British Columbia

The District of Mission wants to become a city, but does it mean anything?

What's the technical difference in B.C. between a city, district or town? So long as it's incorporated, absolutely nothing.

It won't change any laws or responsibilities, but mayor says a rebrand is important to attract business

The main commercial area of Mission, which has a population of about 40,000 people, is dominated by small businesses in two-storey buildings. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

What's the technical difference in B.C. between a city, district or town? 

So long as it's incorporated, absolutely nothing: the laws and responsibilities that govern municipalities in B.C. are the same no matter what they're called.

But that hasn't stopped some people from worrying in Mission, which is going through a process that could end with it transforming from a "district municipality" to a "city."

"It's very hard for people to actually understand," said Mission Mayor Pam Alexis, who says a name change would raise the Fraser Valley municipality's visibility.

"They want tangible benefits. They want me to list the ten things that are going to change. I'm like 'I can't do that for you.' It's about how we're perceived." 

No consistent definition

Presently, when a new population centre in B.C. becomes a municipality, it is classified based on population. For example, if a municipality's population is less than 2,500 it's a village. A town is between 2,500 and 5,000. A city is a muncipality with more than 5,000.

And a district municipality is larger than 800 hectares, but has a population density of less than five people per hectare.

But definitions have changed over the years, and classifications don't automatically change when populations rise or drop.

It's how Greenwood, B.C., with just 665 people, can continue to be one of the province's 51 cities, over a century after they incorporated during a mining boom in the area. And it's why Mission continues to be a district municipality, despite a population over 38,000. 

"The word district really implies that we're not ready. And we are ready," said Alexis.

"And it's time now for us to have the same opportunities that our neighbours have."

Mission Mayor Pam Alexis says the city needs to create more jobs so more of its population spends time in the district. (Christian Amundson)

Majority of residents commute

As of the 2016 Census, nearly seven out of 10 Mission residents travelled to another city for work, and over a third began their commute before 7 a.m., more than nearly every other municipality in the Lower Mainland. 

Alexis has pushed a pro-growth agenda since becoming mayor last year, believing more businesses would allow Mission residents the ability to spend more time in their municipality and less time on the road. 

"It's really aimed at how people perceive us from the outside," she said.

Alexis said some people in town are against a name change because they value Mission's small-town feel outside the commercial and industrial core, but she says feeling wouldn't be affected by a reclassification.

"The ruralness of the community will not change," she said.

"There will always be aspects to Mission that will satisfy that citizen that wants that setting, that remoteness and being more isolated," Alexis added, though district staff estimate a full rebranding would cost $190,000 over the course of two years.  

"Nothing's changing there. You know we've been dealing with big-city problems for years, and so why not be calling ourselves a city?"

Doesn't happen if 10% say no

Right now, Mission is undergoing a process used in B.C. municipalities to show the province if citizens are in favour of a project by their city hall.

It's called an alternative approval process, and if 10 per cent of eligible voters sign a form stating they oppose changing to a city, the process will stop.

If voters don't, the request will go to the provincial government, which has quickly signed off on similar requests in recent years. 

"Nothing changes," said Sean McGill, city manager for Delta, B.C.'s newest city.  

It became B.C.'s 51st municipality in 2017, changing from "corporation of Delta" for many of the same reasons Mission is considering.  

"We had grown up a lot over time. So we thought we were a city, we didn't think the name reflected that, and it did generate lot of confusion," McGill said.

"Don't be afraid of what's going to change and the unknown. It's a pretty simple process and for us, it helped for the business we're in and it more closely reflects what we do."

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