‘In search of a more peaceful environment’: Newcomers leave the GTA for new homes up north

After learning about the Rural Employment Initiative, Manikantan Chandrasekharan left Mississauga and moved to Sault Ste. Marie. Now, thanks to COVID-19, more people are considering the program than ever before
By Ashley Okwuosa - Published on Sep 23, 2020
The Rural Employment Initiative took a group to visit Grey County last year. (Facebook)

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When Manikantan Chandrasekharan arrived in Mississauga from Bangalore last July, he did not realize that he would become one of 118,000 newcomers to settle in the Greater Toronto Area that year. For Chandrasekharan, Mississauga seemed like the most sensible place for him, his wife, and his two children to make a home.

As a newly minted permanent resident, Chandrasekharan was free to move to any city in any province across the country; he chose Mississauga because it was home to friends who had also made similar transitions to Canada from India, and he knew their support would be necessary.

“They were helping me and educating me on what needs to be done,” says Chandrasekharan. “This helped make my transition from India smooth.”

But, in recent years, policymakers have implemented programs to move the flow of newcomers away from large urban centres to more rural communities. Last year, federal immigration minister Ahmed Hussen announced the federal Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot, which involves 11 cities across the country. Five of them are in Ontario: North Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, and Timmins. The program aims to create a path to permanent residency for eligible immigrants living in one of the participating rural communities, with the hope that they will settle there permanently.

The program is still relatively new, and Marshia Akbar, a senior research associate at Ryerson University’s Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration, notes that “it’s too early actually to say to what extent it’s successful.”

However, the Rural Employment Initiative, an Ontario-focused program that launched in 2016, has seen moderate but consistent success over the past five years. Administered by the Newcomer Centre of Peel, it helps connect new permanent residents living in the Greater Toronto Area with employers in such communities as Owen Sound, Sault Ste. Marie, and Thunder Bay. According to Oliver Pryce, who works as the project coordinator, many have cited rising housing prices as the reason behind their move. “I think the cost of housing is a huge factor,” he says. “They talk about the high price of housing, lifestyle, and wanting a smaller population.”

With COVID-19 straining employment and laying bare the economic, health, and social disparities that have long existed in Toronto and its surrounding cities, Pryce says, more people are considering the program than ever before: since April 1, more than 150 internationally trained professionals have expressed interest in learning more about REI, participated in workshops about the program, and even begun the intake-interview process. “We are getting more interest than we can even manage,” he says.

Chandrasekharan had already considered leaving Mississauga before COVID-19 became widespread. In October of last year, a few months after his wife and two children joined him in Mississauga, he sought out the services of Pryce and his team.

A mechanical engineer, he had 13 years of experience working with automotive-safety systems; after months of searching, he had been hired as a project manager at an automotive company making $17 an hour. He moved his wife and children, ages five and 10, into a home in Mississauga. But, as monthly living expenses totalled more than $2,000, Chandrasekharan felt that he would need to leave the GTA to build the life he had envisioned for his family when they moved to Canada. “I was looking for a lower cost of living and a better environment so that my children could be also encouraged to learn, and I could spend more time with my family,” says Chandrasekharan.

a man and woman pose with two children
Manikantan Chandrasekharan and his wife, Sivakami Kanniammal Velayudhaperumal, son Atharva, and daughter Aathira.  (Courtesy of Manikantan Chandrasekharan)

After attending an in-person event organized by the NCP, at which he met community representatives from Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay, Chandrasekharan was offered a salaried job as an engineering and plant manager at a solar-energy company earlier this year. As Chandrasekharan prepared to move to Sault Ste. Marie in March, COVID-19 hit. The pandemic made it even clearer, he says, that he was doing the right thing: “I thought that I had made the right decision, because what I saw in the news was that Sault Ste. Marie, and the Algoma district, had less number of cases compared to the GTA and Toronto. So I felt it was a good thing that I moved out, because my family would be safer.”

As of September 22, Ontario’s Ministry of Health puts the number of confirmed positive cases in Mississauga at 3,491, while the Algoma District, home to Sault Ste. Marie, counts 31 confirmed positive cases. A report by Public Health Ontario indicates that ethno-culturally diverse neighbourhoods in Ontario, primarily those concentrated in large urban areas, are experiencing disproportionately higher rates of COVID-19 and related deaths compared with neighbourhoods that are less diverse.

For Chandrasekharan and other newcomers, it can make sense to move from large urban centres to rural communities — but the choice to do so isn’t an easy one.

Newcomers to Canada are more likely to move to cities where they have family, friends, and other members of their communities from their home country, says Al Lauzon, a professor at the University of Guelph’s School of Environmental Design and Rural Development. He refers to this pull as social capital. “Social capital is really about relationships,” he says. “So having somebody that you can call up for coffee or tea or drop in and see. We're really talking about friendships.”

Research that Lauzon conducted in 2015 with Pallak Arora, former program director of the Mosaic Institute, a Toronto-based think-tank, suggests that the loss of social capital is a significant side effect of moving to a more rural part of the country. “There’s a real sense, I think, of loneliness and then just simply the absence of being able to share one’s culture in meaningful ways,” he says. “And, of course, there are more pragmatic things, like food availability and having to go back to the city to get culturally appropriate food. There are issues of worship, because they do not have the types of opportunities for more formal worship in rural communities.”

Akbar says that communities interested in courting new immigrants should invest heavily in services to help them transition into their new homes and not feel isolated. “We cannot just say that programs like REI are successful in encouraging people and helping people settle in small towns and rural areas,” she says. “We also need to think about what kind of jobs they're actually getting. And, also, do they have community? And do they have access to services? These are the questions that we need to think about. It’s not just about attracting people, but also making sure that they have access to social services so they don't feel isolated.”

With support from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, Grey and Bruce counties earlier this year created a Local Immigration Partnership and a settlement program for newcomers. According to Melissa D’souza Harris, who serves as the settlement-services worker for both counties, the program helps people such as Tolu Akisanmi, who, after moving from Nigeria to the GTA last year, will be relocating to Owen Sound: it will assist her with everything from finding a home to applying for health insurance. “We offer the whole gamut of what somebody would need to basically call a place home,” says D’souza Harris.

Chandrasekharan admits that there are many things he will miss about living in Mississauga but says that, after years of living in big cities, Sault Ste. Marie is a welcome change: “With Bangalore being a cosmopolitan city, it’s quite fast there. It’s like Mississauga and Toronto. I was in search of a more peaceful environment. That’s what I was looking for. And Sault Ste. Marie really satisfies all my needs.”

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