Harleen Puaar Shukla remembers the moment Sault Ste. Marie first felt like home. She’d recently arrived from New Delhi, where she grew up, to study public relations and events management at Sault College. A friend of a friend invited Shukla to a dinner party with other members of the city’s Indian community. “I did not know that there was a [sizeable] Indian population here,” she says. “So that, I think, was the moment where I felt okay.”
Still, Shukla wondered if she’d have an easier time building her career in a bigger city. She ended up moving to Toronto—but after a couple of months, she realized that it wasn’t where she wanted to be.
“It was so different living in Sault Ste. Marie, because I wasn't used to [the pace],” she says. “When I was in Toronto, I felt like I was back in New Delhi. It's the same lifestyle. And I think that's why I made that choice to come back to the Soo.”
As a vibrant community of 73,000, Sault Ste. Marie has all the amenities of a larger Canadian city, with the safety of a smaller one. Locals have always recognized the city’s adventurous charms, including world-class fly fishing, kilometres of cross-country ski trails and easy access to canoe tripping—but now a growing number of adventure enthusiasts and even less outdoorsy city folk are relocating to Northern Ontario.
With real estate prices rising in cities like Toronto and its surrounding suburbs, Sault Ste. Marie has become an attractive option—it’s affordable, welcoming and laid-back. What’s more, home ownership is achievable in the northern city; the Canadian Real Estate Association reported that the average cost of a home in the Sault in March 2019 was $184,810. And these transplants are sticking around. According to a 2019 report¹ from Public Policy Forum and Pathways to Prosperity, 73.4 per cent of the immigrants who arrived in the city between 2007 and 2011 were still living there five years later.
Shukla isn’t the only millennial putting down roots in Sault Ste. Marie. Dr. Jenna Rebelo moved to Sault Ste. Marie from Hamilton, Ont. in Jan. 2019 with her husband, Mike, and their one-year-old son, Felix. The couple had been living in their hometown while she finished her last year of residency for medical school at McMaster University. One day while on mat leave, she got a text message about a job opportunity in the Soo.
“My initial thought was, I’ve never been to Northern Ontario ever. I am not outdoorsy. So, you know, sure, I’ll look into it, but I didn’t think too much of it,” she says.
That is, until she spent two weeks visiting Sault Area Hospital. “The longer I was there, the more I got this sense that I needed to come back,” says Rebelo, an ears nose and throat specialist. “I felt like, I can't imagine that I'm not going to see these people again. I already feel like I belong here.”
That feeling didn’t go away when they actually moved to the Soo. In fact, Mike says the community made his own transition much easier. “It's a bit of a leap of faith,
[moving to a ] place that you don't know anybody,” he says. But people went out of their way to make him feel welcome, including the car salesman who sold the couple a second vehicle—and invited Mike to join his softball team.
Rebelo also knew moving to the Sault would be the right move for her career. It can be difficult to attract doctors to the North, but she knew working in a smaller city meant she’d get a chance to do more, sooner. “The neat thing about practising here is that you really can explore the full depth of practice and not just the breadth,” she says. “People are so happy when I tell them that they don't have to go down south for their ear surgeries—I can do it right here.”
Like Rebelo, Teni Araba, director of human resources at Algoma University, says she also fell for the city before she even knew she’d be living here. At first, it was about the Soo’s natural beauty—and abundant space. “It is serene, it is naturally beautiful, picturesque. I always say you can’t take a bad picture in the Soo; it just can’t happen,” she says. And when she realized that you can get anywhere in the Soo in 15 minutes or less, she was thrilled to spend less time commuting than she used to in Regina, Sask.
But it took actually moving to the Soo with her husband Gabriel and their three kids—14-year-old Romi, six-year-old Jola and four-year-old Fami—to understand how great the city is for young families. “[We have] the opportunity to raise our kids in a friendly, welcoming place,” she says. It’s not just about access to the outdoors; the family attends the United Baptist Church, and take lessons at the Algoma Conservatory of Music.
They all stress how warm and welcoming the city is. For Shukla, who met her now-husband at that first dinner party and has now lived in the Soo for almost six years, there’s no place she’d rather be. “It's an ideal place because you get the real Canadian experience here. And you're not spending hours on commuting. Instead, you're spending time with family. I think it’s a great place to put down roots.”
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