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Lured by jobs, cheaper accommodation, better access to nature and safer streets, Toronto’s artists and culture workers are leaving the province
Last year, I wrote a NOW cover story about how, six months into the pandemic, many creative people were leaving Toronto for smaller towns. Unemployment was high, the eviction moratorium had ended and everything that made the city so great – restaurants, culture, festivals and sports – had been put on pause.
A year and a couple more lockdowns later, the same exodus is continuing. But instead of relocating to towns in Ontario – places where they could easily travel, if need be, into Toronto – a new crop of people is leaving the province altogether for other cities: Halifax, Vancouver, Calgary.
A city is partly defined by its artists and culture workers. But the fact that life as we know it has been put on hold has forced many of those creative types to look for other things: a better work/life balance, greater access to nature, a more sustainable way of life.
“We’re paying the same amount for a two-bedroom apartment here that we were for a one bedroom in Toronto,” says Nancy Kenny, a Toronto writer, actor and producer who left for Halifax in July.
“And we have so much more space. Outside, there is water everywhere. The beaches are amazing.”
Holly Meyer-Dymny, a theatre and film designer, and her partner Kevin Olson, a theatre stage manager, moved to Halifax almost a year ago after having Toronto as a base nearly all their lives. And they agree the proximity to nature is a big plus.
“We’re really, really close to the woods,” says Meyer-Dymny. “In Toronto you have to drive two or three hours to get to some kind of substantial hike. From where we are right now, we’re a four-minute drive to downtown. Within 10 minutes, I can be at two massive provincial parks and a sea wall.”
Halifax and Dartmouth area realtor Chris Peters estimates Royal LePage Atlantic has sold about a third of its properties to folks from Ontario. One of the obvious draws is the affordability – the cost of a house in Halifax is approximately $460,000, about half what you’d currently pay in Toronto.
Peters, who moved to Nova Scotia from Toronto in 2004, currently lives with his wife in Eastern Passage, a small fishing community just outside Dartmouth.
“Dartmouth has been called the city of lakes, because wherever you are, you’re not more than five minutes away from a body of water – a lake or the ocean,” he says. “You also have kilometres of various natural pathways and trails.”
Access to nature is one thing. But what about access to jobs, especially in the creative industries?
In Toronto, Kenny, a Fringe circuit veteran, workshopped a new play this year at Theatre Passe Muraille and took part in a reading of a new play at the Tarragon. With theatres closed, she pivoted to more TV and film, auditioning for commercials and one-line parts in TV.
“In Halifax, with all the series shooting here, I’m auditioning for series regular roles, stuff that’s a lot juicier and more interesting,” she says. “Two casting directors here know who I am and regularly call me in to audition.”
Before their move, both Meyer-Dymny and Olson had worked in theatre in the Maritimes. And while some of their contracts had to be postponed or cancelled because of the pandemic, they can both easily pivot to film and television.
The Halifax TV and film industry is booming. Peters says one of the reasons why so many shows are taped there is because of the location variety: you have quick access to downtown areas but also rural areas and fishing villages.
Meyer-Dymny and Olson say there was a wonderful community spirit around following COVID-19 protocols.
“You felt the community pulling together, there was this real collective spirit,” says Meyer-Dymny. That’s in contrast to her Toronto neighbourhood of Little Italy, where she was scared of walking around Trinity Bellwoods Park and the neighbouring cafes because they were so crowded.
Maytal Kowalski lived in Toronto since 2002. She works in digital and traditional marketing for charities and nonprofits; she’s also a circus artist. Last December she got hired for a job in Vancouver, and she and her husband – who’s in the hospitality industry – moved there in March. They couldn’t be happier.
Although the Vancouver cost of living is comparable to Toronto’s, she says there’s so much more to do – especially during lockdown.
“With Toronto, you can normally do a lot, but last year I kept thinking, ‘Why am I paying so much rent to live in a place where all the stuff I’m supposed to be able to do I can no longer do’?” she says. “At least in Vancouver, there’s the outdoors. We hike every weekend, and when it’s hot we go to lakes or the beach. Later today, I’m going stand-up paddle boarding.”
