Even in an 'affordable' Canadian city, cost-of-living squeeze has people putting pressure on politicians

Cost of living is a major federal election issue, even in communities like Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu where people are still feeling the financial pinch despite daily expenses that are notably lower than the Canadian average.

Cost of living is a big federal election issue, even in places where daily expenses are lower than average

Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu resident Anais Buro says even though her community is rated as one of the most affordable in Canada, after paying for everyday necessities 'it feels like there's not much left.' (CBC)

Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu lies on the banks of a picturesque river about half an hour's drive from Montreal, its main street a collection of charming cafes and historic storefronts. There are many lists of Canada's most affordable cities based on different criteria, and Saint-Jean ends up on nearly every one — but even so, people are feeling the pinch.

That's because the cost of living in this "affordable" city of nearly 100,000 is still only 3 per cent below the national average, according to figures compiled by global relocation firm Salary Expert.

"Anxiety about the cost of living consistently polls as one of the top issues in this campaign," says CBC political analyst Eric Grenier. "Canadians report concern over the cost of groceries and fuel in particular."

Household expenses for the average Canadian have been climbing, from food and fuel to house prices and rent. For every dollar Canadians earn they owe an average of $1.77, and that debt continues to grow. All of which is making cost of living a big issue heading into the federal election, according to a CBC-commissioned poll.

That's the case even in this Quebec community, where residents typically face less financial pressure than many of their fellow Canadians.

  • WATCH: The story about how cost-of-living issues play into the federal election, Sunday night on The National on CBC Television and streamed online

Small edge

On the surface, much about Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu is unremarkable. The median age is 42, compared to Canada's 41. Individual income averages $34,058, about $150 less than the rest of the country.

Ultimately, though, it comes down not just to how much you make but how much you spend, and this community has a small edge.

"We have low housing prices," says city councillor Maryline Charbonneau. "A high quality of life that is still affordable."

Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu city councillor Maryline Charbonneau says low housing prices are one of her community's big economic advantages over other towns. (CBC)

The average home purchase price in the community is $315,000 compared to the Canadian average of $480,000.

High employment rates help to make the home-price-to-household-income ratio 4.24, half of what it is in many other major centres. That makes home ownership an option earlier in life, plus paying off the mortgage possible much sooner, allowing residents to allocate more of their income to other expenses or savings.

It's an economic advantage many residents are well aware of. Anais Buro has lived in many places and the most recent of her 22 moves was to this community, and when asked if she'll ever move again her reply is a very direct: "Hopefully not!"

Other costs are low, too. Saint-Jean borders vast farmland that supplies inexpensive fresh produce four months of the year.

Plus, child care is not a crushing expense, due to large provincial subsidies. At most, people like Buro would pay $21.95 a day per child, though it can be as low as $8.05. In other provinces, daycare rates are at least double, if spots are even available.

"I think it's really sad to think that families have to worry so much," says Buro of places where daycare is more expensive and harder to find. "We've heard of families [in other provinces] who waited till the first child was in school before they had a second. That's something we don't even think about here."

Buro and her family pick up some local corn. Fresh, low-cost local produce is one of the things that helps Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu make it onto lists of Canada's most affordable communities. But at least some of those savings are eaten up by high taxes and transportation costs. (CBC)

The majority of those who live in the French-speaking community also work here, making the commute not only easy, but coming home for lunch a routine.

For those who don't work locally, the city has a busy and sleek bus terminal, with 40-minute dedicated-lane service to downtown Montreal. Regular commuters pay as little as $8 roundtrip. A comparable ride on neighbouring southern Ontario's GO Transit runs $18.

And since residents live outside a major city but far enough to not be considered a suburb, car insurance rates are lower than in many comparable communities. 

Of course, even Saint-Jean is not a utopia.

"Public transport is not that accessible, especially for people not going downtown," says Buro. "So we have to have two cars just to get around. Once we've paid for that it feels like there's not much left."

Councillor Charbonneau commutes daily to Montreal, but admits she'd like to see government invest more in transit and "put more money into other forms of active transportation" to allow residents to move easily without using their cars through the city.

Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu has fast bus access to nearby Montreal for commuters, but some complain that local bus service is poor and requires many families to have cars to get around. (CBC)

Quebec continues to offer generous rebates on the purchases of new electric vehicles, but for those who still can't afford one, gas prices are among the nation's highest — often 12 cents more than next door in Ontario.

And all the services and incentives need to be paid for, which explains why Quebecers have shouldered the highest total tax burden in the country since 1982. Taxes are, by far, the single largest expenditure of any family.

An individual living in Quebec earning $50,000 would pay $10,380 in combined federal and provincial tax, according to a tax calculator developed by Thomson Reuters. In Ontario, the burden would be $8,660 or the Yukon, $8,309.

"We feel like we're being taxed like we're in the higher levels, although we are considered middle class," Buro adds.

Common worries

All of which leaves Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu just slightly ahead of most other Canadian communities when it comes to cost of living. And that has residents paying attention to what the federal parties vying to lead the country in the upcoming election plan to do in terms of reducing the overhead.

And if those in one of Canada's most affordable cities are feeling the financial squeeze, imagine other parts of the country, particularly the Greater Toronto Area and B.C.'s Lower Mainland where living costs in nearly all categories have been on the rise for years, even as income has failed to keep pace.

Housing prices increased 44 per cent nationally between 2013 and 2018, for example.

Property taxes have also shifted northwards as provinces from coast to coast have downloaded responsibilities (and the costs that go with them) to towns and municipalities.

With various polls pointing to the rising cost of living as a primary concern of voters heading into the next election, the parties have taken note, says Eric Grenier.

"The Conservatives have made it the centrepiece of their campaign, while the New Democrats are also trying to capitalize on that anxiety and concerns about income inequality."

The Liberals, meanwhile, are pointing to housing policy changes, including a program to provide first-time buyers with 5 per cent towards the purchase of a home.

Many across the country, even in "most affordable" Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, indicate they'll be looking for a candidate, party or leader who can help improve their financial situation. In CBC's poll, for example, one-third of Canadians surveyed said it was their No. 1 concern.

"Family issues are most important to me for the election," a Saint-Jean resident told CBC News while out with her family at an annual end-of-summer fair.

Many families that CBC News spoke to at this end-of-summer festival in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu said that their federal election vote would be swayed by parties with concrete plans for freezing or lowering the costs of daily life. (CBC)

Meanwhile, some in Saint-Jean say they would settle for a government that has a plan to at least slow the rising costs of daily life.

"Anybody who's going to help us maintain this quality of life is definitely going to have our vote," says Buro.

And with that, she returns to her backyard chickens, collecting the eggs they produce for her daily. Sometimes it's the less tangible benefits that make a place desirable.