The New Back-to-the-Landers

A growing number of people are saying goodbye to Quebec’s biggest cities for a slower, cheaper life in the countryside

Montreal Gazette
Saturday, July 28, 2007

Lying on a hammock on an island in the Bahamas was a good place to find inspiration.

“Why should we live in paradise for only a couple of weeks of vacation a year?” my wife, Rhonda, asked. “We should live in paradise all year-round.”

And so we decided to move with our two kids out of our apartment in the Mile End.

We are going back to the land. We’re moving into a beautiful old house in the Eastern Townships.

It turns out we’re part of a back-to-the-land renaissance that is transforming rural Quebec.

The new urban refugees aren’t quite the commune-dwelling Luddites of the ‘60s. They are often yuppies or have young kids and just want to get away from noise, pollution and crazy real-estate prices. Many work at home as writers or artists and rely on the Internet to stay in touch with clients. Others are willing to commute an hour or more to the city.

The newcomers are also often babyboomers looking for a slice of country paradise where they can host kids and grandchildren.

“We’ve noticed a return to the land and smaller communities,” said Chantale Girard, a demographer at the province’s Institut de la statistique du Québec who is studying the trend.

Montreal, Laval and Longueuil are losing thousands of residents to rural areas and smaller communities that lie beyond the region’s traditional ring of suburbs, according to newly available data that Girard is studying on migration patterns within the province.

The information comes from provincial health-insurance records, and it challenges the common perception that the countryside is being depopulated as young people migrate to urban centres in search for jobs.

While many people are indeed fleeing resource-dependent regions like Abitibi-Témiscamingue and Lac St. Jean, other rural areas like the Townships, Laurentians, Lanaudière and Outaouais are actually projected to grow faster than the provincial average in coming years.

Montreal lost 22,700 people to interregional migration last year, while the fastest-growing region, with 6,900 people gained, was the Montérégie, which stretches from the South Shore to the ski village of Sutton and the U.S. border.

For us, it was not an easy decision.

Mile End is pretty close to perfect for us, with cultural diversity and a cool friendly vibe. Rhonda and I have called it home for 25 years between us. Every time we stepped outside we were bound to bump into a dozen people we knew. Rhonda’s brother calls it Sesame Street.

But we needed more space for our growing family, and we felt sick about spending the kind of money needed to buy a house there or in any of the neighbourhoods we liked on the island.

Besides, our vacation inspired us to realize we loved being around nature.

What we needed was a Mile End somewhere in the countryside. So we started looking for a house in the Eastern Townships. Three weeks later we were signing the paperwork to buy a house in the historic village of Knowlton.

We fell in love with the spacious stone and cedar home built by the region’s pre-eminent stone retailer, who happens to be named Mike Stone. It stands on an acre of land backing onto a forest and is nestled into the side of Sugar Hill overlooking picturesque Lac Brome.

All this for less than the cost of a tiny condo with no yard in Mile End. We moved in last week.

Our real-estate agent, Peter Reindler, was a kindred spirit. He quit Montreal 30 years ago to settle in Sutton.

This was back in the day of the first back-to-the-landers—the hippies inspired by the band Canned Heat and its hit Going Up the Country.

“I’m gonna leave the city, got to get away,” the song goes. “I’m going, I’m going where the water tastes like wine.”

People aren’t just leaving the big city.

They’re also quitting many suburbs for more rural areas. For example, Longueuil last year gained 2,600 residents from Montreal, but it lost even more people—2,800—to more farflung parts of the Montérégie.

The biggest beneficiaries were Haute-Yamaska (which includes Granby and Bromont) and areas around St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Chambly and Beloeil.

Bridget Wayland is a former Montrealer who settled in a distant corner of the Montérégie with her family. She knew she was done with big-city life after her son was born.

Her cramped second-floor apartment in the Mile End had no yard access. She and her husband, Chris, couldn’t afford to rent a first-floor apartment with a yard, much less buy a house. Little Sebastian would have two choices—playing on their small balcony or at the park four blocks away under an overpass.

“Oh God, this is not how I want to raise Sebastian,” Wayland recalls thinking.

So they decided to move into a historic house built before 1870 near Frelighsburg, at the end of an idyllic country road just 200 metres from the U.S. border.

Wayland, a writer, works from an office in the barn, while her husband, a teacher, found a job in nearby Cowansville. They raise chickens and grow veggies and herbs that they sell at the local farmer’s market.

“It’s much more calm,” she said of country life. “We love the day-to-day quality of life. When you go to bring the garbage out, you look up, and it’s the Milky Way and gorgeous stars—whereas in the city you never look up.”

Tom Cruikshank, editor of the magazine Harrowsmith Country Life, is a former Montrealer who moved seven years ago to a 75-acre hobby farm with a century-old house a couple of hours northeast of Toronto.

He and his wife both work from home and keep 10 chickens for eggs and 11 sheep for fleece and meat.

“I like the manageability of the smaller setting,” he said. “You can be more relaxed. People bump into each other again and again, so they tend to be nicer to each other.”

There are some drawbacks to country living, though.

Lyle Stewart and his family gave up their Plateau apartment and lived for a year in their cottage deep in the woods outside the Lanaudière village of Chertsey to save money to buy a house in the city.

They enjoyed the fresh air and being surrounded by nature, but the downside was being stuck in their car for everything from grocery shopping to commuting to work in the city, said Stewart, a union communications official.

“The commute is a killer,” he said of his two-hour daily roundtrip.

It was a big change from life in the Plateau, where they could walk or bike almost anywhere they needed, he said.

“Country living may look nice and green, but you’re burning a lot more energy and contributing to global warming (through driving),” Stewart said.

But not all the newcomers become more dependent on cars. Stéphane Tardif and his wife Eloise took a bold path when they moved from Montreal to Knowlton five years ago.

Now relocated in Cowansville, they refused to buy a car and rely instead on walking, bikes and the regional bus service to get around with their two small kids. “It’s a radical way to be in the country. People always said it was impossible (not to have a car here). But we did it,” Tardif said.

Tardif, a youth counselor, even recruited his bike for work when he got funding to start Biblio-Vélo, a service to bring books to local youth, towed along on a wagon.

“We changed our rhythm of life (by leaving the city). We have picnics, walk in the forest and look at the animals. There was a real gain of time and family life.”

Where They’re Going

The Eastern Townships, home to vineyards, pretty country drives and charming villages soaked in history, is one of the regions luring many Montrealers moving to the country. Some of the choice spots for the new back-to-the-landers are:

Sutton: The outdoor enthusiast’s mecca around this laid-back skiing village attracts lots of environmentally conscious young families and artists, drawn by the area’s pure mountain-top lakes and 150 kilometres of hiking trails.

Bromont: This rapidly growing village at the doorway to the Townships sits at the foot of the ski hill of the same name. Just 45 minutes from the Champlain Bridge, it’s attracting people who commute to Montreal.

Knowlton: This tony village boasts heritage architecture, vibrant cultural life and charming boutiques. You can also gape at the ridiculously expensive estates around Lac Brome.

The region also has some hidden gems that are little-known to outsiders but beloved by locals:

Owl’s Head: The out-of-the-way area around this ski hill has a fanatical following among residents. Attractions include breathtaking country vistas, nearby Lac Memphrémagog and a golf course with panoramic mountain views.

Glen Sutton: Considered one of the most scenic spots in the Townships, this 300-resident village has been enticing nature lovers and landscape painters since the 19th century.

Glen Mountain: This spectacularly beautiful area surrounds the ski hill of the same name but is also close to services in Knowlton.