The pros and cons of moving to small-town Nova Scotia during the pandemic
Writer Gabrielle Drolet found an idyllic setting in Wolfville, N.S., but the grass isn't always greener
This story is part of Unlocked: Housing stories by young Canadians, a national storytelling series by the CBC Creator Network. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
Wolfville, N.S., is the kind of place you could find in a snow globe or on a postcard. Nestled in the Annapolis Valley, Wolfville is cute storefronts and little cafés, trips to the Sunday farmers' market, and walks along the dykes — the mingled smell of salt and mud in the morning. It's hiking trails and lookout views and ice cream downtown, fresh oysters from the corner pub, takeout from the Noodle Guy on a weekday night.
Wolfville is a lovely place filled with warm, kind people. For me, it also served as a stark realization that I needed to live in a city.
I moved to the little university town in September of 2020, when my then partner started school at Acadia. Like so many of us, my own plans for the year had been derailed: I was meant to move to Toronto for a master's degree, which was pushed online. With no real reason to be there, the idea of paying for Toronto rental prices suddenly seemed hard to justify.
If school was remote anyways, why not follow my girlfriend to Wolfville, where we could avoid long distance and live more comfortably?
If anything, the move seemed like an idyllic one. In the past few years, as housing in Canadian cities has become increasingly unaffordable, it's become easy to idealize small-town living, to look at real estate prices and rental units outside of the city and think, 'Why don't I live there?'
This kind of thinking has, in part, been heightened by the estheticization of non-city living, with "cottagecore" and small-town life being celebrated online. If the cost of living in a place like Toronto or Vancouver is so high, why stay? Move to the suburbs. Better yet, move out to somewhere more rural.
When I first arrived in Wolfville, I was guilty of that mindset. I'd never lived in a small town before. I grew up in Burlington, Ont., a suburban city on the edge of the Greater Toronto Area. I couldn't fully imagine what living in a town of 4,000 might be like, which made it easy to idealize. As I packed for the move, I pictured my quaint and quiet seaside life, dreaming up friendships with the locals and living room decor in my head.
We were moving from a house we shared with three other students in London, Ont., into a spacious two-bedroom apartment with the cheapest rent I've ever had. In London, we each paid $520 per month. In Wolfville, my partner and I each paid $370 for a space to call our own. As I explored the town, all bright clapboard and red brick university buildings, it was hard to believe I'd ever wanted to shell out the exorbitant rent needed to live in Toronto.
I felt that way for the first while as I relished in the charm of my new home. However, as early fall gave way to colder, greyer days, my mental health faltered.
I'm an anxious driver, and have a nerve condition that makes driving painful. This means I avoid getting behind the wheel as often as possible. In a town with little in the way of public transit, I felt physically isolated and trapped, relying on my girlfriend to go anywhere farther than a few minutes' drive. Though I could walk to the small downtown strip, the amenities there paled in comparison to what was available in the city, or even in New Minas, the next town over.
Halifax was an hour and a half drive away, meaning I rarely saw my friends and colleagues based in the city. It's worth noting that my feeling of isolation was, of course, exacerbated by a pandemic that made it difficult to meet new people locally. As I watched Instagram stories of my classmates hanging out in parks in Toronto, I felt a strong pang of longing that I quietly dismissed.
Distance from the city was a problem for more than just social reasons; there were also amenities I'd taken for granted because I'd always had access to them, ranging from late-night restaurants to community resources to a wealth of medical care options. In Wolfville, I faced a series of struggles related to health and disability, all complicated by the fact that the specialists I needed weren't anywhere nearby. In some cases, I precariously scheduled appointments around the times when I'd be able to get a ride into the city. In others, I just cancelled appointments entirely.
Smaller things slowly got to me, too. Everything closed much earlier than I was used to, meaning it often felt like there was little to do after work on weekdays. My daily mental health walks became dull, going up and down the same few streets and paths. I missed bubble tea and Indian food and other simple pleasures that weren't as easily accessible to me as they'd always been.
When I finally moved from Wolfville to Toronto the following year, my rent more than tripled. I was suddenly living in a much smaller apartment with a roommate, and stressing about monthly payments in a way I hadn't the year prior. But my quality of life also skyrocketed in a way I hadn't seen coming, and the effect on my mental health was almost immediate.
My place in Toronto was right downtown. Having access to a robust public transit system made me feel autonomous again, as did having amenities within walking distance of my apartment. I could easily walk to the pharmacy, the grocery store, even the movie theater. Being in a city with a diversity of activities, communities and neighbourhoods made all the difference, too. I also finally had access to the health-care practitioners and specialists I needed more than I realized, and was able to get appointments on the regular rather than only whenever I could get a ride.
I want to be very clear that I'm not disparaging Wolfville as a town (it's lovely), nor implying that small town life is bad for everyone (it's not). However, moving to smaller towns isn't a blanket solution to the high cost of city living in the way we sometimes think it is. Being away from the city isn't a good option for everyone — and I learned that the hard way.
We also tend to forget that the very real shift away from cities doesn't solve the affordability crisis — it just moves it around, driving up the cost of living in suburbs and rural areas and making life more difficult for locals who've always been there. This shift, sometimes referred to as an urban exodus, has been expedited by the pandemic: more than 70,000 people left Toronto for smaller pastures between mid-2020 and mid-2021, and over 43,000 left Montreal. While those leaving cities get cheaper rent, it's important to remember that the housing crisis extends itself beyond cities, impacting the same areas we view as "affordable" when we've never lived there.
While it's easy to dream of life in a cute, affordable little town, I know it isn't for me — and it shouldn't have to be. We've idealized small-town life as a way of deflecting away from a housing crisis that is already more far-reaching than we tend to realize. It's a complicated issue with complicated solutions, but they should involve government action rather than the displacement of individuals.
The cost of living comfortably in Toronto is too high to be sustainable for me. Though I could afford to live with multiple roommates, working from home full time means living alone is ideal for me. This has been especially true as the pandemic has continued on. As a disabled person, my fear of getting sick is high enough to make living with others a scary and uncomfortable prospect.
During the height of the Omicron wave, I tried to find my own place in the city. The search was grim, with most one-bedrooms or studios either being above my price range or too small to be comfortable in. My prospects were mostly $1,200-plus, dimly lit basement units far from downtown that maybe had space for a desk.
In searching for a new apartment, I knew a few things. The first was that I wanted to live alone. The second was that I needed cheaper rent. And the third — perhaps the most important — was that I needed to be in a city. The result is that I moved to Montreal, a city where my own place with sustainable rent can be a reality (though it's facing its own housing crisis, too).
I wish I could have stayed in Toronto for longer. I'm sure there are countless ways I could have made it work, but none of them felt sustainable for me. At 24, I want to live in a space I can call my own and settle into for at least a few years, which didn't seem possible there. I want an apartment I don't need to overwork myself to afford, and I don't want rent to be at the back of my mind in every decision I make. Though I loved living in Toronto, I hated thinking about the cost of my apartment every time I went out or made a small purchase.
Housing is a scary, uncertain thing. At the very least, I know I'll be happier in Montreal than I would be in a small town — and that's something I can feel sure about.
This story is part of Unlocked: Housing stories by young Canadians, a national storytelling series by the CBC Creator Network. These personal stories, produced primarily by Gen Zs and Millennials, reveal the challenges young Canadians face finding affordable housing, their creative solutions and their hopes for the future.