British Columbia

Search for B.C.'s best small town: northern finals

From 32 communities, it's Bella Coola vs. Smithers in the battle to reach the championship final four

From 32 communities, it's Bella Coola vs. Smithers in the battle to reach the championship final four

The communities are the two finalists in the northern B.C. region of the friendly competition. (CBC News)

What's a sign of a thriving small town?

During the Search for B.C.'s Best Small Town, we've talked a lot about geographical features: rivers or mountains, lakes or backcountry trails. 

But there's usually another key factor: a solid arts scene that punches above its weight. 

"I think the isolation helps, it creates a whole brand," said Wayne Levesque, a musician and writer from Bella Coola, which has an annual music festival in the farmland just east of the small community that serves as the gateway to the Central Coast. 

"Tons of musicians have got their start and gone on to do amazing things from Smithers," said Elijah Quinn, a musician and artistic director at the Kispiox Valley Music Festival, bringing up Alex Cuba's recent Grammy win.

Brew pubs or bears?

The two communities are facing off for the championship of the northern quadrant of the competition, but outside of their music scenes have many big differences.

"The bear viewing has really picked up over the last little while. We don't have the big stores, we don't have the brew pubs, and we don't have the ski hill. But we have a tight knit community that looks after each other," said Levesque of Bella Coola. 

The area is a mix of around 900 members of the Nuxalk Nation living directly on the coastal reserve with the same name and a few hundred nearby settlers (many of them initially Norwegian) living further up the Bella Coola Valley in areas like Hagensbourg. 

Meanwhile, Smithers has the brew pub. It has the ski hill. It's another mid-sized railway and resource town that has made a transition in recent decades to attracting people for recreation and lifestyle reasons. 

"We don't have the ocean, granted," said Quinn. 

"But we have amazing rivers, amazing fishing, amazing skiing, all sorts of outdoor activities.  We've got mountain biking, amazing restaurants, we've got so much here and it's hard not to love it."

Bella Coola is more geographically isolated, with fewer people, and its tourism trends more towards wilderness tours that take people from the community into the Great Bear Rainforest or surrounding Chilcotin country.   

"We're a small town, we're not a big town. Smithers is a big town, so we need the help. It's beautiful, there's bears, there's fish, there's mountains, vote for us," said Levesque. 

Ultimately though, only one can move on.

The communities are the two finalists in the northern B.C. region of the friendly competition. (CBC News)

Census stats

Bella Coola:

  • Median age: 29.4.
  • Population growth since 2011: 9.8 per cent.
  • Renter households: 25.0 per cent.
  • Median total household income: $36,032.
  • BIPOC members as a percentage of community population: 98.8 per cent (reserve only).
  • Road to the Elite Eight: Defeated Anahim Lake 75-25 per cent, Valemount 51-49 per cent, Bella Bella 65-35 per cent and Quesnel 59-41 per cent. 

Smithers:

  • Median age: 39.2.
  • Population growth since 2011: -0.5 per cent
  • Renter households: 31.2 per cent.
  • Median total household income: $74,610.
  • BIPOC members as a percentage of community population: 16.9 per cent.
  • Road to the Elite Eight: Defeated Dease Lake 79-21 per cent, Kitamaat Village 69-31 per cent, Atlin 65-35 per cent and Queen Charlotte 50.5-49.5 per cent. 

*Census numbers outside population growth are from 2016.

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