Thousands of people have left Toronto. Post-pandemic, what would bring these artists back?

The city saw record-breaking population loss in 2020, as people sought a better (and cheaper) life in other centres. Hear from three artists who made the move.

The city saw record-breaking population loss in 2020. Hear from 3 artists who made the move

It took a pandemic to convince Diana Reyes to leave Toronto. Better known as Fly Lady Di, the performer moved to Montreal on New Year's Eve, and she says she's thriving in her new hometown. (Brian de Rivera Simon)

Leaving Toronto wasn't the original plan. To Sarah Letovsky, the city is home. She grew up there, she studied there, she's represented by a local gallery (Patel Brown). And, she thought, it was the best place in Canada to build a career. Still, in August of 2020, then 33 years old, Letovsky was ready to go 3,300 km west to Edmonton. Maybe not forever, but for now — and she wasn't the only person she knew who'd decided to move in the middle of a global pandemic.

Letovsky says she'd been hearing about friends, and friends-of-friends, swapping downtown for different places. "It makes you feel less alone. It makes you feel a little bit less, like, FOMO — fear of missing out," she laughs. And on some anecdotal level, people living in Canada's bigger centres have likely sensed a similar trend.

In the first summer of the pandemic, Toronto reported record-breaking population loss over a 12-month period. According to a Statistics Canada study published in February this year, more than 50,000 Toronto residents had picked up and left by July 2020, and a similar migration was happening in Montreal and Vancouver, as city dwellers fled for the suburbs and other more sprawling environs. 

The quality of life and the cost of life is just much easier than Toronto.- Sarah Letovsky, artist

"Personal health, the ability to work remotely and higher housing costs are among the most important factors contributing to the decision," the report concluded — findings that don't exactly suggest rigorous analysis if you've spent any time agonizing over the average price of a one-bedroom Toronto rental ($1,816 as of April 2021). Still, the appeal of city living can be elusive in lockdown. And for those who haven't already abandoned their condos (or rented rooms in condos), plenty are daydreaming about their exit. A Royal LePage survey conducted this past winter polled young Canadians aged 25-35. Of the respondents living in the Greater Toronto Area, 46 per cent said they were interested in relocating to "less densely populated" spots because of the pandemic. And an October 2020 Stats Canada report on the housing market cites another recent real-estate survey, this time from Remax. Among its discoveries: "one third of Canadians no longer want to live in large urban centres." 

None of those factoids give a picture of how many artists, specifically, have actually made a big pandemic move, but for those who've already left Toronto, could the city ever lure them back, especially if they're flourishing elsewhere?

What would it take to move back?

Letovsky takes a deep breath when she considers the question. Even now, she says, she thinks of herself as a sort of dual resident, splitting her time between Alberta and Ontario. She still works a remote office job on Toronto hours; "A lot of people don't even know that I moved to Edmonton," she chuckles. But imagining a full-time future in the city is a challenge. There's the cost of living to consider, and the lifestyle. 

In Toronto, she rented both an apartment and a studio — an added expense of 600-ish dollars a month. Shared with eight other occupants, that workspace was completely off-limits during lockdown. And even in better times, getting there was tough. She'd commute there from across town, sometimes after a full day at the office. (Those things considered, Letovsky says she really only used it on weekends.) 

In Edmonton, though, she has enough space to paint from home — or, more accurately, her garage. After clocking out of the remote office, she's in there daily. And, crucially, she owns that space. Upon landing in Alberta, Letovsky and her husband bought a home. "We literally never would have been able to do that in Toronto, and probably wouldn't if or when we come back," she says. (For context, the National Bank of Canada's Housing Afforability Monitor, published earlier this month, says the median home price of a Toronto house is $1,069,111. In Edmonton, the equivalent "non-condo" property costs $422,555.)

Artist Sarah Letovsky in her Toronto studio. In the summer of 2020, Letovsky relocated to Edmonton, where she's able to paint from home in addition to working her Toronto office job remotely. (Sarah Letovsky)

"The quality of life and the cost of life is just much easier than Toronto," says Letovsky. "Honestly, living in Toronto is so prohibitive. [The cost of] studio space keeps increasing and increasing." Today, she says she's less stressed about finances, and consequently "much more productive."

