Transition towns: Meet the people helping small-town B.C. survive and thrive

British Columbia is growing but that growth is mostly focused on large urban centres. Populations in many small communities are stagnant or shrinking. CBC's Daybreak North spoke to people in small communities to find out why they stay, and what their vision is for the future.

Why people in small communities choose to stay as their friends and neighbours leave

Korie Marshall hasn't always been a curling fan, but she thinks it's important to keep Valemount's community rink going. (Carolina de Ryk/CBC)

British Columbia is growing, but that growth is mostly focused on urban centres.

Populations is many small communities are stagnant or shrinking.

CBC's Daybreak North spoke to people in small communities to find out why they stay, and their vision for the future.

Tumbler Ridge: an outdoor paradise

Sara Waters moved to Tumbler Ridge during a coal mining boom. "You couldn't rent a place or get a hotel room," she recalled. Soon after, every mine in the community shut down, although a few have since re-opened. (Sarah Waters)

The situation: As coal mines closed, Tumbler Ridge lost over 700 residents between 2011 and 2016 – a 26 per cent decline. 

The vision: Sara Waters is executive director of the Tumbler Ridge Global GeoPark, an effort to turn the community into a world-class destination for exploring and rock climbing.

It has the support of UNESCO, and Waters says visitors increase every year.

Waters shares he love of Tumbler Ridge.

Why she stays: "Tumbler Ridge has such potential. To me, we're just this little gem in the foothills of the Rockies."

"When you see people come and discover Tumbler Ridge for the first time, it's like an outdoor person's paradise." 


Fraser Lake: a community co-op

Gleave is raising her children in Fraser Lake and wants to build a community co-op to help them stay. "We're not able to retain our youth after graduation," she said. "That's a big problem. We don't have opportunities for them that other communities do." (Shelly Gleave/provided)

The situation: Following the closure of the Endako Mine, the population is less than 1,000 for the first time since the 1960s.

The vision: Sheila Gleave wants to create a community co-op to act as a hub for entrepreneurs to test out ideas, aspiring chefs to train and generally somewhere for people to gather and share skills and ideas.

Why she stays: "We're really connected to the land, and to nature, and definitely to each other. We value family, we value simple comforts and really, really the rewards of hard work."

Listen to Gleave outline her vision.

"We're very resourceful and resilient and we come together in a way that isn't common."


Fort Nelson: Older and wiser

When Rob Cheyne closed his business, he asked his wife and kids whether they should stay in Fort Nelson or move on. "Everyone wanted to stay," he said. (Rob Cheyne/provided)

The situation:  Fort Nelson is the second-fastest shrinking community of more than 5,000 people in Canada.

During the recent oil and gas decline, Rob Cheyne had to shut down his once-prosperous surveying company. He now lives off of savings and investments, and his house's value has declined by over $100,000.

The vision: Cheyne hopes Fort Nelson can cash in on the 75th anniversary of the iconic Alaska Highway, a source of tourism for the northeast.

"We're gonna pump it for all it's worth," he laughed. 

He also thinks residents will demand companies share long-term visions for the community during the next boom.

Listen to Rob Cheyne describe losing neighbours.

Why he stays:  "I feel like I can do more here to help than I can somewhere hiding in a hole."

"My hope is when all the dust settles we're gonna have a core group of people here that we're gonna be able to rebuild a community on. And it's going to be strong."


Valemount: Driven by volunteers

Marshall says many organizations in Valemount are run by volunteers. "That's what our daycare is, the youth centre, all those sorts of things. Somebody saw a need and they said well, nobody else is doing it, we're going to step in." (Carolina de Ryk.)

The situation: Valemount's population has increased by just three people since its lumber mill closed a decade ago, and many services are provided by volunteers.

The vision: Marshall wants to turn the curling rink into a community hub for everyone to use, supported by volunteers and a portion of community taxes.

 "[It] could be a really amazing central community area."

Listen to Marshall learn to lay curling ice.

Why she stays: "If you don't really like living in a city a small community is really the answer. If all of us left, you would have these massive wastes where there's no community, no place to stop for coffee. If you go off the road, there's not gonna be a tow truck to come find you because there's no community there."


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