls, and being outbid on houses across the GTA, they decided to expand their search to rural Canada.
When they came across Markdale, it just clicked, Patrick says. The new developments in town and kilometres of nearby trails were major selling points for the couple. They’re both able to work from home for Toronto-based companies. He’s a web developer and she’s a travel agent. Despite identifying as city people, they’re embracing life in the countryside.
“We are a walking country song. We came, we got the dog, we bought the pickup truck. We watch the sun set off our back deck. It’s really amazing,” Patrick says.
The only thing they miss: Uber Eats.
“It’s worth the tradeoff,” Demarsh says. “It might sound a little cheesy, but I do think it’s been good for our soul to be out here.”
Lynn Croft, 65, has lived in Grey Highlands, the regional municipality comprised of six communities including Markdale, all her life. A few years ago she retired from her job as postmaster and moved onto a quiet street in Markdale. It was supposed to be the forever home for her and her husband. A swing bench sits at the side of their yard, but it doesn’t get much use these days.
“You used to look across the field and see nothing by trees,” she says. Now they wake to the sound of construction. The trees have been cleared to make way for new subdivisions.
“There’s no individuality in them,” Croft says. “It makes us look like every other town.”
She says she doesn’t mind new people coming to town as long as they volunteer and become active members of the community. Her biggest worry is the housing issue and the cost of this rapid growth.
“Will my taxes go up this year?” she asks. “Are we going to be pushed out because we can no longer afford to live here?”
It’s a valid concern. Since the housing boom, lifelong locals have been selling their houses to cash in on the hot real estate market and moving out north or even out of the province. It’s a trend that has had major repercussions for the largest employer in town: Chapman’s Ice Cream.
The company was facing a small labour shortage prior to the pandemic, but now it’s gotten “considerably worse,” says Ashley Chapman, 42, the vice president of Chapman’s Ice Cream. His parents started the company in Markdale in 1973 with a handful of employees and has grown into the largest independent ice cream producer in Canada.
“A lot of our locals decided, you know what? Now’s the time I’m going to sell and I’m going to move out of the area,” he says. “We’ve lost a lot of good employees just by the cost of housing.”
The lack of rentals and housing means many of his workers are having to commute into town and it’s making it difficult for them to fill jobs.
“We’re paying considerably more than what you could get paid in manufacturing in the GTA, but guess what? There’s nowhere to live,” he says.
The company is hoping to expand in the coming years, which would add anywhere from 100 to 200 more jobs, Chapman says, but that’s on hold until the housing market cools off.
Despite the challenges ahead for the family business, Chapman says, overall, the growth of Markdale is a good thing.
“We needed people in this area. We’re going to need more people in this area,” he says. “You’ve got to start somewhere.”
Patricia Ellingwood shares his enthusiasm. She’s a transplant herself. In 2002, she moved to Markdale from Halifax.
“I don’t blame them for choosing Markdale. … I came here and I couldn’t look back,” she says. “It’s just through a series of unfortunate events we had a lot of stress brought on because of it.”
In May, Ellingwood and her 10-year-old daughter were forced to leave the house they had been renting for a decade when the owner decided to sell. For months, they looked for a new place to live and came up empty.
“The biggest barrier was the lack of availability. The increased rent didn’t help,” Ellingwood says. In the past, she’s never had an issue finding a place to live. But now, after 20 years, she’s had to say goodbye to the town that’s become her home.
Finally, through some local connections, Patricia found a new rental in a town 30 minutes away. She says she’s grateful to have it, but the commute means her cost of living has greatly increased. The stress brought on by the situation took a toll on her daughter. She started breaking out in hives.
“It’s been a struggle. It’s been tough. But we got through it.”
Aakash Desai, 30, got into politics six years ago with the goal of making Markdale more attractive to people his age.
His family immigrated to Canada from India when he was 16. After finishing high school in Brampton, he followed his family to Grey Highlands where his father opened his own business. He’s now the deputy mayor of Grey Highlands.
