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Are we heading for an urban exodus?

The unprecedented public health crisis we are currently experiencing will undoubtedly have long-term consequences on people’s lives. The trend of rural migration to urban areas, as observed in countries in the midst of the Industrial Revolution (18th century in Europe and North America) and ongoing (young adults not finding work in the countryside leaving for the city) may be slowing. Could the COVID-19 pandemic have something to do with it?

What if young urban families are suddenly tired of living with crowded public transportation, cramped condos, parks and crowded streets? Is it possible that an urban exodus is brewing?

For Steven Latulipe, a Valley real estate agent for 28 years, it’s fairly obvious; he has never before seen such a demand for the farmhouses and properties in the region. “We’ve got a renowned Pilates instructor who just bought in Elgin, and a celebrity chef in Dundee.” According to Latulipe, who knows the area well, you can still buy farmland and hobby farms at affordable prices.

The Valley is rural and peaceful and close to Montreal, which attracts people who are selling their property in the city and looking for a larger home with a sizable lot. Latulipe has sold more than a dozen properties in a few weeks, which suggests to him that we are experiencing, for the moment at least, a certain exodus to the Quebec countryside.

COVID has also prompted a massive shift in mentality for public and private companies; working from home can actually work. As a result, distance is becoming less of an obstacle and more people are thinking about moving out of urban areas. Such is the case for Amélie and her husband, in their 30s and without children, who work in the service industry and have just put their duplex in the heart of Montreal up for sale.

“We’ve been thinking about it for over three years, but it’s been too far away. [Now, though,] my employer is willing to accommodate me if I leave the city. I’d work three days at home and two at the office. So, it’s decided, we’re leaving!” The couple is looking at houses in the Valley because the distance to Montreal is “reasonable.” They’ve already visited a farmhouse in Howick. “It’s always been my dream, to have chickens and a goat,” Amélie adds enthusiastically.

For those without an accommodating employer, such a move can be complicated. Finding a job that lives up to expectations can sometimes be difficult. In the city, people have more choice and can change jobs every two to three years when they want to move on. In the country, people tend to keep their jobs, there is less movement, and fewer opportunities as well due to smaller populations and fewer businesses in general.

Access to services can also be a challenge. As we know, many essential services are moving away from rural areas to be near more urban centres, such as Valleyfield, Vaudreuil, and Chateauguay. This is the case, for example, with the Centre Mère-Enfant de Valleyfield, which is to be relocated to the new hospital in Vaudreuil.

While wealthy families often own a second home or cottage outside of the city, the phenomenon of middle-class individuals and families leaving their homes in the city to settle permanently in the country is relatively new.

“The quality of life in the city — especially with young children — is almost non-existent,” says Alexandra, a mother of three young children who recently left Montreal North for the Eastern Townships. “Shopping, school, daycare, work, going out … there’s so much stress and pressure,” she sighs.

For Fabienne Dréan Le Gad, who is in charge of the “Place aux jeunes” program at the MRC du Haut-Saint-Laurent, a movement toward settling in the countryside is entirely conceivable, even if several challenges stand in the way of an exodus. “Already, there is a housing problem. People who arrive here don’t always have the means to buy a house right away,” Dréan Le Gad explains.

According to the migration officer, transportation and daycare services are the other major issues preventing families from settling in the Haut-Saint-Laurent. “And living in the Haut-Saint-Laurent requires a certain humility,” she adds. “Here, there are no luxury services like in the city. People have to be able to make concessions in terms of services as well as salaries,” she admits.

The region does need workers, however there are not many positions for skilled professionals, Dréan Le Gad says. “But there’s nothing stopping a motivated person from proving himself and moving up the ladder with a local company.”

The challenges are real, but they likely won’t stop those who, exasperated by increasingly densely populated urban areas, are looking for a peaceful place to live. “Those who are ready to leave will leave,” concludes Alexandra, the mother who recently moved to the countryside.

Is the Valley ready to receive an influx of people? “Ten families, no,” says Dréan Le Gad. “But two or three at a time, yes!”

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