Search for B.C.'s best small town: Northern region, Round 1
From Haida Gwaii to the Peace region, the province's north has plenty of small towns with a chance of winning
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most small towns in B.C. were settled for reasons a lot like Valemount's.
"We were that rail stop … and obviously, forestry was huge here," said Owen Torgensen, mayor of the town of just over 1,000 people, just west of the Alberta border near Jasper.
The first population boom came after a railway station was established in 1914, and the second came as the town became a hub for the forest industry in the Robson Valley.
But the railway has long ceased to be a pillar of Valemount's tourism and economic strategy. Most of the mills shut down over a decade ago. The town is now on the same path as many in B.C. — transitioning from being traditionally resource-based to something more diverse.
"The massive mill closure in 2007 … that's when we knew we couldn't have those pie in the sky dreams anymore," said Torgensen.
"It forced people to reinforce the smaller pieces of that pie, to find those niche markets, so that if we ever did lose a piece, there were other pieces to help with that transition."
Valemount has a few advantages in that journey. The area around town has enough trails for hiking, snowmobiling and ATV fans. It has a full-service health centre with three full-time doctors, an advantage in keeping older residents.
And as long as there are travellers going between B.C. and Alberta and looking to stop somewhere overnight, there will always be new people discovering Valemount.
"It's location, location, location," said Torgenson.
"Folks not from here would say that we might be in the middle of nowhere, but we're in the middle of everywhere."
Can it be king of the North?
Valemount is one of 32 communities competing in the northern division in The Search for B.C.'s Best Small Town, and over the next seven weeks a friendly competition will determine (unofficially) which community reigns supreme. For the purposes of this competition, we've defined the "north" as anything beyond north of Williams Lake or Clearwater.
We included every community in the province that was either:
- A municipality with under 12,000 people, based on the 2021 census.
- An unincorporated community, small island or Indigenous community with at least 500 people, based on estimates from the 2021 census.
A series of play-in votes were conducted last month to narrow the field down to 128 entries, leaving us with 32 towns that roughly fit into each of the following four areas of the province:
- Vancouver Island (voting on Tuesday).
- Southwest B.C. (voting on Wednesday).
- Interior (voting on Thursday).
- The North (voting on Friday).
Each day from Tuesday to Friday, there will be a new series of one-on-one votes in a different region. Each week, we'll narrow the field down — from 128 to 64, 64 to 32, and so on, until we have a champion.
But we'll also use the Search for B.C.'s Best Small Town to explore the opportunities and challenges the majority of communities in this province face.
Voting will take place until 10 p.m. PT each day, starting with the first 16 matchups for the Interior region that you'll find at the end of this article.