Kowalski, an avid cyclist, still gets stressed remembering her daily commute from Bloor and High Park to Front and Sherbourne, navigating streetcar tracks, hazardous left turns and the very serious possibility of getting doored.
In the five months she’s lived in Vancouver, she’s biked a lot, and she hasn’t once had to ding her bell.
“Vancouver isn’t the Netherlands, it’s still a very car-centric city,” she says, “but they have so much more cycling infrastructure.”
If there’s someone who took full advantage of Toronto’s cultural scene, it was theatre critic and arts reporter Carly Maga. A writer for the Toronto Star for the past six years, she regularly took in more than a hundred live shows a year.
Even before the pandemic, she had been thinking about leaving downtown Toronto.
“I realized I didn’t need all the stuff that downtown offered,” says Maga, who relocated with her partner to Calgary in the spring, where she’s senior manager, marketing and communications at Arts Commons, the city’s main performance arts centre.
“I didn’t need a million new restaurants, and I was interested in buying property, but I couldn’t afford to buy downtown,” says Maga, who moved from Ottawa to Toronto in 2006 to attend university.
“I was thinking of moving out of the core to a place like Hamilton, for instance. And then the pandemic happened, and I didn’t want to buy anything while it was on. That slowed things down.”
Ironically, slowing down turned out to be a good thing. And it made the idea of moving more approachable and tangible.
“In our field [theatre], you get in this rhythm where it’s really hard to stop,” she says. “You look forward to things so much and think, ‘Oh, I can’t stop because I really want to see that show.’ When the pandemic happened, it made me slow down and think about what I wanted, and what was and wasn’t working.”
The Commons has its own programming arm and includes resident companies like One Yellow Rabbit and Alberta Theatre Projects. Maga says Calgary “really punches above its weight in terms of the amount of cultural activity that happens here.”
Living in Toronto can give arts lovers an inflated sense of cultural superiority.
“It’s so easy to get into a Toronto bubble and stay there,” says Maga. “But there’s so much interesting stuff that happens outside Toronto. And one of the things we’re working on in Calgary is to encourage artists, especially those from communities who have been underrepresented on a lot of main stages, to stay. Many feel they have to go to Toronto or Vancouver to make a living.”
Halifax-based Kenny is enthusiastic about the Halifax and Maritimes performing arts scene. The day before I talked to her and her partner, set designer Wes Babcock, she took in a play called Good Grief, about a non-binary child and their two gay uncles. Before the pandemic, Neptune Theatre featured the first trans and the first non-binary performer on a stage at a regional Canadian theatre.
“Halifax is the kind of place where you can come and have an idea and start something,” says Babcock, who is starting graduate work in architecture at Dalhousie this fall.
“There’s enough people, and the community is vibrant enough to make it take off. Toronto has 10 of everything and three of those things might be good. Halifax has maybe one of everything. Not all of those things will be good, but there’s enough of them that you’ll be happy. And if you really need something, you’ll go to the one that’s like not so great.”
One thing that’s currently missing in Halifax, however, is a queer bar. Menz & Mollyz, the city’s last remaining LGBTQ+ bar, closed in April 2020.
Which brings up an intriguing twist. Of all the people I interviewed who had left Toronto last year, only one has returned to the city.
Actor Nathan Carroll bought a house in Stratford last fall, and moved in December. He stayed there for five months, but decided to rent it out and, taking advantage of the decreased rents in Toronto, found an above-ground apartment here. His main issue was feeling isolated as a gay, single man in a small town.
“Because I moved in December, Stratford was in lockdown, and so I couldn’t even see my friends,” he says. “I left Toronto reluctantly, because I felt like I was being squeezed out. But it made me really miss things about the city, especially at my age, being single, not being in a really stable career with a firm direction.
“There are quite a few gay people in Stratford, but they are, for the most part, in couples. In any smaller town, there are just more straight single people, and it’s less of a struggle for them. I see myself moving back to Stratford at some point, but likely when I have a partner and a more stable career.”