Northeastern Ontario cities campaign to woo Toronto-area residents
Cities like Sudbury promote the outdoors, cheaper real estate to people in southern Ontario
As businesses have accommodated employees who want to work from home, Luke Stratford got to live out his dream and move to northern Ontario.
Stratford emigrated to Canada from the United Kingdom and settled in Toronto in September 2019.
"For the first six months, things were great and I had a lot of fun," he said. "And then the pandemic happened."
Stratford grew up in a small town, and said his life in Toronto felt invasive after the pandemic started.
"One day I had police asking why I was out walking my dog, because we have a stay-at-home order," he said.
To complicate matters, the company he worked for in Toronto had to make cutbacks due to the pandemic, and he was laid off.
Stratford landed a new job with Collage, a company that helps businesses in Canada and abroad manage their payroll.
The position allowed him to work from home.
"With technology now, it's just getting so easy to work remotely," he said. "I think there will be some businesses that will hold on to doing things traditionally, but I think they're going to be less and less as things go on and hybrid working is probably going to be the most common route now for work."
In July 2020, he moved to the community of Chelmsford in Greater Sudbury.
"There's going to be now just a whole generation of people who are looking to get out of that lifestyle now," Stratford said. "City life isn't going to be as attractive as it used to be, because the pandemic has made us appreciate those little things a little bit more."
Some municipalities in northeastern Ontario hope Stratford's conclusions are correct.
North Bay, Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie are among cities that have launched campaigns to attract southern Ontario residents who want to escape from larger urban centres.
North Bay 'lifestyle is 2nd to none'
In North Bay, the city's Move Up campaign targets residents around the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), and promotes the lower cost of real estate, the great outdoors and a family-friendly lifestyle.
"We're pro-business, welcome development and investment, and our lifestyle is second to none," said North Bay Mayor Al McDonald. "If you want open space, we have lots of open space with the lakes, the ski hill in the centre of town, a college, a university, a 10,000-foot [3,000-metre] runway, all the amenities that we can sell."
McDonald said the pandemic presented an opportunity for North Bay to campaign in southern Ontario and attract people who can move north because their employer allows them to work from home.
Demographic changes, including higher mortality and lower birth rates, have made it a big priority for cities like North Bay to attract people from more populated centres in Canada and around the world.
"Unless you attract individuals north to northern Ontario, and I'll speak specifically to North Bay, your population is naturally going to decline," McDonald said. "And what does that mean? Well, there's less people to support the local businesses, less people to buy houses, less money to provide the services that you need to provide citizens."
Selling 'exceptional quality of life'
Greater Sudbury has launched a similar campaign, called Hit Refresh.
Some of its ad images contrast life in Toronto to life in Sudbury. One ad shows Toronto gridlock and an image of Sudbury's Paris Street Bridge, where the traffic flows more freely.
Another ad has a grey image taken from a Toronto condo, and next to it is an image of large homes along Sudbury's Ramsey Lake.
"The goal of the Hit Refresh campaign is to leverage our exceptional quality of life in Sudbury and competitive advantages, to encourage workers to move here," said Brett Williamson, the city's director of economic development.
"The target audience for the first phase of the Hit Refresh initiative are those active in the labour force who reside in Ontario's highest population density and highest cost of housing markets, and who are looking for a better quality of life."
It's good to breathe new life into the island. But I think the speed at which it's happening is causing some disruption that I think in the long term will not easily be reversed.- Malene Brynildsen, Manitoulin Island resident
In Sault Ste. Marie, the Adventure Pass is an initiative that helps newcomers take advantage of the outdoor activities available in the Algoma region.
"Newcomers are able to choose their adventure and their activities," said Tom Vair, the city's deputy chief administrative officer (CAO) of community development and enterprise services.
The city has already helped 18 newcomers take part in outdoor activities for free, with access to equipment and passes to fishing and canoe tours.
Because these campaigns are so new, the cities have said they do not yet have numbers to report on their success. But they believe they're selling a lifestyle that has become more attractive to many people from larger urban centres.
Sweta Regmi is a career consultant and the founder and chief executive officer of Teachndo. She moved from Toronto to Sudbury in June 2018 because she saw an opportunity in northeastern Ontario.
But she said both employers and municipalities need to do more to accommodate people who can work from home.
"What are the consequences of not having good internet? You know, in the North, there's not much competition out here when it comes to internet service providers," she said.
She said some companies are better than others when it comes to accommodating employees who work from home. Regmi said they should consider incentives to help with home internet costs and purchasing equipment that will help employees be more productive. That can range from standup desks to a second computer monitor.
Preserving that northern charm
Malene Brynildsen moved from Toronto to Providence Bay, on Manitoulin Island, in 2017, and works as a freelance translator.
She moved for a slower pace of life, but said she worries bringing in too many people might change that lifestyle.
"It's definitely changing the fabric of the island," she said. "And I'm not going to say it's all doom and gloom because it isn't. It's good to breathe new life into the island. But I think the speed at which it's happening is causing some disruption that I think in the long term will not easily be reversed."
Brynildsen said small communities like Providence Bay don't have the services people from larger centres have come to expect.
"We don't have public transport on the island, and that's problematic."
Brynildsen said communities in northeastern Ontario should plan ahead for growth and be sure they have the services to accommodate newcomers.