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5 Small Canadian Towns That Once Served A Big Purpose

What these five small Canadians towns lack in size, they make up for in social significance. From a rural refuge for runaway African American slaves to arguably the oldest seaside resort town in Canada, each one of these towns has its own story to tell.

1. Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia – Pop. c. 1,000
The often-overlooked neighbour of UNESCO World Heritage Site Lunenburg, N.S., the tiny town of Mahone Bay has its fair share of historical relevance. Settled in 1754 by Protestant farmers emigrating from Switzerland and Germany, many of the original buildings still stand today. In fact, the three church spires seen along the shoreline are widely believed to be the most photographed churches in all of Canada. But beyond scenic appeal, Mahone Bay also had a thriving boat-building industry (yes, just like Lunenburg), which was instrumental in providing tugboats, barges and schooners for Canada’s efforts in WWI and WWII.  So, not just a pretty face.

2. Buxton, Ontario – Pop. c. 400

Buxton (which will be featured in an episode later this season) was established in 1849 as an organized settlement for African-Americans who had escaped or relocated to Canada, mainly via the Underground Railway. Rev. William King, an ex-slave owner himself, helped secure 9,000 acres just north of Lake Erie, which was divided into 50-acre plots and sold to incoming refugees at $2.50/acre.

What started out as fifteen freed slaves soon swelled into a town with a sawmill, general store, church and schoolhouse (the only one like it to still exist in Canada) and a population reaching 2,000 at its historic height. Many descendants of the original settlers still live in the area today, making Buxton a truly unique example of Canada’s pioneering spirit.

The Buxton National Historic Site and Museum in North Buxton, Ont. include a cabin filled with artifacts and a schoolhouse. Buxton was once a bustling town for black Canadians in its early years during the 1850s.

3. Flin Flon, Manitoba/Saskatchewan – Pop. c. 5,600
With a funny name steeped in hearsay and history, Flin Flon is a divided border town — literally divided, with some of its population identifying as Manitobans and others as Saskatchewanians.

With the discovery of a volcanogenic massive sulphide (VMS) deposit in 1914, Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Company opened a mine and built one of the largest smelters in the country, instantly making it one of Canada’s most important mining communities. Its name is believed to have been inspired by Josiah Flintabbatey Flonatin, a character from dime-store science-fiction novel The Sunless City by J. E. Preston Muddock, which the men were reading at the time they discovered the rich mineral deposits. What’s the lesson here? Inspiration can come from the most humble origins.

4. Fort St. James, British Columbia – Pop. c. 4,800
Clinging to the stunning shores of Stuart Lake in central B.C., Fort St. James is the longest continually inhabited European settlement west of the Rocky Mountains. Established in 1806 by Simon Fraser of the North West Company as one of the first fur trading posts in the province, settlers soon forged close commercial relationships with the local Carrier First Nations, who made their economic ventures a success.

Fifteen years later it became part of the Hudson’s Bay Company — and would continue operating as such until 1952. Playing a major role in the establishment of this western province and now home to a National Historic Site, Fort St. James has the largest group of original wooden buildings related to the fur trade in Canada.

5. St. Andrews-by-the-sea, New Brunswick – Pop. c. 1,800
Founded by United Empire Loyalists in 1783 on the northwest edge of the Bay of Fundy, St. Andrews-by-the-sea is one of the Canada’s first seaside resort communities.

The town still boasts a bevy of historic 18th-century buildings (many of which were floated there on barges at the end of the American Revolutionary War from Maine) but the main attraction is The Algonquin, a luxury resort built in 1889 (and then later rebuilt in 1915, one year after a fire destroyed it), which attracted well-to-do U.S. and Canadian holiday-goers. Bathing suits may have shrunk since The Algonquin first opened its doors, but the beautiful East-Coast sea views are just as expansive as ever.

Emma Yardley is a lifestyle writer and editor who got her start copyediting classified ads at her local newspaper on Salt Spring Island, B.C. (population c. 10,000). After nearly a decade in Toronto (population c. 2.6 million) working at some of Canada’s biggest publications—Canadian Living, The Toronto Star and Metro, to name a few—Emma is back home and excited to share her insights into what makes small-town living equally charming and challenging.