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DEREK MONTAGUE: Some of us aren't meant for small towns

Derek Montague
Derek Montague - SaltWire File Photo
HALIFAX, N.S. —

It was New Year's Eve, and just like previous years, I had no intention of going out and celebrating. Dec. 31st has no real significance, other than an excuse for the masses to go out and get drunk. Besides, I had long accepted that my partying days were over. I was 32 and rarely touched a beer anymore. And over the years I had become much more introverted; it was rare for me to desire being surrounded by strangers.

But after coming back inside from a long walk that evening, I had received some surprisingly good news: A lady who I was wooing had agreed to enter into a “relationship” with me (I had to use quotations, because it isn't your typical type of relationship. No wedding bells to be heard here). The unexpected announcement had put me in a rare celebratory mood.

I had two hours before the party in Halifax. So I put on my best/only suit and tie and headed downtown.

I didn't know a soul at the party, but that didn't prevent me from dancing, drinking, and laughing with these like-minded people. My dance moves turned out to be ridiculously rusty due to inactivity. At one point, while dancing with a lady, the lyrics informed us that we should “get low”. So, while obeying these lyrics, my knees made a loud popping noise, and I was lucky enough to have the ability to rise back up.

I was having such a good time that in my drunken haze I wondered if this was all just a dream and I would soon wake up back in Labrador.

If I were to give you a play-by-play of all the wild things that happened that night (that I can remember), this article would go on far too long.

At 1:55 a.m. I danced to the 80's classic “Tarzan Boy” and decided that, in the last five minutes of last call, nothing would top that song. I stumbled out into the empty sidewalks, and just burst out into random laughter.

I seemed to have the entire downtown sidewalks to myself. But in all likelihood, when passerbys saw this guy in a suit stumbling down the streets, manically laughing towards the sky, they probably retreated onto some side-street or alley.

It was drunken laughter, but also legitimately happy laughter. The series of events from the past few days weren't supposed to happen. Good luck typically didn't follow me around; now all of a sudden, it was, and I couldn't wait to see where this incredible domino effect would take me.

So why did I just regale you this seemingly random story? Because this story wouldn't even exist if I didn't move from North West River, Labrador to an urban centre where such events are possible.

With Muskrat Falls firmly on people's minds back in my old province, people are —once again — writing and talking about whether young people should tough it out and stay at home, or leave for greener pastures. Vickie Morgan's column about how she'd “rather starve in Newfoundland than live anywhere else” certainly got a lot of attention when published by CBC back in December.

A report published by Memorial University in 2017, however, confirmed that many people in N.L. are making the same choice I made — to leave. According to a CBC report on this study: “The decline is the result of low birth rates, a rapidly aging population —Newfoundland and Labrador is aging faster than any other province in the country — and young people leaving rural areas to find work.”

When people are making their arguments for staying and leaving, it's usually based on economics: Will we be taxed too much? Will there be enough jobs? Will Muskrat Falls topple us?

Don't get me wrong, these are all valid anxieties people are facing back in N.L. But economics is only one reason why people are moving away from rural life. There are those of us who just want the life opportunities that only urban centres can offer.

In fact, my choice to leave Labrador was a terrible one based on economics alone.

Before my move, I was an elected official with the Nunatsiavut Government. If I chose to run for re-election, and won, I would have maintained a large salary with a lot of benefits. But I knew it wouldn't have been fair to anyone for me to put my name forward again. I just wasn't meant to live in a rural area.

Don't get me wrong, I know a lot of people living the rural lifestyle who wouldn't want anything else. In central Labrador, there are countless people who love the freedom they feel by being able to openly hunt and fish the land. They also love knowing pretty much every resident in their small town, and being able to stop for a chat with them on the street.

I guess you can say, the message of this article isn't directed towards them. Instead it's directed to the many people who are currently sitting at home in their small towns wishing they could move somewhere else. Throughout my life, I've met far too many people who fit into this group. They know they'd be happier in a city, but they also feel there's many reasons why they can't move. Some of them are legitimate obstacles, others are imaginary.

A lot of the reasons for staying in a state of unhappiness has to do with fear of the unknown. The sense of familiarity can trick the mind in many ways to keep the status quo — I know that sensation far too well.

The fact of the matter is, I wouldn't be where I am today if I didn't decide I needed a massive change of scenery. My mental health has never been better, my anxiety is at an all-time low, and I've had zero bouts of depression since I moved. It feels like I'm back in university again, although I'm old enough and wise enough now to appreciate the experience more.

I relish even the most simplistic things about living in a city. While many people talk about the joy of walking along a secluded wooded trail, I get a lot of joy out of evening walks down a city sidewalk. I can't explain why, but I love passing by random people and looking at the various businesses that exist along a walking route. As someone who has always enjoyed hearing good stories, I feel as though I'm just strolling past countless great ones.

But by far the most significant reason for me to stay in Halifax is the incredible social opportunities that exist in a vibrant city. I've gone on more dates in four months living in Halifax than I did in five years in Labrador. I've laughed more, opened up my personality more, and felt more comfortable in a crowd than I ever had back in rural Labrador.

Some people love rural areas because they enjoy knowing everyone around them; I'm very much the opposite. When I'm feeling my best I love constantly being introduced to people I’ve never met before; who don't know any version of my life story. When you live in a small town it can feel as though your story has already been decided for you. Whether based on fact or rumour, everyone has an idea of who you are. They've known you since you were born and have their minds made up about you. Since moving to Halifax I feel as if I've reclaimed my life story. I have my choices back in a social setting; I can choose what to reveal about myself to people. Those choices haven't been made for me.

Even though I didn't care about economics when I left Labrador, I have found some bonus financial benefits since moving. Unlike Happy Valley-Goose Bay (the hub of central Labrador), where rent went sky high after the Muskrat Falls project was sanctioned, accommodations are affordable, especially for a single guy like myself. But the biggest difference to my savings account has been found in grocery shopping. Thanks to  having large grocery stores competing for my business, I have been able to cut my grocery bills almost in half since moving from Labrador.

If you combine the social benefits along with the economic ones, it's not hard to see why so many of us have chosen to move out of rural N.L. and into nearby cities like Halifax.

Newfoundland and Labrador is facing a tough reality with out-migration and an aging population. These issues are not new to the province. Yet, it is extremely rare to hear anyone championing major social, cultural, or economic change — at least publicly.

Many people want things to stay the same or, even worse, try to reclaim the way things used to be. I will be the first to confess that I don't care too much about traditions. I believe we need to embrace the fact that life will always be in a state of flux. Wishing that change will never happen, or looking at change as a totally negative concept will only succeed in making people bitter.

Rural N.L. will continue to lose more young people if more modernization, and urbanization doesn't happen quickly. The younger generations are growing up in a world of connectivity — they know what exists outside their doors, and the world has never been smaller.

Just think about it like this. For me to change my whole life around last fall, it required a $400 one-way ticket, and a flight that lasted the length of an average movie.

It is now that easy to make a world of difference to one's life. And that is what rural communities have to compete against while trying to convince people to stay. For me, I have found my home in a city and I don't plan to ever change that.

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