TELECOMMUTING FROM THE EASTERN TOWNSHIPS
Anecdotal evidence indicates a spike in moves to the Eastern Townships, which has long played second fiddle to the Laurentians for country-bound urbanites, writes David Winch.
The Townships are drawing more city professionals who find small-town life accessible in an online world. But can this scenic region more than an hour’s drive from Montreal really be the next hot neighbourhood? David Winch explores in
KNOWLTON Susan Pepler wanted to try a new neighbourhood. A downtown Montreal denizen, the Concordia grad and Dawson-certified designer was happy and prospering in the west-central Shaughnessy Village. She had started there in the 1990s as an ad illustrator, and developed into a full-fledged artiste with a gallery and online public for her floral and Cuba-themed paintings. Perhaps a move to the Plateau was next?
But today her new home is elsewhere, built live on Facebook: “Loving my new digs!” she posted on her FB newsfeed as a new migrant to the Eastern Townships and a resident of Knowlton in the municipality of Brome Lake.
“After painting for 10 years, and as much as I loved my house, my life and my friends in Shaughnessy Village, I realized I could take my painting career and work anywhere at all,” she said in an interview.
“I needed to live in the city then,” she said of her years as a freelance advertising illustrator, sketching coloured drawings for TV advertising concepts. Eventually her sister settled near Lac-Brome. Knowlton appealed to her because she had family and friends there already. She started exhibiting in 2006 in Knowlton; by December 2015 Pepler had bought a Victorian townhouse.
“Now I have an awesome little neighbourhood near the lake and marina,” she said.
She wants to build momentum in her career, exhibit more in Knowlton and Montreal, then increase her visibility in Ontario and the U.S. Being in touch online is key in that decision.
“Electronic communications make anything possible,” she said. “Geographically, my clients are across the continent and overseas, but because of the Internet, it was easy to move out here and maintain business as usual. All I really needed was my canvasses, my list and my laptop.”
“I’m in touch with 1,000-plus clients, fans and followers, mainly via my newsletter, but also via social media like Facebook and Instagram. Everyone knows what I’m up to in the studio. … My business hasn’t skipped a beat,” she reported.
The Townships are drawing more city professionals like Pepler, who find small-town life accessible in an online world. Anecdotal evidence indicates a spike in moves to the region, which has long played second fiddle to the Laurentians for country-bound urbanites. Montreal has traditionally viewed the Townships as “our Vermont,” a scenic corner with little economic oomph. But will more commuting and telecommuting and the growth of service industries — in tourism, computer services, education, the arts — make the Eastern Townships the next hot neighbourhood?
Quebec’s Institut de la Statistique reported in March 2016 that the regions both north and south of Montreal are quickly gaining migrants from the city, a total of 12,898 new residents in the 2014-15 period alone. The sprawling South Shore Montérégie region (pop. 1.54 million), which stretches from Longueuil southeast to Granby and Cowansville, is now gaining as many new people as the Laurentians. And this growing region borders the western edges of the Eastern Townships.
U.S. consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics defines “telecommuting ” as “the substitution of technology for commuter travel.” The Institut de la Statistique reports it has “no data on telecommuting” yet for Quebec regions. Statistics Canada uses the term “work at home,” and concludes that 20 per cent of university graduates, largely in service industries — the information, finance and culture fields — worked at home as of 2013, and this type of work was “growing rapidly.” No regional breakdown for telecommuting is available before the 2016 census results. But given the proximity of the Montérégie and Townships, it’s likely that telecommuting is part of their population growth.
Catherine Orer, a self-described “business strategist for creative entrepreneurs,” was “climbing the corporate ladder” in Montreal when in 2015 after her second maternity
leave, she and her husband decided to move from Longueuil to Bromont. The small city (pop. 8,438) about 80 kilometres from Montreal “offered our family a better quality of life and proximity to nature,” she said.
Now she and her family live on a two-acre wooded property. Orer has maintained her career path, working online with clients from Miami to New York City. Now her computer is her office.
“I have clients on multiple continents that I meet and work with solely through the Internet, so whether I’m living in downtown Montreal or in Bromont makes absolutely no difference.”
There is an upscale bus service with Wi-Fi and Netflix that her husband Christian Bergeron, a risk analyst at the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, rides every morning. That commute takes him a little over an hour along Autoroute 10 to the Caisse head office near Old Montreal.
