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Allison Hanes: As Quebecers flock to small towns, what are the implications?

The Institut de la statistique du Québec has revised its population projections for the next 20 years to reflect shifting patterns driven by the pandemic.

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The lure of greener pastures has been strong for Montrealers during the pandemic. And it looks like the draw of country living will continue well into the future.

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City dwellers fled urban areas in droves after the first wave of COVID-19 to escape confinement in tight quarters, get closer to nature, find yards for their pandemic puppies and gain square footage for their home offices. They also went in search of affordability, as Montreal’s real estate prices soared sky high in response to pent-up demand after restrictions from the first lockdown were lifted.

Although Montreal had long sought to counter the exodus of families from the city to the suburbs, data from the 2021 census confirmed anecdotal evidence many are now moving much further afield.

The Institut de la statistique du Québec has revised its population projections for the next 20 years to reflect shifting patterns driven by the pandemic. While its forecast for Quebec as a whole remains steady, it has downgraded expected growth in Montreal and Laval while increasing its estimates for regions beyond the metropolitan area.

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That doesn’t mean it expects the city to empty out — far from it. But the ISQ does predict more modest growth of about three per cent on the island of Montreal between 2021 and 2041, compared to 10 per cent for the wider region.

It’s the small towns in what was once cottage country that are now set to see the biggest boosts. The Laurentians are expected to experience a population boom in the neighborhood of 21 per cent. The Lanaudière, Montérégie and Eastern Townships are anticipated to see their numbers swell between 16 and 17 per cent.

Recent census data show this is already happening. Idyllic ski towns like Bromont and Ste-Agathe-des-Monts have been among the fastest-growing communities in Quebec over the past two years. Similarly, the Blue Mountain resort town in Ontario, British Columbia’s stunning Gulf Islands and seaside villages in Nova Scotia have received an unexpected influx of new residents, showing this is a national phenomenon.

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Untethered from the office, many families decamped for their chalet — permanently — embracing a major lifestyle change that wouldn’t have been feasible before remote and hybrid work.

Big centers like Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver are still growing, of course. They remain magnets for new immigrants and young adults like university students, who more than replenish the departures. But the number of folks flocking to pastoral settings seems to buck the worldwide trend of migration to cities.

Meanwhile, the decline in more distant communities that was occurring before COVID-19 is still taking place in regions like the Côte-Nord, Îles de la Madeleine and Saguenay—Lac-St-Jean.

Among the factors the ISQ considers for its projections are birth rates, death rates and immigration. While new arrivals from abroad had dropped dramatically during the pandemic, levels are rebounding and are set to stabilize in coming years. Thus it’s movement of Quebecers within the province that is the most significant indicator prompting the adjustment of the 20-year horizon.

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The analysis is intended to help government and municipalities plan for the future. Indeed, many communities that have proven to be popular destinations for city dwellers have been caught off guard by their arrival. The vacancy rate in towns like St-Donat has tightened, making it difficult to find a rental unit these days. Competition in the hot real estate market also pushed prices up for locals.

Schools that once had dwindling student populations may have benefited from the arrival of new families, but may not have all the resources needed to serve them. Regional hospitals are struggling with more patients amid staff shortages. Some have had to close emergency rooms temporarily.

Besides putting pressure on infrastructure and public services in smaller centers, the environmental impact must be evaluated. Outside the Communauté métropolitaine de Montréal, public transit is limited. And while the body representing 82 municipalities in Greater Montreal has been working to increase density and protect green space from development, communities further afield must do their part to rein in even greater sprawl that compromises nature, encourages car use and exacerbates climate change.

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The ISQ warns its projections aren’t carved in stone, though. No crystal ball could have predicted the surprising effects of the pandemic on people’s daily lives. So it’s impossible to know if other unforeseen happenings could upend the calculations all over again.

Already, a cooling housing market, rising interest rates and talk of a recession are storm clouds that could alter the course set by the lingering pandemic. But it would take a major event to have as quick and significant an impact on demographics.

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