The little towns and villages that grew

Victor Paddy August 9 1982

The little towns and villages that grew

Victor Paddy August 9 1982

The little towns and villages that grew


Victor Paddy

Like true pioneers, Anna Redgrave and her husband, Patrick, brought only what was essential on their initial move last fall. The Betamax rode with them in the half-ton pickup, while the wine—several hundred bottles of personal European favorites—trundled behind in a UHaul. Urban refugees from Toronto, the Redgraves, both 32, had stockpiled for the rural isolation they felt awaited them in Annapolis Royal, N.S., the tiny tourist town they had decided to call home.

For eight-months-pregnant Anna, the timing was perfect. Now, less than a year later, the Redgraves have all but abandoned their city identities—Anna as a design consultant and Pat as a wine salesman—to run a New England-style bed-and-breakfast inn. And despite a “substantial decline” in their financial fortunes and a lack of capers for their Caesar salads, the two—and baby Alexandra—marvel at their good country life.

The Redgraves are not alone. Recently released Statistics Canada figures show that the landmark population shift from urban to rural and small-town Canada, first evident in the 1971-76 census, has continued substantially to 1981. In fact, from 1976 to 1981, rural growth, at 8.9 per cent, almost doubled that of urban population increases. These past two census reports interrupt the 100-year-old Canadian pattern of migration from hinterland to metropolis. This rural renaissance has swelled the nonurban population to six million, or about 800,000 more than a decade ago. The trend casts considerable doubt over the federal government’s 1971 forecast, that by the year /

2000 more than 90 per cent of Canadians would reside in urban areas, while the three cities of Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto would each bulge with populations in the tens of millions.

However, Canada’s last remaining million-population city, Montreal, with about 1.1 million in 1976, fell nearly 10 per cent to 980,354



last year (see chart).

While the exodus may be nearly imperceptible to urban dwellers, residents in the backwaters have watched their towns be transformed.

Parksville, B.C., has gone from village to provincial-city status (2,500 to 5,400) in the past three years. Shell-shocked oldtimers now mingle with a spate of young families lured to this east coast Vancouver Island community by the moderate climate, beautiful beaches and inexpensive housing. Close to 200 single-family dwellings have been built and three schools established since 1979 to accommodate the rush for small-town charm. In Coronach,

Sask., town services are under severe strain because of the influx of-

people required to construct and operate a thermal generating station there. And in unincorporated Central Ontario settlements such as Hillsburgh, a decade of urban sprawl has left country people such as Jackie Wagenaar “resigned to progress.” Wagenaar, 35, who grew up and still lives in Hillsburgh, feels no bitterness toward the threestage, 160-home subdivision that has sprouted in the village, but she regrets the resulting loss of community feeling and the deterioration of the town’s once vibrant merchant core. Modest taxes in St. Jean Chrysostome, Que., and local

industrial expansion in Sussex, N.B., have, however, brought favorable change as well, as young families revitalize the communities. Sussex, for example, recently boosted its recreation spending to an unprecedented $300,000.

Some urban geographers call the rural migration phenomenon of the 70s nothing more than the suburbanization of the countryside, the inevitable spillover of the city and, in some cases, its economy to the urban fringe and beyond. Others dignify the statistical trend as a back-to-nature movement—a mass search for the small-town quality of life—even at the expense of higher-paying jobs. For many, such as Anna Redgrave, the drive is simply to find a place where the strawfAv„£w berry or bean season is \ ¡à as consequential as the l/^T. shift from summer to Ls _2 g winter in the city.

' Like any fresh social current, however, explanations, even among experts, vary widely depending upon the speaker. Queen’s University professor Gerald

Hodge, who, with Mohammad Qadeer, is writing a book about Canada’s small towns, boldly heralds the vitality and lure of small-town Canada. Identifying towns as communities under 10,000, he argues that since 1961 they have seen increasing growth in nearly every province and region of the country. However, Neil Field, a University of Toronto geography professor who has just completed the first comprehensive analysis of domestic migration trends in Canada, questions these conclusions. His claim is that small towns have lost population to every other community size and that 62 per cent of those people in the 20-to-29-year-old age bracket left small towns in the first half of the ’70s. Though statistics are not yet available for age and migration patterns through to the end of the decade, he believes that the trend has continued. And he contends that if small towns outside a metropolitan influence are not dying, they are essentially stagnant, maintaining a population base only through natural reproduction. Larry Bourne, director of

the University of Toronto centre for urban and community studies, says that he has difficulty making any generalizations about Canada’s “our towns.” “The only thing small towns have in common is that they’re small. So what?”

What is happening, say Bourne and other experts, is much more complex and not really all that surprising. As the tremendous population expansion in the West in the past five years has demonstrated, people flock in greatest numbers to where the jobs are. Small towns nearly everywhere west of the Saskatchewan-Alberta border are burgeoning, fuelled by the energy boom of the midto late ’70s. Airdrie, Alta., for example, is the fastest-growing small town in Canada (see box). Towns within the urban shadow—up to 120 km away from a metropolitan zone—are flourishing, as commuters journey farther afield. Those beyond this shifting boundary are in decline, unless they have a specific natural resource or natural amenity to entice people.

