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Remote work and affordable housing seem to be driving the shift in the short run, analysts suggest, as Ontario office workers packed up their laptops and sought cheaper pastures.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

The caravan of moving trucks heading west on Highway 401 has been a symbol of the long-term decline of Montreal and the rise of Toronto for more than 50 years.

Hundreds of thousands Quebeckers have left the province for Ontario and its booming metropolis since the 1970s, often leaving behind a sense of diminished horizons for anglophones amid a rising nationalist movement.

Last year, though, for the first time on record, the trend was reversed: more Ontario residents moved to Quebec than the other way around, according to Statistics Canada.

Remote work and affordable housing seem to be driving the shift in the short run, analysts suggest, as Ontario office workers packed up their laptops and sought cheaper pastures.

But some observers also see deeper forces at work, as Quebec’s economy catches up with its neighbour’s, political passions cool, and anglophones adapt to a province where French is predominant.

It’s no wonder the demographic bleeding has stopped, given the wealth of jobs and relative social peace of contemporary Montreal, said Mario Polèse, emeritus professor of urban and regional economy at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique.

“It was a long period of political turbulence and economic turbulence,” he said. “But we’re back to normalcy.”

There is no modern precedent for Ontario losing population to Quebec over a calendar year, said Marc Desormeaux, a Scotiabank senior economist who recently published a research paper noting the phenomenon. Federal government began collecting data on interprovincial migration in 1971, which is when historians say the exodus from Quebec picked up steam.

The October Crisis of the previous year, in which separatist terrorists abducted and murdered a provincial cabinet minister, Pierre Laporte, raised fears of a wider insurrection. Toronto, for its part, was growing fast – construction started on the CN Tower two years later.

The flight to Ontario peaked after René Lévesque and the sovereigntist Parti Québécois were elected in 1976. In the two years after the PQ passed its landmark language legislation, Bill 101, Quebec lost more than 50,000 residents to its neighbour, on net, along with corporate headquarters such as those of Sun Life. Other surges of outmigration followed independence referendums in 1980 and 1995.

“Most of my close friends all moved,” said Jack Jedwab, president of the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies. “I look back at my wedding, the five groomsmen, three out of five left.”

But something has changed, Mr. Jedwab said. Despite simmering linguistic tension in the political sphere, most English speakers got used to living in a place where French is the official language. Even the debate around Bill 96, Premier François Legault’s effort to strengthen the place of French in business and education, has not prompted a major new wave of departures.

“A lot of the anglophones in Quebec who haven’t left are saying, ‘I’ve weathered this thing,’ and they’ve adjusted to the political currents,” he said.

In Ontario, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted relocations to cheaper housing markets. More than 100,000 residents moved to other parts of the country in 2021, the most in 40 years, Scotiabank reported.

The skyrocketing cost of homes in the Toronto area, and the possibility of remote work, are likely factors. “It stands to reason that some people would work remotely in more affordable provinces,” Mr. Desormeaux said.

Oshan Starreveld, 25, moved from Hamilton, Ont., to Montreal last September because she and her partner have tech jobs that allow them to work from anywhere with a WiFi connection. That means she can earn a living despite her limited French and take advantage of lower housing prices.

“You can actually buy a house here eventually, and it’s not a million dollars, and you can have a future,” she said.

Not every Ontario transplant is putting down deep roots. After gaining residents from Ontario in the first two quarters of 2021, Quebec lost some of those back in the second half of the year. The province’s net gain for 12 months was a mere 787 Ontarians.

Still, some newcomers liked their new surroundings more than they expected. Robert Miles moved to Montreal from Toronto last fall and leased a furnished apartment – not necessarily a sign of commitment – but he said the city has got its hooks in him. “The outdoor activities, the work-life balance, the way people interact, the culture,” he said. “A lot of people, I think, are testing it out.”

Even if some remote workers blow back to Ontario on the wind of office mandates, another group is likelier to stay. Some members of the recent Ontario diaspora are Quebec anglophones who left for career reasons but are returning to spend their later years in a place they love.

The photographer Geoffrey James is one of them. He was born in the U.K., and moved to Montreal in 1966 to work as a journalist. He was there with the Canadian edition of Time magazine during era-defining events like Expo 67, when the city was the toast of the world. But the place changed after the October Crisis, he said, and in 1975, he took a job in Ottawa.

After another stint in Montreal, work pulled him and his wife to Toronto in the mid-1990s, around the time of the second referendum. “Everybody thought we were refugees,” he said. He could see how much the city benefited from the arrival of disaffected Quebec anglophones and their employers. “It’s a sort of Toronto joke that they should have a statue of René Lévesque in Nathan Phillips Square for making Toronto the city it was,” he said.

But he missed people saying “bonjour” on the street, the sense of style, Gaspé seafood at the Jean-Talon Market, state support for the arts, the deep sense of urban history. “We missed the city – we missed being here.”

So last year, he and his wife bought a condo in Montreal. They have been splitting their time between the cities while they move, adding another U-Haul to the procession.

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