Making the Move from Urban to Semi-Rural

Carolyn Bennett on making the move from Toronto to Brockville, Ontario

By Carolyn Bennet

Montreal. Toronto. Edmonton. These are the cities I’ve called home at various times in my life. Now I make my home in Brockville, Ontario, population 22,000. Say what? I know. The pandemic, my landlord selling the building I lived in for 24 years, and insane housing prices in the GTA had a lot to do with it. I’ve been in Brockville for five months and it’s only now that I’m starting to chill.

I’m a writer, performer and urbanite through and through, born under a flashing neon sign – Open Ouvrir Open. Sainte-Catherine Street was my playground. Montreal was the largest city in Canada when I was a kid; nothing and nowhere could top my hometown for arts and culture. As an aspiring writer, filmmaker and comedian, I had the good fortune to study at Concordia University, and develop my comedic chops at the Comedy Nest on Bishop Street. With bars and clubs closing at 3 a.m., Montreal pulsed with energy – there was always an art installation, band or performance to see.

However, as an anglophone with Toronto-born parents, and with a burgeoning film and television scene down the 401, I knew my time in MTL had an expiry date. After graduating, I made the excruciating decision to join the maudit anglais in Hogtown. It didn’t take me long to find my people, but Toronto felt stifling. My sister boasted about living in Jasper, so I moved to Edmonton, just close enough for comfort.

Edmonton was a pleasant surprise, not the cultural wasteland I thought it would be. That’s the key phrase – what I thought it would be. To quote Mark Twain, travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness. I cooled my eastern arrogance and opened my heart to the rich history and culture of the West. But after three years, I knew I had to go back to Toronto where the arts and entertainment scene was exploding. I reluctantly returned.

Happily, the following 27 years in Toronto made me. I flourished as a performer and a writer. Being surrounded by so much diversity and artistic innovation was exhilarating. Even now, as I write this, I shake my head. I cannot believe I no longer live there.

Why did I choose Brockville?

First off, my landlord had put the house up for sale in Toronto, and I knew that whoever bought the house would renovict me the moment they could. I didn’t want to rent anymore, and if I wanted to buy, it meant leaving Toronto. Relocating is quickly becoming the reality for artists living in urban centres today, but with the internet the transition is not too disruptive. The biggest challenge I’ve discovered in relocating to a smaller centre is in adjusting my attitudes and fitting in without losing myself.

Brockville seemed ideally located, being a short distance from Ottawa and Kingston, two hours or so from Montreal, and three and a half hours to Toronto. I figured I could have my pick of cities to ply my trade. Initially, I considered Brockville a suburb of all these places.

Then something happened. I began to realize that I already live in a city, the City of the Thousand Islands, the oldest incorporated city in Ontario. The city may be small, but it’s a centre, and a beautiful one along the St, Lawrence River. My house in the historic downtown district is close to art galleries and the Brockville Arts Centre, a 700-seat theatre. So, as I had done in Toronto and Edmonton when I first arrived there, I sought out my people with fingers crossed.

Russ Disotell. Photo credit Dan Nostbakken.

Building Community

The first Brockvillian I met for coffee was Russ Disotell, a facilitator for Brockville Culture Days. An author and historian, Russ made me feel comfortable right away with my decision to move. He came to Brockville from Toronto in 1993, well ahead of the curve. “The cost of living is a quarter of what it was for us before,” says Russ. “The community is small enough so that if you want to sink your teeth into it, you can. There’s not layers and layers of bureaucracy.” His counsel for urbanites settling in smaller centres is to get involved. “Every conversation has to be about what’s in it for the other person,” he says, in reference to pitching arts and culture projects to city councils, “You can bring your big city ideas, but you have to couch them. First, roll up your sleeves and see who needs a volunteer.”

Samia O’Day. Photo credit Dan Nostbakken.

Relationships are everything in a smaller centre, advises Samia O’Day, a musician and founding director of the Canada Music Academy, the Montreal Academy of Music, and an owner of All You Need Music store in Brockville. Living here has allowed her to deepen her connections in the community. “When I moved here from Montreal nine years ago there was a transition period. I had to slow down, but not slow down in a way of accomplishing less, but to let the dust settle and get more clarity. I think when you’re in a busy city the accomplishments are counted and checked off, whereas now I’m trying to notice more about the community.”

Samia is definitely a community builder. Among her many positions is being president of the Brockville Concert Association, a small group of volunteer music enthusiasts dedicated to bringing classical, jazz and world music concerts to town. I can now say I’m part of this small enthusiastic group because I joined the board of directors. Getting involved has helped me feel more connected to my new hometown.

Finding Connection

Despite the pandemic, business has been going well for Samia, and it has picked up for Tim and Kathleen, the owners of Medium Effort Art Supplies in downtown Brockville, just down the street from where I live.

Kathleen and Tim lived in Toronto for many years, but as their family grew, they knew they wanted more space. They first moved to Burlington outside of Toronto, and then in 2012 they made the leap to a farm near Brockville. They opened their art store in 2019, “out of need,” says Tim, who is an artist. “There are other places to get art supply materials, but I’d have to go to Ottawa or Kingston. Opening the store has been a way to find connection. We wanted to build a place where we could meet people and chat, and not be so isolated.”

Medium Effort Art Supplies. Photo credit Dan Nostbakken.

As new business owners, Tim and Kathleen factored in not making much money for the first three years after opening. The pandemic, as a result, didn’t derail them too much. “We just started to get some recognition, then slam, we were shut down. When covid hit there was pressure to go online. The more online we went, the more we knew we wanted to be in-person,” says Kathleen.

The support from the community has sustained them and they are open once again, offering life drawing classes.

“The art scene here is big,” adds Tim. “There’s a lot of artists who come in for supplies. Some of them are well known. It’s a good community all along the St. Lawrence Seaway. They’re happy to have something in town. Our business has been word of mouth and we haven’t really advertised much.”

So, I’m slowly finding my way in Brockville. Russ, Samia, Tim and Kathleen are people who speak the language of art and creativity, people who cultivate and nurture art and appreciation for the arts. My people. I’ll keep rolling up my sleeves to see how I can contribute to my new hometown the best I can. I just hope Brockville likes comedy.