Far more surprising is not town growth but the tremendous expansion just outside town boundaries, in clusters of unincorporated hamlets that Statistics Canada has dubbed “rural nonfarm” areas. Paul Buxton, executive director of Annapolis Royal’s development commission, has settled on 130 acres of land near the town. He notes that towns up and down the Annapolis Valley are declining in population (though not in significance), while the surrounding counties are thriving. “You can build what you like and where you like. There are no regulations,” he points out. Zoning bylaws are often several steps behind a community’s real growth, either because no planning program exists or because the cost of municipal services makes annexation prohibitive or, as in the case of Sherwood Park, Alta., because the locals want no part of incorporation. Last year Sherwood Park’s 40,000 urban homesteaders, some located on acreage developments only a few minutes’ drive from downtown Edmonton, successfully

blocked assimilation by Edmonton. Their rallying cry: “Small-town


Like suburban crabgrass, the new rurals have spread throughout the countryside, sometimes at the financial expense of nearby communities. Larry Tobin is only one of 1,000 who have left the small town of Oromocto, N.B., since 1976 in search of better housing, larger lots and lower taxes on the periphery. But though his nearly two-acre lot in a 10-house subdivision east of town is “something I’ve been looking for all my life,” it is one of 1,000 reasons why

Oromocto next year faces a $60,000 drop in tax revenue. Such economic considerations aside, Gerald Walker, professor of geography and social science at York University, says the issue of small town vs. rural nonfarm growth is academic: “What’s really going on is an extension of urbanization into the countryside.” Forces shepherding these urban wanderers, however, differ widely from person to person. Boh Helliwell, who, with his wife and two children, lives in a converted barn on Hornby Island in the Strait of Georgia, moved to this heavily forested retreat in 1974 as a personal challenge. An architectural designer, Helliwell wanted to see if he could make it professionally outside the city. Eight years later he is still on the island and has developed a local contracting business. The move, he says, has taught him how to fill his time with more substance and less of “the self-seeking diversion and entertainment of the city.”

Other professionals have attempted to follow the population shift. Joe Somfay, an architect in the town of Fergus, Ont., a stone’s throw from Elora, that quintessential gingerbread tourist town 80 km from Toronto, moved for the cheaper housing. But he warns other

professionals that it takes a while for country communities to show confidence in city upstarts: “In Elora, they say you have to be here for 150 years before you’re a local.”

For Carolyn Bather, 25, and Richard Johnstone, 30, their migration last year to the countryside about 50 km north of Toronto was a flight from big-city noise and pollution. After living on a once tranquil street in the Beaches area of Toronto, they finally gave up on the smell of the nearby generating station and the whims of insensitive neighbors.

Retirees are also moving to smalltown and rural Canada in greater numbers. From Muskoka, Ont., to Lac StJoseph, Que., an aging national population is selling its city homes and converting summer cottages into yearround dwellings. And as the agricultural land dwindles, increasing numbers of farmers are retiring to neighboring towns. Sixty-one-year-old farmer Walt Bernat of Dauphin, Man., sold his 320-acre grain farm in nearby McCreary several years ago because of a heart attack and found work as a janitor. At first he did not like working “for somebody else.” Now he says he has grown accustomed to his job and would not return to the farm, even if he could.

Companies are attracted to smalltown life for many of the same reasons people are. James Madden, eastern Canadian division manager for Bell Helicopter Textron, says his company has been visiting communities across the country, looking for the right place to establish a manufacturing facility. Besides both the easy transportation and abundant housing for the 400 to 500 workers that the plant is expected to need, Madden says it is important to keep employees entertained: “You’re

not going to get too many good people to work in Alice’s Armpit. Every province has one of those.”

Every province also has a resource town. And the 100 or so communities— fast-growing places such as Elkford, B.C., or such overnight ghost towns as Uranium City, Sask.—are generally as socially removed from Canada’s other small towns as they are geographically. Ira Robinson, University of Calgary professor of urban planning, says resource towns and the hundreds of other single-industry settlements of Canada are boom-and-bust centres, heavily populated by young, single males and given to all the social problems associated with isolation and an unbalanced sexual mix.

Adjustment problems for exurbanites in the country are often rooted in having to live with local resentment. Gordon Cohen, a 64-year-old potter in the hamlet of Salem, Ont., though pleased with his move, admits to having been “taken left and right” by local businesses when he first settled in the area. Worse, his 25-year marriage dissolved within six months of moving to Salem: “She couldn’t take the country.”

Value clashes have split many of the growing towns literally down the middle. Bond Head, Ont., the sleepy rural crossroads Q east of Toronto, woke up a decade ago to find a 110-home subdivision plunked down in an empty corner field. The nouveau country folks who arrived—commuter families from surrounding urban centres— brought the city with them, according to Rev. Herbert Bull, minister of the local Anglican church. Common-law living, drinking and noise were enough to raise more than the pitchforks of the local farmers. Even as the community has solved its difference, another subdivision is coming to town.

Though the increasing suburbanization of the country is unlikely to turn most city deserters around, some theorists wonder whether rural migration has already peaked for other reasons. Indeed, high energy costs may stall the continued demetropolitanization of the city, while the economic crunch of the past few years may starve the many small towns of Canada dependent upon a single industry for economic sustenance. According to Somfay, though, most of the damage has already been done: “It’s really a shame that we come into an area like Elora, inflate the housing prices and end up pricing the locals’ children out of the area. Some of the qualities that I came here for are disappearing.”

With files from David Folster.

David Folster