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Urbanites flee for better life in the sticks

Pieta Wooley, Georgia Straight, May 28, 2009

This spring, Sarah McMillan and Gavin Wright pulled up their urban Vancouver roots and headed to a plot of leased land north of Pemberton. The couple met at UBC Farm last summer, fell in love, and shared their city-folk dream of country living. Unlike many other dreamers, though, they made theirs happen. This summer, McMillan and Wright plan to grow and sell beets, salad mix, and sugar squash, and keep chickens for eggs, on their half-hectare plot. They live in a no-electricity, no-plumbing shack, far from town.

Their parents don’t get it. Nevertheless, McMillan says they’re in it for the long haul.

Urbanization is over, she told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from Pemberton. At 32 and 35, the couple represent Canada’s ruralization pioneers: an economically and environmentally driven movement away from big urban centres.

“We had this fantastical notion of what it would be, regardless of how much money we would or would not make,” McMillan said, noting that they’re living this summer on their savings. She pointed out that as well-educated nonprofit workers, both she and Wright were barely squeaking by in unaffordable Vancouver. “I actually think it’s crazy most of the time. When you find yourself amidst your dream, you’re always thinking, ‘What am I doing?’ But there’s no place I’d rather be.”

Since moving, McMillan reports, she feels more connected to the land. She’s slowed down. She feels more intuitive. She is “much clearer”. Her experience of the seasons has intensified.

Next spring—at tax time, to be exact—the Canadian government may reward young ruralistas like McMillan and Wright with more than a romanticized Dixie Chicks desire to “grow something wild and unruly”. On May 26, Bill C-288 went through second reading in the House of Commons. If passed, the Bloc Québécois tax-act amendment could give postsecondary graduates up to a $3,000 deduction for moving to less economically booming regions.

That, theoretically, would be on top of existing tax rewards for living la vida rústica. The northern residents deduction, for example, pays up to $8.25 per day in Fort Nelson and other northern areas and $4.13 per day on the Queen Charlotte Islands, along with other mid-range zones.

Given the recession, the cost of buying a home, the baby boom’s refusal to leave the work force, and the jammed commutes to the suburbs, you’d think young Vancouver would be gone. As demographer Andrew Yan points out, this is already happening in China. Since September, more than 20 million people have left the cities there to return to the countryside, he told the Straight in a phone interview.

“Vancouver’s crazy market began in 2000, so we’re eight years into it—which is still early, if you can believe it,” Yan said. He’s a research associate with the SFU Institute for Governance Studies. “This takes time. It’s going to be really interesting to see what’s going to happen in the next two years.”

Yan predicts three groups will make the exodus: retirees, immigrants, and young people leaving for green or financial reasons. In the great reach of human history, Yan pointed out, gathering in megacities is surely not the final stop.

“At the end of the day, being in Vancouver may not be the final state of bliss,” Yan said, noting that owning a home is far beyond most two-income households. “It may not be the urban nirvana everyone is trying to find.”

Trying that mould on is lifelong Vancouverite Ben King. Unlike McMillan and Wright’s, his decision to head north was all about the money.

The practical 25-year-old graduated from UBC with a teaching degree in April 2008. Knowing that full-time teaching gigs for newbies almost never crop up in the Lower Mainland, he applied to every school district in B.C.

“It costs $10,000 to become a teacher. I didn’t want to pay that and then not teach,” he told the Straight in a phone interview from Prince Rupert—the rain capital of Canada. If he’d started teaching in Vancouver, he said, he’d be on call and in debt. Up north, he’s rewarded with a $3,000 yearly bonus, a $400 monthly rent, and the ability to save money.

Eight months in—he’s only committed for two years—King is already waxing philosophical about small-town life.

“I’d recommend it to anyone. Take a risk. Vancouver is a little closeted; it’s not Canada. Everyone should see a small-town hockey arena with the old guys playing, and get used to a Timmy Ho’s.”

King’s kind of urban abandonment isn’t new, but it has always been countercultural. Since Confederation, urbanization has been the undeniable trend. In 1871, Canada’s first census revealed that just 19.1 percent of us lived in cities. By 2000, it was 77 percent. The United Nations predicts that by 2025, 82 percent of Canadians will be urbanites.

