The best place to live in Canada is small, really small. It is often assumed that residing in a modest-sized town implies giving up access to most services and amenities you need but it may not be true everywhere. Satellite communities have evolved around major centres to deliver small-town flare with big-city conveniences. Several of these communities aren’t just great places to live: they’re in fact Canada’s best-kept secrets. An example is St. Albert, a community of just 64,000 on the edge of Edmonton. Very few Canadians have likely ever heard of it. But it tops MoneySense’s annual Best Places to Live ranking.
The Top 25 Best Places to Live
About half of the top 20 cities on our list are west of Winnipeg. The area offers plenty of opportunities to land high-paying jobs, and the city is fast expanding its transit system and growing its cultural scene. The westward tilt brings some casualties in the east. For instance in Orillia and Owen Sound in Ontario, growth is stagnant and the job outlook is dim.
Many big cities took a step back this year, except for Quebec City, Laval, Que., and Vancouver. A dichotomy is emerging in the La Belle Province, where little-known communities like Boucherville, Lévis and Rimouski are jumping up the list while Montreal sinks towards the bottom.
Several critics point out that we don’t include intangible considerations – like the best scenery or hottest attractions – into our methodology. This is true and we don’t take these things into account because such characteristics aren’t the point of this exercise. This isn’t the ‘best places to visit list’, it’s the ‘best places to live list’. The characteristics we take into account include good access to medical care, low crime, good public transportation and nice weather. And most importantly, the best places to live in Canada have to be affordable. So measures like housing prices, employment and wealth are particularly given the greatest weighting in our methodology.
St. Albert beats out every other city in Canada. Unemployment is just above 4%, incomes are among the highest in the country, the crime rates have been steadily falling, and while winters here can be extremely cold (about 28 days a year with a minimum temperature below -20˚C), there’s plenty of sun for the rest of the year.
St. Albert also holds a special appeal for young families. St. Albert stands out as a place where cars don’t always come first. Street hockey is commonly played and you can easily close the street for a neighbourhood party.
Before moving to St. Albert, Brandi Siffledeen, a 33-year-old tech company employee, and her husband Quentin, 33 and a car dealership manager, lived in downtown Edmonton. Since their 19-month-old daughter Brielle was born, their priorities have changed and they appreciate that St. Albert caters to kids. The city has ample green space, an abundance of outdoor rinks and more than 85 km of bike trails along the Sturgeon River. It also runs an International Children’s Festival that draws 55,000 people per year. Click here to see the top 25 places to live in Canada.
If small city is not for you, you could check out some of our top-ranked cities with medium-sized populations between 100,000 and 400,000. The top ranked mid-sized city is Burlington, Ont., which also earns fifth place in our overall ranking. Burlington offers the convenience of being close to a major centre, Toronto, but also has the bonus of a higher quality of life.
Denise Lee-Hutchinson, 28, grew up in Toronto but now feels more at home in Burlington. “I thought I would miss Toronto bars and nightclubs, but I don’t,” she says. The streets are cleaner, it’s not as busy and it’s generally friendlier, she says. “I have more neighbours that I speak to on a daily basis than I did when I lived in Toronto.”
However Burlington is one of the more expensive cities in our ranking. The average home costs almost $500,000. But it earns high marks for low unemployment, low crime, pleasant weather, high incomes and great transit.
Big Cities Stumble
Except for Calgary and Ottawa, two thirds of the major cities with populations over 400,000 have experienced drops of some degree. Brampton, Ont., Surrey, B.C., and Montreal have seen steep declines. The main cause is high rates of unemployment, hovering between 8% and 10%.
Another cause for concern in big cities is the rapid increase in housing prices. In spite of rising mortgage costs, the average family incomes have remained the same, or even fallen, implying that it takes that much longer to pay off a mortgage or to save for retirement. Montreal faces this problem the most. The city may not be as expensive as Vancouver or Toronto, the salaries are much lower compared to other big urban centres. Average family income is $62,000. Yet home prices in Montreal are on par with Ottawa, where the average family earns $40,000 more a year.
Calgary dropped from first to second place this year, mainly due to minor hiccups in the unemployment rate, home affordability and an increase in population growth. Calgary however continues to evolve impressively. Architectural landmarks include the Telus Spark Science Centre and an upcoming National Music Centre. The unemployment rate is below 6%, and household incomes average above $100,000.
Vancouver gained ground this year. Improvement in the unemployment rate and a drop in the crime rate helped increase its ranking to 39th overall from 52nd a year ago. Vancouver also tops in terms of culture. More than 4% of the city’s population are employed in the arts, culture and recreation sector.
Thirty years ago, Christopher Gaze, 61, was looking for work as an actor when he moved to Vancouver. Today he’s the artistic director for Bard on the Beach, Western Canada’s largest professional Shakespeare festival. Vancouver’s ballet, opera and Grammy award-winning symphony are all doing well.