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Seeking affordability, young families flee Canada's big cities for cheaper options

People load a truck with belongings in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Young families are among the most likely to move out of the city, and that population segment is currently at a peak in Canada. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes) (The Canadian Press)

The record pandemic-era exodus from Canada’s biggest cities has barely slowed, with housing affordability magnifying other factors leading residents to move elsewhere in their provinces, an economist says.

In a recent note, BMO senior economist Robert Kavcic wrote that demographics, infrastructure and changes in work culture are factors “magnified by challenging affordability conditions in the big-city cores, with many families choosing better affordability and more space elsewhere.”

Statistics Canada data show a net intraprovincial migration — people leaving one place for another within the province — for Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver combined of just over 132,000 people in 2022–2023. That’s down from over 148,000 in 2021–2022 but far higher than pre-pandemic trends. The yearly average from 2001 through 2019 was just over 42,000.

Of course, overall, the three cities’ populations grew in 2022–2023, driven in part by an influx of non-permanent residents that has been a major factor in Canada’s recent population boom. In a release last week, Statistics Canada said Vancouver grew by 4.1 per cent, Toronto by 3.3 per cent and Montreal by 2.9 per cent.

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The trend of city dwellers getting out of town has been most pronounced in Toronto, where net intraprovincial migration was just over 93,000 in 2022–2023 and more than 100,000 in 2021–2022.

One factor in the recent spike is simple demographics, Kavcic says. Young families (where adults are in their late 20s or early 30s) are among the most likely to move out of the city, and that population segment is currently at a peak in Canada. In addition, Kavcic writes, the rise of remote or hybrid work arrangements, which gained traction during the pandemic, “has allowed bigger numbers to make such a move (even if not fully remote).”

In its release, Statistics Canada observed that residents moving out of major cities are “often reflected as net gains in smaller municipalities in their periphery, fuelling urban spread.” The trend of people migrating to the suburbs and beyond, Kavcic says, highlights the need “to make it easier to get people in and out of the big-city cores,” which could help “ease the strains” of the affordability crisis.

In an email to Yahoo Finance Canada, Kavcic says Montreal’s new REM light-rail system and Toronto’s GO expansion are steps in the right direction.

“I think we need to be thinking even further outside the core of these cities, which GO has begun to do,” he said. “Although the speed/timing probably leaves something to be desired.

“Even interconnecting a corridor like Windsor-Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal and the communities in between would be valuable (it has to be faster and more efficient than current options).”

John MacFarlane is a senior reporter at Yahoo Finance Canada. Follow him on Twitter @jmacf.

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