'Rural boom' foreseen

As more employees shift to remote work, Canada’s rural areas may experience “unprecedented population growth in the coming years," according to a new report that coincides with Thunder Bay's "Small City, Big Possibilities" campaign.

By Ian Pattison

Yesterday’s Gone. It’s a song (earworm alert) by Chad and Jeremy, it’s the defining characteristic of this ruddy pandemic, and it’s the title of a new study that holds promise for Thunder Bay and the Northwest.

The Brookfield Institution at Ryerson University set out to chronicle the defining trends of the COVID-19 pandemic and concluded that virtual workspaces will endure long after we’ve all been vaccinated.

For many office workers and professionals, traipsing into the building every day of the week just isn’t necessary any more. Remote work can often be just as effective as the traditional desk job and enlightened employers see the benefits of keeping efficient workers content.

This new normal will release a great many people from the costly busyness of big cities and the options open to them make a decline in urban living and a “rural boom” real possibilities.

According to Statistics Canada, 40 per cent of employees shifted to remote work following the pandemic lockdowns. And while rural populations have been declining since the ‘60s, Ontario is seeing the newly mobile population eye smaller, quieter, cleaner communities with far lower living costs as potential new homes.

Canada’s rural areas may experience “unprecedented population growth in the coming years” as urban housing markets skyrocket, remote work opportunities increase and millennials search for bigger houses that are suitable to accommodate home offices and remote learning, the report said.

In a fortuitous piece of timing, the Thunder Bay Community Economic Development Commission has just announced a new digital marketing strategy. Small City, Big Possibilities aims to “inspire and attract workforce talent, entrepreneurs, businesses, and investors.”

The core message is that “although Thunder Bay is a small size city, we offer big possibilities with numerous advantages over other cities.”

For starters, Thunder Bay is the sunniest city in Eastern Canada on the shore of the planet’s biggest freshwater lake. And that’s without even trying.

Thunder Bay's air quality index is consistently among the best in Ontario. The city has developed an active environmental program called Earthcare and is always at the leading edge of clean and green. City council will vote next month on a proposal to make the city carbon neutral by 2050. In part that will mean cutting the number of trips in motor vehicles in half -- a big challenge in what may be the half-ton capital of Canada.

It is always interesting to read what others think of you.

Expedia users ranked Thunder Bay the eighth friendliest city in Canada.

The website New Canadian Life calls Thunder Bay “a picturesque, quiet and lovable city situated on the stunning Lake Superior . . . with low costs of living and so much nature . . . a place ideal for those who want to live somewhere with a sense of community and to escape the hustle and bustle of big city life. Famed for its beautiful panoramic views and expansive natural scenery, there are plenty of reasons why you might want to move to Thunder Bay.”

The site notes that, “Living in a congested and densely populated city with expensive rent and few natural areas to unwind in can inevitably take a toll on both your mental and physical health. Thunder Bay allows you to live a life free from the stresses of crippling rental and transport costs, with clean fresh air, wide-open spaces to exercise in, and great job opportunities in a wide range of sectors. Say goodbye to stuffy indoor gyms, poor air quality and money problems, and say hello to life in Thunder Bay!”

The website Prepare For Canada picks up the narrative: “Thunder Bay is the capital of Northwestern Ontario and offers a relaxing, natural atmosphere with lively urban space, making it one of the most diverse places to live, learn, work, do business and play.

“Thunder Bay is the sixth most culturally diverse community of its size in North America, with representation from Finnish, Italian, Scottish, Ukrainian, Polish, French, Aboriginal, Chinese and Croatian ethnicities.

“Thunder Bay was ranked number 1 out of 227 major urban international cities for affordable housing, by the fourth annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey.”

Thunder Bay is not alone in trying to capitalize on the trend to remote work in more attractive surroundings. A new “ Work From Nova Scotia” online campaign seeks to entice telecommuters to relocate.

“We’re saying: ‘If you can work from anywhere, why not work from here?’” says Laurel Broten of the campaign team.

It can be tough to compete with East Coast charm and scenery, but Thunder Bay has always had another major advantage -- it’s geography. Situated in the middle of Canada and close to the U.S. upper Midwest, we are an international transportation hub with a busy airport. So Small City, Big Possibilities can be marketed to any major city in Canada since we’re equidistant from either side.

Of course, to be successful in a wireless world, Internet capability must be top of the line. In the city itself, with its own telecommunications company, speeds and capacities are fine. But if a potential new citizen or investor was to consider rural Thunder Bay living, they might be in for a rude awakening. Promises of expanded broadband services have been made for years by senior governments. A great many people living and working in rural Canada can be forgiven for wondering if it will ever come about.

Thunder Bay has proven itself capable of attracting bright minds already to our teaching hospital, renowned cancer centre and university. The fact that in a growing number of cases physical presence at a job site is irrelevant, and will remain so post-pandemic, many new possibilities are open to grow the city and region’s talent pool and population.

Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.