Here to Stay: How small towns are reinventing themselves in the face of uncertainty

CBC reporters from across Canada produced stories of the ultimate 180: small towns that changed everything to invest in the future.

From a shift in the local market to an identity overhaul, the face of small-town Canada is changing

Sitting on a weathered black rock on an expansive stretch of rocky sand near Bamfield, B.C., Wisqii (Robert Dennis Jr.) drums and sings a traditional song that tells the story of the resilience of the Huu-ay-aht people. (Megan Thomas/CBC)
In "Here to Stay," host Manusha Janakiram highlights some of the best stories from across the country, and interviews the local reporters who help keep their communities connected.

Small-town Canada is having a moment.

Some of the tiniest communities across the country are undergoing dramatic, grassroots transformations to reflect their investment in the future.

This summer, CBC News called on its local reporters to round up these stories of adaptation and reinvention. In Here to Stay, host Manusha Janakiram highlights some of the best of these stories, and talks to the local journalists behind them. 

Rebuilding and re-connecting with the culture

The village of Bamfield is located on the remote west coast of Vancouver Island.

The ancient village of Kiixin near Bamfield, B.C., is the centrepiece of an ambitious cultural tourism plan the nation is counting on to show resilience as it rebuilds from the effects of colonialism.

The Huu-ay-aht people have been in the area for thousands of years. Now, they want to put Kiixin on the map, with their own cultural spin.

"We have been wanting to share this gem with the rest of world for quite some time and now we are finally having that chance," says Wisqii (Robert Dennis Jr.), who's been giving tours through the Kiixin site.

"It's kind of a hidden gem and secret," elected Huu-ay-aht councillor Trevor Cootes says. "Huu-ay-aht are trying to change that and spread the word."

Making it work on their own terms

Sheila Bernard, head cook at Our Family Traditions, says people from across the Island have been extremely supportive of the new restaurant, which plans to operate year-round. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC )

If the tiny fishing town of Tignish, P.E.I., had a motto, it would be "make it work."

From an accessible health centre to customized employment options, the community of Tignish finds a way to provide its residents with exactly what they need — all while boasting a population of just over 700.

In the face of a declining population, many small towns would struggle to survive — but not Tignish​​.

"It's not going down. It's getting better, bigger. It's expanding, it's growing. To me, it shows us that we're OK, and we're gonna be OK, because we know what to do," says health centre manager Wendy Arsenault.

Industry overhaul: From cod to cosmetics

48 harvesters along the Lower North Shore region gather berries that are labelled and frozen, before being transformed into purees, syrups and jellies. (Julia Page/CBC)

Originally established as a fishing outport, the small town of Bonne-Espérance, Que., was faced with losing everything when cod stocks collapsed. 

Rather than buckling under the economic pressure of an industry lost, the people of Bonne-Espérance chose to seek prosperity in an unexpected place: berries.

By exploring this new avenue, the community tapped into the rich cultural past of its agriculture, and formed a new industry — and identity — along the way. 

With the input of local elders, the co-op started developing products from indigenous plants like Labrador tea, marshberries and cloudberries. The vitamins and antioxidants extracted will be transformed into face creams, shampoos and facials masks, "a multi-billion dollar market," said Lower North Shore Bioproducts Solidarity Co-operative President Kimberly Buffitt.

Starting from scratch

Rahma Kiwan and Ahmed Hamad with their kids Yousef, Amer, Retal and Shahin in their home in St. Thomas, Ont. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

Historically, St. Thomas, Ont., was made up of a predominantly white population with an economy driven by auto manufacturing. Now, the town's landscape is beginning to tell a different story. 

When several manufacturing companies shut down their St. Thomas branches, the viability of the local economy was left hanging in the balance. 

It was a grassroots effort — thrust forward by the town's church and community groups — that allowed for the transformation.

"The newcomers will fill that void," says Petrusia Hontar, co-ordinator at the St. Thomas-Elgin Local Immigration Partnership. "They bring new ways of doing things, new ideas, new businesses and doing them in a different way." 

From coast to coast to coast, changes are taking place in Canada's small towns and regions. People are redefining what it means to succeed. CBC News is bringing these stories to radio and online in a special cross-country project called Transformation. Find more stories like the ones highlighted above here.