The municipal council took measures prior to 2020 to attract newcomers and developers to Markdale, but progress was slow, Desai says. Then the pandemic hit and seemingly all at once, they came.
“It’s 50 per cent our efforts in trying to make Markdale a developer-friendly community and 50 per cent the housing market booming northwards along Highway 10,” he says.
And it’s not just Markdale that’s booming. Neighbouring towns of Hanover, Blue Mountain and others have seen a similar increase in interest over the course of the pandemic.
Both the mayor of Grey Highlands Paul McQueen and Grey County Warden Selwyn Hicks have made the housing issue their number one priority. McQueen says he wants to make sure young locals have a chance to break into the housing market.
“I have three young boys, two in their twenties and one that’s 16,” says McQueen. “If it’s not the bank of Mom and Dad, how are they ever going to get into the market?”
Grey County, which includes nine municipalities including Grey Highlands, has created a task force to begin to grapple with the housing shortage and has created a fund that will go toward creating affordable housing.
Four thousand homes were built last year in Grey County and there are plans to add 15,000 more, according to Hicks. Only a small percentage of those homes will classify as affordable housing.
“We have a lot of work to do there,” Hicks says, adding that this issue can’t be solved by the county alone.
Despite these challenges, the local leadership remains optimistic and excited about the young, diverse talent settling in the area.
“I think it’s going to make our town better,” Desai says. “Whatever issues there are, we’ll face them as a community.”
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The first cases of COVID-19 in Canadian wildlife have been discovered in three white-tailed deer, a press release from Environment and Climate Change Canada reports.
The National Centre for Foreign Animal Disease confirmed the detections on Nov. 29 but the deer were sampled between Nov. 6 to 8 in the Estrie region of Quebec. The deer showed no evidence of clinical signs of disease and were “all apparently healthy.”
“As this is the first detection of SARS-CoV-2 in wildlife in Canada, information on the impacts and spread of the virus in wild deer populations is currently limited,” the press release states.
“The finding emphasizes the importance of ongoing surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 in wildlife to increase our understanding about SARS-CoV-2 on the human-animal interface.”
The World Organisation for Animal Health was notified about the discovery on Dec. 1.
The department is urging added precaution – like wearing a well-fitted mask – when exposed to “respiratory tissues and fluids from deer.”
The virus has been found in multiple animal species globally including farmed mink, cats, dogs, ferrets, and zoo animals such as tigers, lions, gorillas, cougars, otters and others.
“Recent reports in the United States have revealed evidence of spillover of SARS-CoV-2 from humans to wild white-tailed deer, with subsequent spread of the virus among deer. There has been no known transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from deer to humans at this time,” the release reads.
The United Nations appealed on Thursday for a record $41 billion to provide life-saving assistance next year to 183 million people worldwide caught up in conflict and poverty, led by a tripling of its programme in Afghanistan.
Famine remains a “terrifying prospect” for 45 million people living in 43 countries, as extreme weather caused by climate change shrinks food supplies, the U.N. said in the annual appeal, which reflected a 17% rise in annual funding needs.
“The drivers of needs are ones which are familiar to all of us. Tragically, it includes protracted conflicts, political instability, failing economies … the climate crisis, not a new crisis, but one which urges more attention and of course the COVID-19 pandemic,” U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths told reporters.
In a report to donors, the world body said: “Without sustained and immediate action, 2022 could be catastrophic.”
Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia and Sudan are the five major crises requiring the most funding, topped by $4.5 billion sought for Taliban-ruled Afghanistan where “needs are skyrocketing”, it said.
In Afghanistan, more than 24 million people require life-saving assistance, a dramatic increase driven by political tumult, repeated economic shocks, and severe food insecurity caused by the worst drought in 27 years.
“We are in the business in the U.N. of trying to urgently establish with support from the World Bank as well as the U.N. system, a currency swap initiative which will allow liquidity to go into the economy,” Griffiths said.
