In the Canadian Atlantic, city dwellers find a welcome and a return to the fire

BONAVISTA, Newfoundland – Just a few years ago, in Bonavista, a sleepy and windswept little fishing village in Newfoundland, dozens of p...


BONAVISTA, Newfoundland – Just a few years ago, in Bonavista, a sleepy and windswept little fishing village in Newfoundland, dozens of pastel-colored heritage homes facing the sea were dilapidated and empty.

The collapse of the cod industry had caused around 1,000 residents to seek their fortunes in places like Texas, New York and oil-rich Alberta, about 4,000 miles away.

Nowadays, however, so many migrants arrive from across Canada – mostly young professionals from big cities like Toronto – that some local developers have a three-year waiting list for homebuyers.

Sam Yuen, 40, communications manager for a bank, who recently moved from Toronto to Bonavista with his partner, architect Derek McCallum, bought a three-bedroom house from the turn of the 20th century for around $ 30,000. “We love nature and the feeling of belonging here,” said Yuen.

Until recently, the Atlantic provinces of Canada suffered from such outward migration that some cities began to offering free land to attract workers. But as city life across the world has been disrupted by the coronavirus, with closures, closed bars and socially remote gyms, the scenic region is experiencing the largest in-migration in nearly 50 years.

Desperate to escape the pandemic slump and skyrocketing house prices, and energized by a global shift to remote work, the newcomers are flocking to Atlantic Canada, where they have been widely welcomed. But in the distinctive coastal region – shaped by the traditional values ​​of its indigenous peoples and Irish, Scottish, English and French settlers – the migration of wealthy city dwellers is also fueling some tensions.

Although house prices remain low compared to major urban centers, in Bonavista, with 3,752 residents, they are skyrocketing, and some local residents bemoan the higher property taxes that come with them.

The social fabric of the city has also changed. Traditional craft shops and restaurants offering fish and brewis, a local starchy dish of cod and bread, have gradually given way to the creator. sea ​​salt companies and suppliers of cumin kombucha and iceberg soap.

Bonavista, historically influenced by its churches, is now home to a growing LGBTQ community, including a bisexual mayor and a lesbian police chief, stoking some resentment among a minority over the city’s inclination towards social liberalism.

The mayor, John Norman, 36, was born in the city. Modernist with a pronounced taste for haute couture, he is nicknamed the “Baron of Bonavista”. Mr. Norman, who was recently re-elected, is known to preside over town halls in an Alexander McQueen jacket adorned with black feathers.

To help welcome newcomers, Mr. Norman, a real estate developer, is spearheading the restoration of nearly 100 homes.

“The pandemic is helping revive the city,” said Norman, who lives with his partner, Guillaume Lallier, in a 120-year-old house filled with masterpieces of Canadian art.

Rob greenwood, a regional development expert at Memorial University in St. John’s, the capital of Newfoundland, said the arrival of the “long haul,” as they are called in Newfoundland, was a boon to the community. the easternmost province of Canada. Its remoteness had historically undermined its ability to attract talent and foreign investment.

“People from elsewhere come with knowledge, networks and money,” Greenwood said.

Called “the rock” Due to its rugged coastline, the island of Newfoundland was both a British colony and an independent country before joining the Canadian Confederation in 1949. It has long prided itself on its unique culture, including distinct vernacular and bar customs, like kissing a cod to become honorary Newfoundlanders.

The courageous hospitality of Newfoundlanders was popularized Broadway Musical “Come From Away” which portrays the true story of how a small town mobilized to accommodate 6,700 travelers after 38 planes were hijacked there after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

In Newfoundland, taxi drivers greet customers with a jovial “Whaddayat? ” – “How are you?” while the province’s tourism agency promotes proud towns and villages with names like Come by Chance, Witless Bay and Dildo.

Bonavista, with a picturesque harbor and a lighthouse sitting on a black expanse of rocky cliffs, is about a three-and-a-half-hour drive from St. John’s.

“Some have called Bonavista a real Schitt’s Creek,” Mr. Norman mused, referring to the fictional town’s name in the hugely popular, Emmy-winning. Canadian series “Schitt’s Creek”. The show features a wealthy couple and their bisexual son and socialite daughter who have gone through hard times and find an unexpected sense of community in a small rural town.

For pandemic pilgrims leaving a hectic city life behind, there can be culture shock.

Mr. Yuen noted that he was one of a handful of Asian Canadians in Bonavista and missed dim sum outings in Toronto. But Bonavista has been able to achieve something few urban centers have: zero cases of Covid-19 and no lockdowns, in line with low infection rates in the region. Neighbors also stop with offerings of moose meat, while its backyard is a vast ocean.

The couple are currently commuting between Bonavista and Toronto and plan to relocate to Bonavista for good. “The pandemic has alleviated the fear of missing things at home,” Yuen said.

There were other unexpected surprises. In August, a Pentecostal preacher from Bonavista hosted an outdoor service in which he blew up a sermon over loudspeakers denouncing abortion and same-sex marriage.

The sermon, captured on video, sparked backlash and complaints. City officials, in turn, asked the church to turn down the volume. The church did not respond to requests for comment.

Some residents have also complained on social media after officials set up three rainbow-colored benches in the city to show their support for the LGBTQ community.

Mr Yuen pointed out that in Bonavista he and his partner felt warmly welcomed, but said the sermon pissed them off. “In Toronto,” he says, “we lived in a liberal bubble.

Carrie Freestone, economist at the Royal Bank of Canada, who wrote a recent report on the migratory phenomenon, said it started about five years ago and was “overfed” by the pandemic.

According to Statistics Canada, about 33,000 people from other provinces migrated to the region of 2.5 million people in the first half of this year alone, compared to about 18,500 during the same period in 2005.

Many of the newcomers are millennials, said Ms Freestone, motivated by the new Economy “You only live once”. Some were filling significant labor shortages in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Newfoundland, particularly in the technology and health care sectors .

Reg Butler, a crab fisherman whose family has been in Bonavista for five generations, gave the newcomers credit for rejuvenating the local economy after the town emptied in the 1990s following a moratorium on cod fishing. But he said a housing shortage was fueling some resentment.

“Residents are struggling to find affordable housing, and some are worried,” he said. “People from elsewhere must also adapt to our way of life. “

According to Norman, the cost of a home in Bonavista has increased, on average, by 70 percent over the past five years to reach $ 180,000. The demand for housing is so high that the city recently asked Habitat for Humanity to help it build more affordable housing.

The search for rural idylls also touches other Atlantic provinces.

Stefan Palios, a business consultant, and his partner, Marty Butler, a registered nurse, both 29, recently traded their cramped one-bedroom apartment in Toronto for an imposing seven-bedroom Victorian mansion in the tight-knit city of Windsor, Nova Scotia, which they bought last year for around $ 280,000.

This year, at least 20 people from elsewhere have settled and invested in Windsor, a former shipbuilding town of about 5,000 that claims to be the birthplace of ice hockey. A Vancouver court registry has opened a sign language interpretation business. A data analyst from Montreal analyzes the performance of a sports team. And Mr. Butler got a job as an organ transplant nurse in nearby Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia.

But the couple were also inundated with hundreds of angry messages when they started posting about home renovations on TikTok. Some Nova Scotians accused them of making housing unaffordable and told them to go home. “You are what every Nova Scotian hates right now,” one wrote.

Mr. Palios is philosophical about backlash. “People have their way of life,” he said, “and they don’t want you to come and destroy it. “

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