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Immigrants to Canada, the Ko family play in the basement of their Richmond Hill home. (Della Rollins/Della Rollins for The Globe and Mail)
Immigrants to Canada, the Ko family play in the basement of their Richmond Hill home. (Della Rollins/Della Rollins for The Globe and Mail)

Quality of Life

For Canadian cities, big isn't always best Add to ...

Forget Montreal and Toronto - they have the size but not the sizzle.

An unvarnished assessment of Canada's cities has selected six as the most attractive to move to, and they don't include the country's two biggest.

It gives top honours - an "A" grade - to an eclectic assortment of urban areas: Calgary, Ottawa, Vancouver, St. John's, Waterloo, Ont., and the Toronto suburb of Richmond Hill.

The assessment, in a report by the Conference Board of Canada, calls these municipalities "city magnets" for their ability to appeal to newcomers, whether they be relocating from within the country or emigrating from abroad.

The defining factors include cultural amenities, superior education facilities and strong economic growth. Combined, they make a city a big draw for outsiders, which will be a critical determinant of future prosperity, the board says, because Canada's birth rate is low.

"These six cities come out on top across all rankings, so they appear to have an overall winning combination that is attractive to migrants," said Mario Lefebvre, director of the board's Centre for Municipal Studies.

The board said it compiled the report, commissioned by municipalities, to help governments "create dozens of A cities, not just a handful" out of the 50 reviewed.

The report didn't pull any punches when it came to highlighting failings of urban areas. It gave Toronto - the country's largest city - only a B grade, saying that while it has many positive features, such as the lowest level of car dependency among commuters, it has glaring drawbacks too, including too many poor people and too much air pollution.

Toronto also came in last in the country for the income inequality of its university-educated immigrants, who earn only 54 per cent of what their Canadian-born counterparts make - a "dark spot" for the city.

Montreal fared even worse, with a C grade, in part because of its even more dismal record of people living below the poverty line - about a quarter of its population. Montreal did receive recognition as the most multilingual city, with 70 per cent of the population knowing more than one language.

The least attractive cities for migrants included many smaller urban areas suffering from the downturn in the manufacturing and resource industries, including Oshawa, Brantford, and Windsor in Ontario; Longueuil, Trois-Rivières and Laval in Quebec; and Saint John in New Brunswick.

These cities have poor education resources, low innovativeness in their economies, and either low rates of population growth or outright declines, the report says.

On the "A" list, St. John's - while the least multilingual of all the cities considered - made the cut because it's cresting on a wave of offshore-oil-propelled prosperity and has highly ranked health care.

Calgary, another A-lister, leads the country in per-capita output, with the average value of goods and services produced per resident at $58,000 a year.

The city attracted Cici Yu, who has a masters degree in applied linguists and moved to Calgary from China in 2008. She looked at both Vancouver and Toronto, but picked booming Alberta for its better employment prospects.

"I thought Calgary was a very good place to live because we know the economy is strong," said Ms. Yu, who works at Immigrant Access Fund, which helps newcomers get accreditation for their foreign work experience and education.

The fact that Richmond Hill is one of the most attractive places in Canada doesn't surprise Re/Max real-estate broker Dennis Chan, who sells homes there. Richmond Hill borders Toronto, so it's "not in Timbuktu and it's fairly accessible," he said.

It also has a Toronto-area rarity - larger houses with garages and decent-sized lots at affordable prices.

"For $600,000, $500,000, you get a real house," he said.

Anne Ko, who runs an after-school enrichment program for children in Richmond Hill, says she moved to the community for its good housing and superior schools, after having lived in Toronto. "A lot of the newer and better schools that they put a lot of resources in are now in the York Region school board," she said.

The report looked at whether certain city attributes appealed more to those with university degrees than those without, but concluded education wasn't a major factor in several categories.

"This then suggests that policy makers must be cautious in crafting policies aimed at attracting university graduates only," it said.

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