Secret Life of Canada

Falen Johnson and Leah-Simone Bowen head to the mall in season five premiere of The Secret Life of Canada

Where have all the malls gone? And what happens to a mall when it “dies?” In this episode we look into how the mall started, what it looked like in its heyday and what happened when it began to decline. Put on your acid washed jeans and turn up the muzak.

The show about the country you know and the stories you don’t returns for its fifth season

Empty mall in Shediac, New Brunswick
Ryan Taylor took this photo at Mall Centre-Ville in Shediac, N.B. Earlier this year, Taylor started experimenting with film photography as a hobby, and he plans to capture all the "dead malls" in New Brunswick and beyond. (Ryan Taylor)

A brand new season of The Secret Life of Canada is here, and in the premiere episode co-hosts Falen Johnson and Leah-Simone Bowen are donning their butterfly clips and acid-washed jeans and heading to the mall. 

There's a certain nostalgia for the suburban mall of the past. Shopping today doesn't seem to have the same magic to it — and for the most part, small town malls are considered dead.

In this episode, Johnson and Bowen explore what made malls such a go-to spot to meet people. Entering through an 'anchor store,' such as Zellers or Sears, you could spend hours inside the enclosed space as you made your way through several other stores and reached the centre: where a water fountain full of wishes (i.e. pennies), or perhaps Santa Claus, greeted you as if you were in a town square.

The mall brought the outside world inside, but with the modern convenience of air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter. That particular feature was a hit in Canada's first suburban mall, West Vancouver's Park Royal.

Onlookers look at the seals swimming in their pool enclosure in the West Edmonton Mall.
A scenic view of the seal exhibit inside the West Edmonton Mall as photographed on August 28, 2020 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The mall is the 23rd largest in the world, and the largest in North America. It features two hotels, an indoor amusement park, waterpark with wave pool and a hockey rink. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

"Researching this one, it was a real walk down memory lane … But really more than anything it made me miss the malls of my youth. When I was younger these spaces often felt so vibrant, so fun, I could spend a whole day there. But now when I find myself in a mall, I just feel kinda sad. I know they have changed," said Johnson. 

That change was a result of young people growing their families, moving out of downtown cities and settling in the suburbs as the popularity of malls rose. At the same time, the corner stores and mom and pop shops that characterized downtown drastically shrank because their customers had left.

Some cities tried to reimagine what their downtown core could look like — and how to re-engage with their communities. But there were other places, like Johnson's hometown of Brantford, Ont., where it remained unclear; the death of her town square was blamed on a curse.

Hundreds of people are jammed into the mall atrium near a Lush store in Burnaby's Metrotown, B.C.'s largest mall.
Hundreds of shoppers lined up for hours at Metrotown in Burnaby, British Columbia for $5 gift cards on Black Friday in 2013. (Steve Lus/CBC)
Few people walking through a shopping mall in Montreal
The COVID-19 pandemic had a drastic impact on indoor spaces like malls. Here, a shopping mall in downtown Montreal is nearly deserted at the start of the pandemic on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

For University of Toronto geography professor Deborah Cowen, Morningside Mall in Scarborough, Ont., is the perfect example of a shuttered mall that was once full of life: a group of men played cards all day in the food court, people walked the halls for exercise and parents spent the day there with their young children. Even the mall's management was supportive of locals using the building as a community space.

But then, Walmart came along.

"Walmart killed that mall by closing their door [to the rest of the mall]," Cowen told The Secret Life of Canada

This prevented customers from accessing the other stores through an indoor entry. When Walmart left the mall and moved to a new location down the street, Morningside Mall eventually lost business and had to close down.

Is a mall really dead if it's not making enough money? What if it's filled with people dancing, like during the Idle No More movement, or practicing tai chi?

Take a listen to this week's episode to find out more:

Key References:


Mehek Mazhar


Mehek Mazhar is an associate producer with CBC Radio Digital and CBC Podcasts in Toronto. She writes action-packed stories, from the urgent to the utterly strange. She has also worked with CBC Radio's As It Happens and The Current. Mehek is originally from Hamilton, Ont. You can reach her at