An exodus from Canada’s priciest provinces is driving many to plant ‘New Roots’

Alberta is calling ad in TTC
Click to play video: 'Surging home prices driving exodus from Canada’s ‘priciest provinces’'
Surging home prices driving exodus from Canada’s ‘priciest provinces’
WATCH: A lack of affordable housing in Ontario and British Columbia is driving more Canadians to leave those pricier provinces and put down roots elsewhere. Experts say as Canadians leave the most expensive markets it may help keep home prices from rising even further. Anne Gaviola explains. – Aug 9, 2023


This is the first instalment of New Roots, a series from Global News that will look at how evolving migration patterns and affordability challenges have changed life in communities across Canada since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Alberta is calling,” read the ads plastered across Toronto’s transit system.

“Find things you’d never expect,” they coax, “like an affordable house.”

The advertisements, a blunt recruitment initiative from the Alberta government launched last fall, tout ample job opportunities alongside comparisons of housing prices between Toronto and Calgary.

For the family of Suzi Hansen and Tyler Brown, Alberta’s advertising campaign seems to have worked.

After years of being unable to break into the housing market while renting a townhome in Oakville, Ont., Hansen says she floated the idea of moving to Alberta to her husband. She says Brown was initially hesitant, but the siren song of an “Alberta is calling” radio ad playing on the drive into work as an industrial mechanic pushed him to think twice about the idea.

“Their ad campaign really, really sold it for him,” Hansen recalled in an interview with Global News as she packed up their Oakville home.

The family, with three kids aged 15, 12 and two, was preparing for a cross-country U-Haul trek to a small Alberta hamlet a couple hours west of Edmonton where they were immediately able to buy a detached house.

The decision was familiar territory for Hansen, who originally came to Canada from Los Angeles because of unaffordable housing prices in California. She first tried to break into the housing market in Vancouver and moved to Ontario in 2013 before finally achieving her goal — just a decade later and a couple of provinces west.

“I’m in a situation now here in Ontario that I felt like I was in in Los Angeles many, many years ago, with a housing market that’s very expensive,” the stay-at-home mom says.


As surging home prices receded in many parts of Canada last year, buyers were met with rising interest rates and still-high inflation, serving to box many prospective home hunters out of Ontario’s most expensive housing markets.

That, coupled with an easing of pandemic restrictions and the staying power of some remote-work agreements, put many Ontario residents in the right frame of mind to give a change of scenery a thought.

Hansen and Brown are not the only Canadians who’ve made the choice to find greener — more affordable — pastures in another province in the years since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Interprovincial migration has emerged as a strong force reshaping communities across Canada.

Housing affordability at the ‘core’ of interprovincial migration

Statistics Canada data shows that interprovincial migration volumes waned in 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, before accelerating in 2021 and exploding in the second quarter of last year.

During that period, Alberta saw an enormous spike of migrants from British Columbia and Ontario, according to the agency. The Maritime provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick also received a steady stream of interprovincial migrants, particularly from Ontario.

Interprovincial migration from Ontario and B.C. into Alberta has surged over the course of COVID-19 pandemic. Global News / Statistics Canada

Demand from out-of-province is part of what continues to fuel sales activity in Calgary, one of Canada’s housing markets that’s shown the most resilience so far amid the ongoing correction tied to higher interest rates, according to Corinne Lyall, a realtor who serves multiple communities in the province.

She tells Global News that right now, roughly 30 per cent of her clientele are families from outside of Alberta, particularly from B.C. and Ontario.

Families renting out basement apartments in Vancouver are finding they’re able to afford single detached homes in Alberta at $650,000 on the same or better salaries than they had in B.C., Lyall explains.

“They’ve heard that the job opportunities are really good, as well as the affordability,” she says.

Marc Desormeaux, principal economist of Canadian economics at Desjardins, tracks the population flows between provinces closely.

