Close to 300,000 new immigrants and students arrive in Canada each year, most of them end up settling down in urban gateway cities like Vancouver and Toronto, only a fraction will ever settle down in rural communities. Small towns across the land have overall been hemorrhaging population for so long that many are not really viable anymore. There is a popular misconception about there not being opportunity in these small towns but nothing could be further from the truth.
I recently spent a productive weekend in Bancroft in Hastings county about three hours from Toronto. This little town of 4000 is breathtakingly beautiful and besides exploring its raw natural beauty, I was there to meet with about a dozen South Asians who’ve made Bancroft their home.
Many business opportunities
While it is true that there is little scope for a large number of professionals in any of these towns, small business opportunities abound if one looks carefully.
I stayed at the Best Western Sword Motor Inn owned and operated by Sunil Patel and his wife, being centrally located he tells me translates into plenty of business. Life is good and he is happy. Ravi Shah and his family moved here 8 years ago after purchasing the only Subway franchise and later a convenience store. Both businesses are thriving, he has since got into partnership opening three more Subway franchises in Northern Ontario. Franchises in small towns are more profitable than in big cities as there is little or no competition as opposed to cities.
The local vet is another South Asian and there is room for more professionals to move here, certainly more doctors given the large and growing number of seniors who live in this town and in many small towns.
Immigrants integrate faster in smaller towns
Talking to these South Asian families living in Bancroft I’ve come to realize that they have integrated much faster into the mainstream than many immigrants who’ve spent the same amount of time in large cities. Their friend circle includes a large number of Caucasians. I spoke with one South Asian woman who I assumed had grown up in Canada given her diction and Canadian accent, I was blown away to learn she had arrived in Canada just ten years ago and what’s more was she could barely string together a sentence in English but she rapidly learnt the language through osmosis.
Community means something different in small towns
In Toronto, when one says “my community” you can pretty much take it for granted that they are referring to people from their own cultural or ethnic background. The South Asians living in Bancroft use the word community when referring to everyone around in the neighborhood. “The community here is so strong, we look out for each other,” says Sukhan Bains a resident who can’t dream of ever living in the big city.
Life in small towns is less stressful
Life in the big city can be a stressful experience, unemployment is high, so is the cost of living, adding to that housing prices in cities like Toronto and Mississauga are through the roof. Here in Bancroft, a charming home with loads of character sitting on a 1.5 acre lot can cost no more than $300,000. I don’t think Alarm companies do much business in small towns given that it is fairly common for people to leave homes, garages and cars unlocked. A small theft could make the front page news in the local newspaper for days.a
Many of these South Asians first settled in the GTA but came to Bancroft once they identified business and professional opportunities. In rural Counties and small towns across Canada there is a need for immigrants with specific skills to meet the local labour market needs. Simcoe County is one such place which launched an online immigration portal to help new arrivals transition into the region. The only way forward for many communities is to attract immigrants who will infuse a new lease of life into moribund towns.
But it is still easier for an immigrant to settle into a small town if he first stopped in cities like Toronto or Vancouver simply because there are so many services available to newcomers that are non-existent in most rural communities. For example not being able to drive in a rural community would be akin to not having legs. New immigrants who may need to get acquainted with the country and understanding how things work may find a small town a huge culture shock. It is advisable for new immigrants to transition through the big city before making their way to small towns.
Racism seems to be a myth
Many immigrants are also slightly wary of facing discrimination in small towns where ‘foreign’ looking Canadians may be viewed upon with suspicion and even fear. When the South Asian families living in Bancroft meet friends and families from elsewhere, they invariably get asked if they experienced racism and quite frankly none of them can point to any incident that has had racial overtones. Infact they have encountered nothing but kindness and generosity from their friends and neighbors. One of them started off pumping gas at a friend’s Gas bunk, he had an accounting background and a Bancroft resident who owned an accounting firm offered him a job if he got certified. That’s just what he did and today they are partners in the accounting firm and great friends. “It is a misconception that people in small towns are racist, they are friendly. In fact I have got more hostile looks in Toronto,” says one of the South Asian residents. “No one greets each other on the road in Toronto,” he grumbles. Life in a small town is a lot like going to Cottage Country. Infact it is like living there all year round away from the stress and bustle of the big city.