The steep price associated with city living was already way beyond most artists' means, of course. Data from the 2016 Canadian longform census pegs the average artist's income at little more than $24,000 annually. Still, when Joshua LeClerc first landed in Toronto, he and his partner were hopeful that the city would be the right home for them. "We figured that there would be something there for us," says LeClerc, an artist who signs his paintings Toe Fish

To pay the bills, the couple worked in the service industry — jobs that disappeared last March. After five months of unemployment, they faced facts. "With CERB, it was definitely possible that we could stay and afford our rent," says LeClerc. "But if we're going to be in and out of lockdowns, how long can we realistically be able to afford rent and save our money? Are we just going to deplete our savings and eventually have to move away from the city, anyway?"

In the summer of 2020, they relocated to Fort St. John, LeClerc's hometown in northeastern B.C. For the time being, they're living with family, and without rent to worry about, LeClerc's gone back to school to study carpentry. "It just felt like a good move for our future," he says. 

What about community?

But will that future play out in B.C.? LeClerc says he's thriving at the moment, enjoying the easy access to nature and time with his family. "I'm really fortunate, you know, to have this change of pace from city living," he says. But so far, he hasn't found the same sense of community in Fort St. John that he discovered in Toronto — though, naturally, making IRL connections in the middle of a pandemic would be tricky no matter where you are. For her part, Letovsky says she often feels like she hasn't moved at all; she's still so connected with friends and colleagues back east that Edmonton feels like a "satellite" of Toronto.

"The pandemic has changed the way people think about geography," she says. LeClerc would agree — to a point. "I think that you can connect with community anywhere, but there's something to be said about proximity and sharing the same spaces that I'm really missing right now," he says. He talks about the neighbours who supported him, commissioning murals and paintings — and the Davenport Village coffee shop where he first showed his work. If and when Toronto springs back from COVID-19, LeClerc says he'll be returning, presuming there are arts-supporting folk who've stuck around the city.

Artist Joshua LeClerc, who signs his work Toe Fish, was living in Toronto this time last year. But five months into the pandemic, he decided to move back to his hometown in B.C. "The city is going to need some time to get back to what it was," he says. "So paying so much rent when we were essentially sitting on our front porch the entire time, not leaving our neighbourhood, not experiencing the city in the same way — it just made more sense to take a step back." (Joshua LeClerc)

In it for the long haul

Diana Reyes was thinking more long-term when she moved to Montreal this past winter. A multi-hyphenate artist, Reyes dances and DJs under the name Fly Lady Di. She grew up in the GTA. Her family's there; It's where the work's been, too. For years, she says she'd ask her agent about opportunities elsewhere in Canada, but the answer was always the same: "All the bookings are in Toronto." 

"That kind of held me to Toronto for a long time," says Reyes, even when finding a decent place to live was proving impossible. In 2019, her landlord served her with a renoviction notice, she says, and she lost her home in Little Portugal, an apartment she'd rented for roughly a decade. By the first summer of the pandemic, she was on her umpteenth interim sublet, renting a windowless room in a West Queen West condo for $1,300/month. 

"I was like, 'What am I even doing? I'm paying rent for a place where you can't even grow plants,'" she laughs.

If I'm not able to perform in Toronto, why am I going to live here and pay this much money?- Fly Lady Di, artist

In Montreal, she pays $200 less than she was in Toronto — and that gets her a brand new downtown condo she has all to herself, a crucial detail for someone who stages virtual performances from home. While live shows are off-limits, most of Reyes's gigs have moved online. "Having space of my own, that's been tremendous for me," she says.

The situation works for the time being, but Reyes moved because Montreal had always seemed attractive. In her experience, performance and rehearsal space is cheap and plentiful and audiences are receptive. She simply hadn't reached a point where she felt confident enough to make the jump. "A game-changing factor for a lot of people is, like, if I'm not able to perform in Toronto, why am I going to live here and pay this much money?" she says. She'd reached a similar crossroads.

When the world reopens, she's optimistic about the opportunities she'll find on her new home turf. "Ultimately, the decision to move [to Montreal] has generally been more conducive to me performing in a way that is fulfilling," says Reyes. "And that's the bottom line at this point."

Do you really have to be in Toronto?

Getting to this moment took months, if not years, of self-reflection. Do you have to be in Toronto to have the career you pictured for yourself? Everyone goes where the jobs are, artists included. "I have considered that greatly," says Reyes. Letovsky, too, says she's repeatedly asked herself the same question — especially this last year. 

"It was really difficult emotionally to think about moving because I grew up in Toronto. My whole community is there." 

"I always had this mentality of like, 'Oh, I have to be in Toronto to be successful in this career and to make the contacts I need to make,'" she says. "But I'm not entirely sure that's still the case."


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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