Monday, March 31, 2008

Moving to the Country

Had enough of the big city? Head for the hills!

By Alex Roslin
Good Times

April 2008

Harry Yates calls himself a city boy “from top to bottom.” Born to the crammed streets of Glasgow, he has lived in some of the world’s major metropolises—London, Paris, Munich, Bangkok—and worked as an ad writer in the pressure cooker of New York’s Madison Avenue.

The last thing this self-described “nature hater” ever thought he’d do was give it all up at age 68 and move to a drowsy village of barely 5,000 souls tucked away amid the cow pies, braying horses and dirt backroads of Quebec’s Eastern Townships. But after years of gentle cajoling from his wife, Monique, a Quebecer born in the province’s northerly Abitibi region, he agreed to move to the country. Monique’s goal, he says, was “creating a field of memory that will forever sustain our children and grandchildren with an abiding sense of place.” It sounded charming, but Yates was dubious.

Yet, after finding a beauty of a house (Yates describes it as “walking into a hug”) on a wooded 4.5-hectare (11-acre) lot near picturesque Lake Brome and the charming historic village of Knowlton, he quickly warm to life as a country squire.

The first thing he did after the movers left was head to a local pub, where he met a plasma physicist, a wild boar farmer, an airline pilot, a maple syrup mogul, a fashion model, and numerous locals, all “swapping fascinating yarns about the right way to install septic tanks,” he writes in a book he wrote about his experiences, Knowlton Chronicles: How My Wife Made Me Move to the Country Even Though I Hate Nature.

The book, which came out last fall, is a look at “the good and the bad, the sour and the sublime,” as he puts it, of moving to the “sticks,” written for the cavalcade of babyboomers and retired Canadians contemplating the same journey.

It’s a Trend

Yates is part of a country-wide renaissance of back-to-the-landers who are transforming rural Canada. They’re 50 years and up, and they’ve had it with the bad air, noise, and traffic of the big city. “As boomers age, they’re going to be moving out of the suburbs to places like this—Knowlton—or to the city core,” Yates says, as we sit in a village café overlooking a pretty pond where the occasional heron or duck alights.

The new back-to-the-landers aren’t the long-haired twentysomething hippies of the ‘60s. Many have grandkids and want to host them in a bucolic setting with lots of space and nature’s beauty all around. Others are still working but are tired of the go-go city pace; these folks are able to work at home or willing to put up with a longer commute. Some fortunate ones maintain two homes, living in the country most of the week but heading back into the city when they need some adventure.

Demographers are just starting to tweak to the trend. New research shows the back-to-the-land trend is actually repopulating some rural areas. According to a Statistics Canada study of urban-rural migration released last April, Canada’s three largest cities—Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver—lost almost 10 per cent of their population to interregional migration between 1996 and 2001, while rural areas within commuting distance of those centres gained 35 per cent.

Baby boomers make up the single biggest group of newcomers to the country, second only to 30-year-olds with small kids in tow. Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver lost about 30,000 people aged 55 to 64 from 1996 to 2001, while rural zones gained the same number. And as the Canadian population ages, a huge number of boomers are racing off to the country. Already, the highest ratio of retirement-age people can be found in a rural belt just outside the regular commuting range of the big cities. In this zone, 15 per cent of residents are 65 years old and up, compared to 11 per cent in the big three cities, Statistics Canada says.

“People are leaving to go beyond the cities before retirement,” says Jean-François Lachance, a demographer at the Quebec government’s statistics institute. “We hadn’t noticed this trend before.”

Lachance and his colleagues are studying the exodus with the help of newly available data on address changes in Quebec health-insurance records. The found large Quebec cities had a net loss of 2.1 per cent of their residents aged 54 to 56 due to migration to other areas between 1995 and 2005, while rural areas and small villages gained 7.4 per cent.

On the Move

The same thing is happening across the country. On the picturesque Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, boomers are pouring into Powell River, a 20,000-resident timber-and-fishing outpost that’s a five-hour car-and-ferry trip north of Vancouver, says Vicky Needham, a local real-estate agent.

Over 60 percent of Needham’s clients are out-of-towners, and almost all are in their 50s and 60s. “It’s huge,” she says. “They’re just tired of the big city life. They want a more relaxed lifestyle.” Most aren’t yet retired and are either able to work at home or locally as teachers, police officers or other professional jobs. Some keep a pied-à-terre in Vancouver and commute by plane—a 20-minute flight, which, Needham says, “costs less than what it does to park for a week in Vancouver.”

Another reason for making the move: galloping city house prices. “Prices here are still very reasonable,” Needham says. “A lot of people sell their house in Vancouver for $600,000 or $700,000 and get one here for $300,000 with an ocean view.”

Tom Cruickshank, 53, editor of the magazine Harrowsmith County Life, sees the same changes in his neck of the woods in Bewdley, ON, a tiny hamlet 90 minutes east of Toronto. In 2000, he moved with his wife into a 111-year-old Victorian house on a 30-hectare (75-acre) hobby farm. Cruickshank is a city boy who lived for years in Toronto and Montreal, but he now raises chickens and sheep and works from home. “I like that I can set my own pace. The simplicity of day-to-day life is the big reward. I had a romance with it,” he says.

