A record number of Ontarians are leaving the province. Where are they all going?
‘Leave Ontario’ has been the traditional advice for prospective homebuyers frustrated by the province’s unaffordable housing market. In 2021 alone, nearly 108,000 Ontarians took that well-worn nugget to heart—a number not seen since the early 1980s.
The outflow continued into the second quarter of this year, when an additional 49,000 residents packed their bags and relocated to another province, according to recently released data. That resulted in the province seeing its highest quarterly net-loss to inter-provincial migration since 1971.
Where did they all go? According to Statistics Canada’s estimates of inter-provincial migration from Ontario, roughly a quarter moved to Alberta. Another quarter shipped out to the Maritimes and Newfoundland and Labrador, with Nova Scotia earning the lion’s share of new arrivals.
Quebec, for the first time in its history, took in more Ontarians than it exported Quebecers to Ontario. And British Columbia welcomed its largest number of Ontario arrivals since the early 1990s.
At the same time, a Scotiabank report notes that Ontario welcomed 198,500 newcomers from outside Canada, a record not seen since at least 1946. Nonetheless, real estate agents in the Maritimes and Alberta are noticing the effects of inter-provincial migration.
Alberta and the Maritimes are the big recipients of inter-provincial migration
In Alberta’s case, an influx of Ontarians has traditionally been the norm, not the exception. As Scotiabank noted in its report, the oil boom of the 1980s and the last major one—ending in 2010—prompted many Canadians to move to Alberta and Saskatchewan for work. Lately, the allure of lower-cost housing is a major reason Ontarians move out West.
“There’s no land transfer tax on housing,” says Brad Mitchell, president of the Alberta Real Estate Association. “Housing is a lot more affordable everywhere in Alberta if you compare it to Toronto or some of the major city centres in the east.”
According to Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA) data, Alberta’s average home price was just $423,879 in August, compared to $829,739 in Ontario.
But the reasons so many Ontarians left their home province go beyond just the cost of housing. Mitchell says the ability for Ontarians to work remotely while living in Wild Rose country also played a huge role in their move.
That same factor also holds true for Nova Scotia. In the second quarter, both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick saw their largest net gains from inter-provincial migration since 1971.
Matt Dauphinee, president-elect of the Nova Scotia Association of Realtors, says many residents end up leaving the province—mainly to Ontario, Alberta or B.C.—after finishing their education to find good jobs. “Now, people can bring their jobs home with them,” Dauphinee says. “A lot of that inter-provincial migration was Nova Scotians returning home.”
The result has made Nova Scotia one of the fastest-growing housing markets in Canada, Dauphinee says. The province is one of just a handful where home prices have remained resilient despite rising interest rates and a weakening economy. According to CREA data, the average price of homes sold in August 2022 was still nearly 18% higher compared to the previous year.
Alberta also saw substantial housing market growth in 2022, although Mitchell says the Calgary housing market only just eclipsed its all-time high from 2014—the year global oil markets went into a major tailspin. “Our members [noticed] it,” Mitchell says of the price increases earlier this year, “but [it wasn’t] out of control.”
Prices in Alberta have since weakened, not only as part of the overall pullback seen across the country as a result of rising interest rates, but also due to a rebound in the number of new housing starts compared to the first six months of the pandemic.
“We’ve seen some retraction in prices and a bit of a slowdown in the market,” Mitchell says. With lots of houses up for sale and more on the way, he doesn’t believe the province will see a demand shock anytime soon.
Meanwhile, Ontarians are gazing fondly at the greener grass outside their province’s borders. A survey conducted in early June for the Ontario Real Estate Association found nearly half of all homebuyers under the age of 45 have considered leaving the province to buy a home. One-third of buyers under 30 believe they’ll definitely or very likely sign a mortgage in another province or territory.
Tim Hudak, the association’s president, says housing affordability is the main driver of out-migration, but the chance to live outside of the province—while working in Ontario—is also a factor.
Despite a long history of migration to other provinces, Hudak is worried about pandemic-related inter-provincial migration. “This is a new trend,” he says, “and one that does not bode well for our future growth if we’re going to lose young talent.”
Scotiabank’s analysis of the situation suggests otherwise. According to a recent report, it estimated that net losses of 31,000 Ontarians every year—from both inter-provincial migration and immigration—would offer a negligible 0.02 percentage-point reduction in economic growth over two years. As the report points out, Ontario’s increasing popularity among Canadian newcomers “could compensate for ‘worst case’ inter-provincial headcount losses.”
A modified version of this article was first published in Perspectives magazine (Issue #3, 2022)