“The absence of cash in Afghanistan is a major impediment to any delivery of services,” he said. “I am hoping that we get it up and running before the end of this month.”
In Ethiopia, where a year-old conflict between government and Tigrayan forces has spread into the Amhara and Afar regions, thousands have been displaced, while fighting, drought and locusts push more to the brink, the U.N. said.
Nearly 26 million Ethiopians require aid, including more than 9 million who depend on food rations, including 5 million in Tigray, amid rising malnutrition rates, it said.
“Ethiopia is the most alarming probably almost certainly in terms of immediate emergency need,” Griffiths said, adding that 400,000 people had been deemed at risk of famine already in May.
Noting that heavy fighting continued, with government forces battling Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front forces who have moved closer to the capital Addis Ababa, he added: “But capacity to respond to an imploded Ethiopia is almost impossible to imagine.”
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Richard Pullin)
Ontario Premier Doug Ford thanked the federal government for implementing new travel restrictions in a bid to stop the spread of the Omicron COVID-19 variant and said more discussions will be held about possibly expanding new testing rules to travellers from the United States.
Ford made the remarks at an unrelated press conference in Mississauga Wednesday morning.
Several Omicron variant cases have already been confirmed in Ontario, and Ford said while it is a “cause for concern” it is “not cause for panic.”
“Every day we hold off more cases entering our country, the more time we have to learn and prepare,” Ford said.
“So the best thing we can do right now is fortify our borders. Our best defence is keeping the variant out of our country. We welcome the actions from the federal government and I want to thank the feds for taking action to date.
“We implored them last week to act quickly and be decisive on the borders and they did.”
In a statement last Friday, Ford called on the federal government to enact travel bans on “countries of concern” and the feds followed through just hours later.
On Tuesday, they expanded that ban to three additional countries.
Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said foreign nationals from Nigeria, Malawi and Egypt who have been to those countries over the past two weeks will not be able to enter Canada. This added to the seven other African countries barred by Canada on Friday: South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini.
Canadians and permanent residents, as well as all those who have the right to return to Canada, who have transited through these countries over the past two weeks, will have to quarantine, be tested at the airport, and await their test results before exiting quarantine, Duclos said.
It was also announced that all air travellers entering Canada — excluding those coming from the United States — would have to get tested when they arrive and isolate until they receive a negative result. That measure applies to all travellers, regardless of vaccination status.
Duclos said Wednesday that it will take time to implement the new measure.
In his statement last week, Ford also called for point-of-arrival testing to be put in place.
He also said he advised the province’s chief medical officer and Public Health Ontario to “immediately implement expanded surveillance” and update planning to “ensure we are ready for any outcome.”
The Omicron variant has now been detected in many countries around the world, including, as of Wednesday, the United States.
Ford was asked if he would support expanding the new testing rules to those arriving from the States.
“I would always support anything that can be cautious to prevent this variant coming into our country. So, again we’ll have a discussion with the federal government. That’s their jurisdiction, it’s not ours,” Ford said.
“They work collaboratively with all the provinces and territories and I’m always for going the cautious route as I think people have seen over the last 20 months.”
The premier added that “it doesn’t take much to get a test at the airport.”
Federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said Wednesday that it’s too early to say whether Canada’s latest requirement to test arriving air travellers will be extended to include those coming from the United States.
“We need to be prepared and ready if we need to adjust that decision to include travellers from the U.S. We haven’t made that decision yet,” he said.
When asked what provincial measures are being considered in response to the Omicron variant, Ford said they will make sure there is expanded testing capacity and contact tracing.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said there is still much that isn’t known about the variant, including how effective vaccines are against it.
She said the province is “continuing with all of our precautions” and said it’s important to keep border restrictions in place until more is known about the variant.
Elliott also said more information will be released in the coming days “with respect to age categories” on booster shots.
— With files from Saba Aziz and The Canadian Press
© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.
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