Finding Pandemic Relief on Canada’s Atlantic Coast

When I was a child growing up in Montreal, the province of Newfoundland — Canada’s easternmost province — seemed a faraway place akin to Antarctica or Beijing. My family never went there; like many Quebecers, we traveled to Miami to escape bone-chilling winters rather than tour Canada.

Along the coastline in Bonavista, Newfoundland, where “come from awayers” have flocked in recent years.Credit…Chris Donovan for The New York Times

So it was with a particular childlike excitement that I recently visited “the rock,” as Newfoundland is known, for the first time. I wasn’t disappointed.

I traveled there in late October to report a story on the recent exodus of urbanites from big Canadian cities like Toronto to the country’s picturesque Atlantic coast. The region has been experiencing the biggest inward migration in nearly half a century, spurred by pandemic doldrums, the flexibility of remote working, the new “you only live once” economy and soaring real estate prices elsewhere in the country.

[Read: Urbanites in Canada Flock to Atlantic Canada as Pandemic Blunts Cities’ Appeal]

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 with 18,400 in the same period in 2005.

My first inkling of Newfoundland’s uniqueness came during my taxi drive from the airport in St. John’s, the capital, when the grandfatherly driver greeted me with a hearty “Whaddayat?” (“How’s it going?”). I swear I also heard him say “ye.” The province’s vernacular — marinated in the dialects of settlers who first came to Newfoundland from England’s West Country in the 17th century and from Ireland, among other places — reminded me of Shakespearean English.

Rob Greenwood, a Newfoundland expert at Memorial University in St. John’s, explained to me that in some isolated areas of Newfoundland, the language was frozen in time, and that some people used the term “ye” for the plural of “you.”

Energized after months of stay-at-home claustrophobia, I immediately decided to brave a windy, rainy day and to hike Signal Hill, an imposing hill with sweeping views of the Atlantic. Clinging for dear life to a handrail made of metal chain as I ascended a cliff edge above the rocky ocean, I was awed by the expansive view of St. John’s waterfront, the pastel-colored houses dotting the trail and the steep, vertigo-inducing drop that nearly made me recoil and turn back.

The Quidi Vidi neighborhood in St. John’s, Newfoundland, known for its brewery and artistic community. Credit…Chris Donovan for The New York Times

The beauty of the landscape is part of what has been drawing thousands of newcomers to the Atlantic provinces in recent months, many seeking rural idylls. Sometimes they’ve been inspired by “Schitt’s Creek,” the Emmy Award-winning Canadian series in which a formerly rich family finds a sense of purpose in a small, rural town they happen to own.

To try and understand the demographic shift, I headed to Bonavista, a quiet fishing village about three and a half hours from St. John’s. The town is famously featured in the Canadian version of the song “This Land is Your Land.” It owes its name to Giovanni Caboto, a freelance Venetian explorer who reportedly exclaimed, “O buon vista” (“Oh, happy sight!”) when he spotted the town in 1497.

In Bonavista, I met Barbara Houston, an artist born in Saskatchewan who had moved there from Vancouver, drawn by the painterly landscape, sense of community and the low cost of living. A successful former architect turned artist whose work has included sculptures of sheep made from kelp, she is building a sleek geometric home studio overlooking the sea for about 325,000 Canadian dollars. Such an affordable space would’ve be unimaginable in Vancouver, she said.

“I wanted to pursue my dream of being an artist,” she told me. “Here, everyone knows your name,” she said, adding that the open skies reminded her of growing up in Saskatchewan.

The arrival of dozens of “come from awayers” like Ms. Houston is helping to revitalize Bonavista’s economy after years of brain drain that followed the collapse of Newfoundland’s cod stocks. But there are also tensions, mainly over exploding housing prices. Ms. Houston also told me she was taken aback after a Pentecostal preacher at a church near her studio gave a “fire and brimstone” speech, blasted on outdoor speakers, condemning abortion and same-sex marriage.

Crystal Fudge, a Bonavista economic official who owns a local kombucha business, told me that Bonavista “felt like a dying town” when she was growing up. These days, however, newcomers from Saskatchewan, Toronto and the United States drop by to buy her ginger kombucha. Her neighbors include an apothecary selling iceberg-infused soap mousse that reminded me of the shop owned by David Rose, the pansexual character played by Dan Levy on “Schitt’s Creek.”

“I never imagined I would have a kombucha shop in Bonavista!” she said gleefully.

Pastel-colored heritage homes overlooking the sea are just one of the draws of Bonavista, Newfoundland. Credit…Chris Donovan for The New York Times

Newfoundland isn’t the only place benefiting from pandemic pilgrims.

In Windsor, Nova Scotia, Stefan Palios, a business consultant from Toronto, told me how he and his partner had recently traded in their 450-square-foot one-bedroom Toronto apartment for a handsome seven-bedroom Victorian house, which they bought this year for about 350,000 Canadian dollars. Being millennials, they are documenting the renovation of the house, built in 1898, on Instagram.

“During the pandemic we felt stuck,” Mr. Palios told me, adding that remote working had liberated him. “As a remote entrepreneur, my clients from Los Angeles or Krakow don’t care where I am based.”

There has been some culture shock, including blowback from some Nova Scotians who blame newcomers for rising housing prices. Then there is the quiet.

“It’s definitely a slower place,” he said. “It takes some getting used to.”

Trans Canada

A memorial made up of children’s shoes and toys at the former Mohawk Institute Residential School in Six Nations of the Grand River, Ontario.Credit…Tara Walton for The New York Times
  • In Ontario, my colleague Ian Austen reported on how an Indigenous community is collaborating with law enforcement to search for the unmarked graves of residential school children.

  • The Times’s Obituary desk has published its list of 2021’s notable deaths. Among those featured are George Armstrong and John Muckler, prominent hockey figures; Cornelia Oberlander, the celebrated landscape architect; the comedian Norm Macdonald; Iohan Gueorguiev, a biker who braved extreme conditions; the actor Christopher Plummer; and many others who shaped life in Canada and died this year.

  • A surge of Covid-19 cases and uncertain protocols at the Olympic Games have cast doubt on whether the men’s ice hockey tournament will feature the sport’s best players, including some players on Canadian teams.

  • My colleague Stephanie Nolen, a Canadian who covers global health for The Times, recently wrote a harrowing piece about how the Omicron variant turned her trip home from South Africa into a nightmare defined by fear and conflicting health advice.

  • For Canadians contemplating holiday travel, the federal government had this guidance: Consider canceling your trip.

How are we doing?
We’re eager to have your thoughts about this newsletter and events in Canada in general. Please send them to [email protected].

Like this email?
Forward it to your friends, and let them know they can sign up here.

Back to top button