Still, some small towns in B.C. saw double-digit growth from 2007 to 2008, according to B.C. Stats. Hazelton and Sicamous, for example, both had 11-percent growth that year. Of B.C.’s 25 fastest-growing municipalities from 1996 to 2008, only two were suburbs of Vancouver: Port Moody and Surrey. Radium Hot Springs was the province’s hot spot in percentage of population growth.

Should urbanites leave? If you ask some of those who left before, during earlier economic downturns, the answer is a resounding “yes”.

David Lawson, 60, left for Nelson during the recession in the early 1980s. As a pottery teacher at the Kootenay School of the Arts, he’s been working four months a year and spending eight months in Vancouver. This year, for financial reasons, he’s spending the entire year in Nelson.

“Back in the early ’80s, they’d just closed the sawmill and a school, so everyone was moving to the city,” Lawson told the Straight, echoing the 2009 situation in mill towns like Mackenzie. “So I bought a home with a studio. It was quite good for me. Maybe that’s what we’re seeing again.”

Lawson’s advice for those who are having a hard time in the city: move. Not only are the basics cheaper in Nelson, he said, but with fewer spending opportunities, his money just seems to stay in his pocket. Plus, he said, there are plenty of hip 20- to 35-year-olds in the area. It’s a great place to ski.

Nursing instructor Annette Browne spent the recession of the early ’90s working in remote, fly-in villages in the Northwest Territories and northern Manitoba. As an early-20s nurse, she gathered experiences her city-based colleagues never would. For example, she recalls flying a woman who was in labour to a nearby hospital. With just Browne and two young pilots on a bush plane, the patient gave birth midflight. Browne delivered the boy.

“I regularly talk about remote nursing to undergrads,” Browne, now an associate professor of nursing at UBC, told the Straight. “The majority say, ‘It’s not for me.’ Many have families, mortgages, relationships in the city that would preclude it. But there’s always a handful that gather around after a class.”

For some, though, the recent trend is different than past recessions—and was anticipated.

Back in 1991, retired University of Washington professor Jack Lessinger wrote a book predicting the rise of the rural. It was called Penturbia: Where Real Estate Will Boom After the Crash of Suburbia (SocioEconomics, Inc.). B.C. recreational-property realtor Rudy Nielsen is a fan of the concept, but in business terms thinks of it as something retired urbanites will do rather than young people. Especially retirees with $1 million in their pockets after selling their inflated Vancouver homes.

“I believe that about 70,000 Vancouverites fit those requirements,” the president of the NIHO Land & Cattle Company Ltd. told the Straight. “But I don’t think people are going to make any brash moves, or take 30 percent less on their home [when selling it], unless they have to.”

That said, Nielsen, who describes himself as a “real outdoors guy” who raised two sons on a ranch in central B.C., believes campfires are an absolute necessity in the 21st century.

“Cellphones, text messaging, BlackBerries: the world’s gone nuts,” he said. “When you sit around the campfire, you’ve got everything you need.”

Sure, for some. But for others, the marrow of life is found in Yaletown rather than Yarrow, according to Paul Kingsbury, an assistant professor of human geography at SFU.

“People are not rationally predisposed to follow their economic interest,” Kingsbury told the Straight. “They may be receiving psychosocial returns from the vibe of their neighbourhood.”

In other words, the cheapest single detached home near Commercial Drive and 1st Avenue—arguably the epicentre of hip in Vancouver—is $558,888, according to the Multiple Listing Service. In 100 Mile House, a nice A-frame is $137,000. But according to Kingsbury’s theory of lifestyle consumption, many folks will happily pay the difference, $421,888, for the “vibe”.

“The reality is, many young people in Vancouver live with their parents. Immigrants prefer to stay in ethnocultural centres. Plus, there’s the intangibles here: the mountains, the sea, water, great roads, parklands, tons of events.…We’re moving into a society of enjoyment. People are increasingly consuming ideals and identities.”

McMillan said she is “consuming” an identity. The vibe, though, is not Yaletown’s. It comes from a mushy bed of fertile mud in Pemberton, which she and Wright call Rootdown Farm.

As for Prince Rupert’s King, small-town life is less of a vibe and more of a solution to a problem. His advice for his peers is this: “I’d figure out whether you’re working to have the Vancouver lifestyle or working to further your career,” he said. “And then be willing to make a change. People here are nice. So you’re going to land on your feet.”