He and his co-authors noted in a May report that Ontario, for instance, set records in 2021 and 2022 for net interprovincial outflows with youth aged 15-24 leading the charge.

Desormeaux tells Global News that the outflow of people from Ontario is “unprecedented at this stage.”

To Desormeaux, the story of interprovincial migration comes down to youth deciding where they want to — and where they can afford to — put down roots.

Click to play video: 'High housing prices impacting renters as well as buyers across Canada'
High housing prices impacting renters as well as buyers across Canada

The ratio of home prices to housing income in markets such as Atlantic Canada and Alberta is around a multiple of 10, according to a Desjardins analysis of 2022 figures. In Ontario and B.C., that figure was more than double.

While B.C. has historically been an attractive destination for migrating Canadians heading west, the province’s 12-month total of net interprovincial migrants recently turned negative for the first time in 10 years, Desormeaux notes.

Ontario aside, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Quebec were the top provinces losing residents in the past year, according to Desjardins’ analysis of StatCan data. But Desormeaux says Quebec’s outflows have moderated in recent quarters because of its relative housing affordability. He expects similar trends to follow in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, which currently see most migrants heading for Alberta.


Before heading West, Hansen says that her husband searched to no avail for trades work in different Ontario cities where the rate of pay would eventually allow them to break into the housing market.

“But in Alberta, he was being offered $10, $12, $15 an hour more with every job offer, with great relocation packages and really great benefits and bonuses,” she recalls. “So it was really hard to not take that opportunity given the cost of housing being so dramatically lower.”

“When you get down to the core of it, it’s about affordability,” Desormeaux says.

“Housing affordability is much better in some of these other jurisdictions – in Atlantic Canada, in Alberta – than it is in Ontario. And that is driving a lot of young people to move farther away from where they started, to set up shop, to start a career and to have a family.”

Welcome to Alberta, Wild Rose Country proclaims a sign at the B.C./Alberta border. The Canadian Press Images/Stephen C. Host

Pandemic-driven shifts

Hansen says it’s not particularly “bittersweet” to leave Ontario behind.

While the family will be further from the province’s big cities compared to living in the Greater Toronto Area, she says that their priorities shifted over the pandemic when nightlife was no longer an option. For example, Brown’s time playing gigs in a band at Toronto venues has been replaced with a desire to spend more time outdoors with the family.

“We’ve grown so accustomed to a different lifestyle through the pandemic,” Hansen says.

Hansen’s a bit “disappointed,” she concedes, that Ontario wasn’t able to offer the same economic opportunities that they’ve found in Alberta. Though she’s currently a stay-at-home mom, Hansen says the wages she was earning working as an insurance agent in Ontario just a few years back were on par with what she was making in L.A. some 15 years ago.

Desormeaux says that other changes tied to the pandemic are also resulting in gains for Alberta and Atlantic Canada. Telework opportunities have helped draw in youth who are now able to work in more affordable, remote communities in the Prairies and on the East Coast rather than having to be clustered around a big city and commute into the office, he says.

Click to play video: 'How remote work may be dividing Canadians'
How remote work may be dividing Canadians

The ability to attract youth is a long-term fuel for the economies of Alberta and other more affordable provinces, Desormeaux says. Gen Z Canadians tend to be entrepreneurial and financially savvy, he says, which will help drive productivity and “long-run prosperity” for provinces.

On the opposite end, an inability to hold onto youth because they can’t afford the cost of living in the province’s housing market are red flags for Ontario and B.C., Desormeaux argues.

“When cities become unaffordable, they lose their ability to attract some of that youth, some of that innovation, some of those productivity gains over the longer run,” he says. “That’s a challenge for places that are dealing with significant affordability issues.”

Canada’s aging population and slowing birth rate mean the economy is increasingly relying on immigration for growth, making today one of the worst possible times for provinces to be losing out on youth.

RBC economist Rachel Battaglia says that the “mass migration” of younger Ontarians to the East Coast over the past decade has even reversed the growing median age trends in the Maritimes.