He’s noticing an influx of like-minded city slickers—most of them aged 45 and up and still working. Many commute to Toronto every day by VIA Rail. “Eventually, they find a job out here or a way to work at home.”

Retirees also make up a large portion of the back-to-the-landers. John Lines, 75, and his wife Helen, 72, settled in an idyllic spot after John retired in 1991—a 5,200-square-foot house in secluded Upper Cape, NB, with ocean frontage on Baie Vert and a spectacular view of Nova Scotia across the water.

The house was originally built by Helen’s ancestors about 200 years ago—near as anyone can guess—and it has been in her family since. The original dwelling had only two rooms, but successive generations added rooms as the family grew. “It’s sort of a living museum,” Helen says.

John, born in Toronto, was far from being a country person. The couple had lived in many of Canada’s biggest cities where he had been stationed during a 32-year career in the military. “Our friends thought we were crazy” to move to a remote corner of New Brunswick, he says. “Now when they pass through, they say they understand.”

“It helps keep the family together. Our children come to stay over with our grandchildren. That’s important to me,” Helen says.

The invasion of city folks is changing parts of rural Canada, repopulating some areas that were hard-hit by an exodus of people. In Powell River, employment at the local pulp-and-paper mill has declined from 2,000 in its heyday to just 600 today, but the community has been revitalized by the arrival of the boomers, Needham says.

In Quebec, a mass flight from resource-dependent regions like Lac St. Jean and the Gaspé is being partly offset by city dwellers moving to other areas, like the Laurentians and Eastern Townships.

The new arrivals are also helping to foster diversity and breathe new life into their adopted communities. In Power River, many are settling in an older, once-rundown neighbourhood where they are refurbishing the historic character homes. “It’s been great for the city,” Needham says.

Weighing the Pros and Cons

So what’s life like for the country squire? There are some important cons you should weigh alongside the pros before you head off to the land of pickups and honey.

If you’re used to a city where you can walk a lot of places, a big change is at hand. You’ll be burning gas to visit friends, go shopping and maybe even pick up your mail at the community postbox or post office.

That was one of the hardest adjustments for Harry Yates. He sighs as he talks about how he loved strolls in his former neighbourhoods in Montreal and New York. Worse, he and his wife needed to get a second car when they moved to the country. “You’re tied to a car,” he says.

Another problem in many farflung areas: health care. Vicky Needham says the lack of medical specialists in her isolated town has been an obstacle stopping some retired people from coming.

Yates, now 74, is starting to think about his medical needs, too. That’s one reason he and his wife rented a pied-à-terre in Montreal this fall, after six years in Knowlton. The apartment brings them closer access to medical help Yates may need as he gets older.

The other reason for getting the apartment: while Yates adores his country hideaway and village life, the city still runs deep in his veins, and he occasionally yearns for an extravagant lunch at a chic city bistro or a stroll in Old Montreal.

“Country living is not for everyone,” says John Lines. “I wouldn’t advocate this for someone who loves the excitement of the city.”

If you can afford it, he suggests, do what he and his wife did: hold onto your city place for a while when you move to the country, just in case you don’t like it.

In the plus column: your new neighbours. “I never had a problem making friends anywhere I went,” Yates says, “but it’s easier here because people come up and say, ‘Oh, you’re the new guy. I’m so-and-so.’” Needham agrees: “Anyone who moves here says they can’t believe how friendly it is.”

Cultural and ethnic homogeneity can be a drawback in much of rural Canada, but there are many pockets with flourishing diversity. Power River has a large Italian minority—descendants of workers who came to work in the mill in the 1920s and ‘30s. Other farflung areas boast a strong First Nations presence, including museums, historical sites, and eco-tourism.

John Lines says his area of New Brunswick is full of cultural events, including the arts scene in the university town of Sackville, whereas it was Ottawa, in fact, that he felt was “very insular.”

What about fitting in? In much of rural Canada, the locals go back five or six generations—and much more in the case of Aboriginal residents. Do they look kindly on newcomers?

“I’m from away, and I’ll always be from away,” Lines says. “If I suggest something should be changed, people will say, ‘What do you know? You’re from away.’ You have to work your way into the community. It’s not a given.”

Lines’s solution: volunteering. Having worked as a structural engineer, he pitched in to oversee the refurbishing of a 180-year-old stone house for a local historical society museum—a six-year undertaking. “I figure it’s now payback. It’s my turn to give something back.”

For Yates, the biggest worry isn’t fitting in with the local people—his answer was to head to the village pub, where he made friends arm-bending in no-time—but the local critters. Six years of rural living still haven’t put him quite at ease about the creatures of the forest, from skunks on up to cougars. As he shows me around his property, he stops by a pretty stream and gazes fearfully at the woods on the other side, filled, he is sure, with bears, coyotes and moose just waiting to do him in.

“I’m still a bit leery of wildlife waiting for me in the driveway when I come home,” he says, laughing. But he says he hopes his grandchildren won’t inherit his “weird perturbations,” having experienced at his little country slice of heaven what Shakespeare called “a green thought in a green shade.”

[TAGS: Country living, retirement, baby boomers, Eastern Townships, Knowlton]

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