Orer says commuting from southeastern Quebec to Montreal does not have the same image as commuting from north of the city. “No one would blink at travelling from Blainville,” she said about the bustling suburb between Laval and Mirabel. As greater Montreal has sprawled north in recent years, towns once considered safely in cottage country have become distant suburbs. St-Jérôme, often called “the capital of the Laurentians,” has had AMT commutertrain service since 1997; the rushhour trip from Central Station is scheduled to take one hour and 36 minutes.
The Townships are further from Montreal than the Laurentians; while St-Jérôme is just under 60 km from Montreal, the western edges of the Townships — Granby
and Bromont — are between 80 and 90 km southeast of the city, while Magog is “an hour and a quarter from Montreal,” says broker Simon-P. Marcil, in a pitch realtors there often recite.
Working far from city conveniences was not always easy. Suzan Ayscough, a film-industry publicist, recalls being a pioneer commuter in the Laurentian village of Morin Heights in the 1980s while working with city clients. “It usually took between 45 and 90 minutes to drive, depending on the traffic,” she said. “I had a pied-à-terre apartment-office in the city and got a fax there in 1985. I remember clearly in 1988 when I began filing by the Internet. … It was so liberating, even on my old Tandy with a noisy modem. It changed my world. I could file from anywhere. ”
Federal census data from 2016 are still being compiled, but the Eastern Townships (largely overlapping the province’s Estrie region), have emerged as one of the province’s steady growth poles. Quebec’s recent “Panorama des régions (2016)” publication cited the Sherbrooke MRC (municipalité régionale de comté), along with Montreal and its suburban areas, as growing vigorously: between 2011 and 2016, “14 of the MRCs in Quebec showed sustained growth, of between (1 and 1.5 per cent). Among these are the MRCs of Montreal, Laval, Longueuil and Sherbrooke,” it reports.
Townships jobs now often fit a new profile, based in service industries such as tourism, education and specialty foods. These include microbreweries and vineyards, niche hotels and restaurants, and food producers like the region’s ice-cider and fine-cheese makers. But economic statistics don’t always account for new residents who bring their jobs with them.
Some urban refugees avoid growth areas and go “deep rural.” Geraldine Stringer moved to the Townships in 2012 from Montreal. An architect by training, Stringer had originally moved to Quebec from Boston on an international urban-planning project. In 1991, she met her husband Jean-Pierre Pelletier at the Université de Montréal, then she worked for engineering firm Dessau on projects around the world. Meanwhile, her husband was doing environmental planning and commuting regularly to the University of Sherbrooke.
After a decade living with this arrangement, they moved to tiny Way ’s Mills, halfway between Coaticook and Ayer’s Cliff, near Sherbrooke. “Technology plays a very big part” in the couple’s decision to
work in the country, she says. They can communicate via Skype with students. “Getting high-speed Internet in the village was absolutely crucial” to being able to work there, she said.
Although “the first winter was horrible” there, she has since acclimatized and finds it “beautiful to walk with our dogs in winter” and “fun” to live in a leafy hamlet of just 22 houses, with fields and cows across the road. Now a horticulturalist, Stringer plans gardens for clients throughout the Townships. She describes returning to work in Montreal as “noisy and busy.”
Meanwhile, the Townshippers’ Association, which advocates for the 46,628 anglos living in the historic Eastern Townships area, reports that recent commuting and telecommuting trends are “not yet a big demographic” in the Sherbrooke area. “It’s likely to be
more common in the Brome Lake area or in towns like Cowansville, Granby, etc., which are physically closer to Montreal,” said spokesperson Corinna Poole.
In the college town of Lennoxville, a borough of Sherbrooke, there is a classic emphasis on new high-tech firms to generate jobs. Borough president David Price underlines the emergence of Global Excel, a startup launched by Bishop’s grads in the 1980s, which has mushroomed to 400 employees, processing bilingual insurance and medical claims. Such growth is rooted locally, rather than depending on Montreal expatriates adopting their town.
A new wave may be coming, however, unfurling steadily on the countryside. The Townships have relied on their charm for a long time. Now they might generate some buzz.
I have clients on multiple continents ... so whether I’m living in downtown Montreal or in Bromont makes absolutely no difference.