Those waves of migrants have also helped to “diversify” industries on the East Coast with a heavier representation in the knowledge economy post-COVID, she tells Global News.

“That played a massive role in their economic recovery in the wake of the pandemic,” Battaglia says.

The saving grace for markets facing the worst affordability challenges, such as Toronto and Vancouver, is their status as immigration hubs, notes Desjardins’ Desormeaux.

“Large cities are always a magnet for skilled international newcomers. Toronto’s one of the most diverse cities in the world, for instance; that’s something that makes it particularly attractive to newcomers,” he says. “So we don’t see that draw diminishing necessarily in the next few years.”

Battaglia agrees that in the immediate term, the influx of newcomers to Canada is offsetting most losses from emigrating youth. She adds, however, that it’s a “growing concern” in the metropolitan markets that ongoing affordability challenges could see migrants from beyond Canada’s border increasingly put down roots outside the big city.

How long can Alberta, other markets stay affordable?

Buying a home and bringing their young family to Alberta gave Hansen a feeling of long-sought-after “security” after what’s been a hot housing market in Canada over the past few years, the recent downturn aside.

She says she was previously worried their unit could be sold out from under them, casting them out into an equally unaffordable rental market in Ontario.

But as much as the decision to put down roots in Alberta was about their current living situation, Hansen says it was also about their kids, who will be entering the housing market themselves over the next 10-20 years.

If affordability trends in the GTA continue at today’s rates, she was imagining a future where her kids would not be able to afford to rent a home in Ontario, let alone buy one.

“I would assume that if things don’t get better that they would live with us until they’re in their mid-thirties.”

Hansen says that her family went for a home in northern Alberta rather than the hubs of Edmonton or Calgary upon hearing that some buyers were being boxed out of the market in bidding wars.

Indeed, June was a “record-breaking month” for Lyall in Calgary as she says new entrants to the market hunted for a limited supply of listings in the city.

Click to play video: 'Calgary’s red hot housing market'
Calgary’s red hot housing market

While home prices have been on the rise in Calgary this month, she says the city’s reputation as an affordable destination isn’t at risk compared to housing markets in other provinces.

“Despite the fact that our prices have gone up — for sure, they have — they’re still not reaching where Vancouver and Toronto are,” Lyall says.

But Lyall also acknowledges there’s a need for governments to act if Alberta is to keep hold of its “affordable” moniker.

The problem on the horizon is a familiar one across the country: a lack of housing supply to accommodate growing demand.

“The challenge is we just don’t have the product to support them. The infrastructure isn’t there,” Lyall says.

While she says there’s plenty of land in Alberta to build on, policymakers have to pick up the pace of building now to accommodate the growing number of families like Hansen’s who have responded positively to the province’s own ad campaign.

Given the gulf of housing prices between Alberta and the likes of Ontario and B.C., Desormeaux says it’s not likely the province will lose its affordable reputation anytime soon.

But a strategy that involves stirring up demand can only be successful in the long run if it’s met with an equal ramp-up in supply, he argues. Housing starts in Alberta have shown a more significant downturn compared to other provinces, Desormeaux notes, suggesting a supply crunch is “something to keep mindful of going forward.”


Battaglia concurs that housing affordability is holding up well in Alberta, but says there are early signs that Maritime provinces — an earlier hot spot for interprovincial migration — are seeing housing market competition heat up.

Even if buyers end up increasingly boxed out of Alberta markets, Battaglia highlights Winnipeg, St. John’s, N.L., Saskatoon and Regina as a few cities carrying the flame of affordability. She argues, however, that the need to rapidly add housing supply will perpetually be a national concern as long as these hot spots remain in the country and Canadians uproot themselves to find an affordable life.

“Demand is not going to wane,” she says. “Cities grow, populations expand, and we just need to increase the supply of housing to accommodate that.”