TORONTO - Last February, Audrey Eldaoud and Robert Mawe set out to find a single-family home where they could put down roots.
With jobs that became permanently remote during the pandemic, the young couple was granted the chance to live anywhere in Canada.
Three bedrooms minimum, a couple of washrooms and space to raise a family were on their wish list. The pair also wanted to be closer by plane to Ireland, where Mawe, 34, is from, and to Eldaoud’s family, who live in Quebec.
So, the couple sold their 700-square-foot condo in Vancouver and drove east to Ontario to begin house hunting with a budget of $900,000.
Within just an hour of viewing homes in Toronto, the two got a reality check.
"We looked at houses there, but they were going for millions and it just wasn't accessible to us," said Eldaoud, 26.
They then began looking at homes within a one-hour radius of Toronto, concentrating mostly in the Barrie area, where Eldaoud was born. After a few months of searching, they moved into a home in Innisfil that fit the bill in July.
The two are among the 3.8 million people who are calling smaller urban centres their home, according to the 2021 census from Statistics Canada.
Last year, one in 10 Canadians lived in smaller urban areas ranging from about 10,000 to 100,000 people, otherwise known as census agglomerations.
Squamish, B.C., grew the fastest at a rate of 21.8 per cent, or 24,232 more people, between 2016 and 2021.
Meanwhile, four of the 10 fastest growing smaller urban centres were in Ontario: Wasaga Beach, Tillsonburg, Collingwood and Woodstock.
Several are known as tourist destinations or resort cities. While they are close to nature, they are not among the most remote communities and are generally less than a one-hour drive from a large urban centre.
Laurent Martel, director of the centre for demography at Statistics Canada, said a combination of proximity to nature, lower housing prices and a shift to remote work during the pandemic are all factors that may have attracted people from large metropolitan areas to these smaller urban centres.
"With the pandemic, the capacity of Canadians to do more (remote) work has certainly encouraged some Canadians to really move to these smaller urban centres and leave maybe larger urban centres," he said.
After Ian McGrath received the go-ahead from his company to permanently work remotely, he and his partner made the move from Halifax to Truro, N.S., in September.
In Halifax, they were renting, but now, the couple owns a home that is in a quieter area and has access to mountain biking trails, which McGrath regularly takes advantage of.
"Since the start of the pandemic, I've been working from home. I'm actually happier, healthier and more productive from home," he said.
"And now that I don't have to be in an office, I would rather be somewhere I would rather be."
McGrath’s work-life balance and outlook have significantly improved since moving to the small town, he added.
"It's fantastic," he said.
Shauna Brail, an economic geographer, urban planner and professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga, said the growth of smaller urban centres is largely driven by intraprovincial migration, or people moving from bigger urban centres to smaller ones in the same province.
However, Brail noted this is "by no means the story of an urban exodus," as the census data also show that population growth accelerated in urban centres from 2016 to 2021.
For example, the populations of 22 of the 27 census metropolitan areas in Atlantic Canada, Quebec and Ontario increased at a faster pace from 2016 to 2021 compared to the previous census cycle, from 2011 to 2016.
Meanwhile, from 2016 to 2021, some smaller urban centres that are further away from large urban centres saw a population decline, including Sault Ste. Marie and Timmins in Ontario, Martel noted.
Brail said while the census data provides some insight into the impact of the pandemic on Canada's population, it's too soon to tell what impact it will have in the long term.
"This data doesn't yet paint a picture of what's happened during the pandemic that we can bank on or that we can rely on to understand this is what's going to happen going forward," she said.
For Eldauod and Mawe, living relatively close to Toronto while having access to nature are what have made their move to Innisfil especially worth it.
"It's really great. There (are) a lot of walking trails, we're a two-minute walk from the lake and there's a nice park," said Eldaoud.
"It's probably the first place I've lived where the neighbours came over on our first day to introduce themselves and say ‘Hello.’ And that wasn't just the immediate neighbours, it was a couple houses around," Mawe chimed in.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 9, 2022.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.