By Steve Hubrecht
The first public release of data from Canada’s most recent national census came last week, depicting population trends across the country.
Here in the Columbia Valley, the 2021 census shows that the population is up — indeed way up — in all three of the valley’s incorporated municipalities and in both of its regional rural electoral areas.
The 2021 data shows that the valley’s overall population increased a whopping 23.4 per cent, with the region now home to 11,700 people, up from almost 9,500 in the 2016 census.
Of course, ever since the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic hit Canada back in early 2020, anecdotal accounts have abounded about people leaving major urban centres and flocking to rural areas, given that many can now work remotely and that rural areas, in the minds of many people, offer a pleasant respite and a good deal more space than urban areas during a pandemic. So is the population growth here any different than everywhere elsewhere across Canada? In short: yes, very different.
The Canadian average population growth from 2016 to 2021 was 5.2 per cent, and the B.C. provincial average was 7.6 per cent. At 23.4 per cent, the Columbia Valley’s growth is quite literally more than quadruple the national average, and almost triple the provincial average.
The District of Invermere, the valley’s largest municipality, now has 3,900 residents, up 15.5 per cent from 2016. The Village of Radium Hot Spring saw the most explosive growth of any Columbia Valley municipality, with its population soaring a mind-boggling 72.6 per cent to 1,300 residents (or, in other words: in just five years Radium got three quarters of the way to actually doubling its population). In the valley’s third incorporated municipality, the Village of Canal Flats, the population surged 20.1 per cent to 800 people.
Growth was just as blistering in the Columbia Valley’s regional rural electoral areas, with Regional District of East Kootenay (RDEK) Area F.
The area (which includes the unincorporated communities of Fairmont Hot Springs, Windermere, Dutch Creek and Panorama Mountain Resort, among others) is seeing its population leap 29.2 percent to 3,500 people. In RDEK Area G (which includes the unincorporated municipalities of Edgewater, Brisco, Spillimacheen and Dry Gulch, among others) the population leapt up 12.7 per cent to 1,650 people.
Population figures were up on both the valley’s First Nations as well, although not as dramatically. The Akisqnuk First Nation saw its population increase 6.4 per cent to 150. At the Shuswap Indian Band, population was up 1.6 per cent to 320 people.
“I alway knew it was going to be up, it was just a question of how much. In the last couple of years, we know a lot of people have been moving here. It’s terrific,” Invermere mayor Al Miller told the Pioneer, adding that people’s expectations of services always seem to be going up, and to meet those rising expectations, a municipality needs more taxation. Adding new people to the population means more tax dollars for services, without the need to raise tax rates, continued Miller.
“The pandemic has certainly figured into this, as it has changed work culture to allow a lot more people to work remotely or work from home,” he said. “It’s good to see that the population is up across the board in our area. It’s good for the whole valley.”
Radium Mayor Clara Reinhardt told the Pioneer she was not surprised, even given the eye-popping 72.6 per cent population increase for her village.
“Back in 2016, when the last census came out, we were surprised — very surprised — to see almost no growth in Radium. Because anecdotally it seemed, at that point, like our village had grown a lot. But it just didn’t show up statistically that time,” said Reinhardt. “So this time, it was almost a feeling of vindication. I thought “Aha, I knew we were growing, and now we have the stats to show it’.”
Reinhardt noted that there has been quite a lot of effort over the past five or ten years in the Columbia Valley on resident attraction and retention, with plenty of consultants hired and studies done.
“So we are starting to see the fruit of that labour,” she said.
Canal Flats Chief Administrative Officer Adrian Bergles called the growth in his village “very positive” noting that “the village has an ambitious target to reach a population of 1,000 by 2026, so this indicates we are heading in the right direction. It’s encouraging.”
Bergles said that even though there were plenty of anecdotal reports of people moving to Canal Flats since the pandemic started, he was still a bit surprised by just how much the population grew.
“In a small community like ours, 20 per cent — and that’s almost 200 people — that makes a big difference,” he told the Pioneer. “It indicates that some of the initiatives the village has undertaken are having an effect. People want to be part of the village. It’s good to see.’
Canal Flats once had a population of 1,300, back in the 1970s.
The census data released also outlined how many dwellings there are in total in each municipality or rural electoral area, as well as how many of those dwellings are occupied full time by what the census termed ‘the usual residents’ (in other words, homeowners or long term renters). Housing not occupied by ‘the usual residents’ includes homes that are used as occasional vacation homes or summer homes by second homeowners, or that are rented out as short-term rentals (STRs).
Of the three Columbia Valley municipalities, Radium had the lowest percentage of occupied dwellings, with just 630 out of 1,360 dwellings (46 per cent) occupied by homeowners or long term renters. In comparison, Invermere has 1,420 out of 1,880 (75 per cent) of its dwellings occupied by homeowners or long term renters, while Canal Flats has 360 out of 470 (75 per cent) of its dwellings occupied by homeowners or long term renters.
“We have one of the highest rates of unoccupied dwellings in the province. That is a concern,” said Reinhardt. “Our percentage (of unoccupied dwellings) is high compared to most other places. The only other places that are similar are a few other resort municipalities. It is something we have to address.”