Jason Clarke is helping to keep rural B.C. from becoming a vast ghost town.
Clarke, who works in information technology, likely could have taken his skills anywhere in the province. But he fell in love with the central Kootenay village of Silverton, population 200, and moved there from Vancouver with his wife five years ago. He is now the village s mayor.
Clarke belongs to a new wave of workers who are reinventing tiny communities across the province. University of Northern B.C. geography professor Greg Halseth calls them amenity migrants.
These folks, often from big cities, migrate to tiny places for a quality of life they can’t find anywhere else. Some, like Clarke, are telecommuters. Others use their rural homes as a base while they fly in and out of jobs up north.
Still others are entrepreneurs or artists who create a business in their new homes.
The flow of amenity migrants to small communities is being swelled by retirement migrants, Halseth says. Retirees are increasingly moving to small centres in search of more affordable homes and a quieter life, experts say.
“Rural people highly value their quality of life,” says Sean Markey, a professor at Simon Fraser University s school of resource and environmental management.
“Many of the rural stereotypes are true: small-town feel, knowing your neighbours, community support, less traffic, cheaper housing, access to nature.”
The influx of new blood into rural B.C. is not coming a minute too soon. Some of the province’s smallest communities are fighting to ride out the depletion of wood and mineral resources that sustained them for decades.
“No community has an inherent right to exist absent of any capacity to sustain itself — the B.C. and Canadian landscape is littered with ghost towns,” Markey says. “Economies change, non-renewable resources get exhausted.”
Rural B.C. towns are also suffering an investment drought, Halseth and Markey say. They re reeling from cutbacks and a failure by senior levels of government to renew aging infrastructure, Halseth says.
“We need to imagine a new rural Canada,” Markey says. “We need to return to a state where dollars spent in rural regions are seen as investments.”
Andrew Ramlo, executive director of Vancouver-based research institute Urban Futures, says whipsawing commodity prices are a big challenge for resource-dependent villages.
“While some of these communities may be vulnerable to resource depletion and becoming a shadow of what they once were, the same impact can be had over a much shorter time frame if prices or demand for the resources tumble,” he says.
Still, most small communities will survive because so many people have financial and personal stakes in them, Ramlo says.
We look at five small B.C. communities, including the province s two smallest, at various stages of the journey to reimagine their future. Some, like Slocan, are just starting to ask what kind of community they wish to become. Others, like Tahsis, have already made progress in refashioning themselves as centres of tourism or retirement.
ZEBALLOS: Boom town to tiny recreation hub
The mayor of B.C.'s tiniest community says his village is too stubborn to fade into a ghost town.
Zeballos Mayor Donn Cox says the size of the Vancouver Island village BC Stats estimates its population at 110 is a selling point.
There is peace and solitude, says Cox, who has lived in the northern Vancouver Island village for nine years.
“No sirens going off all night. No parking problems.
“If you want to stop and talk in the middle of the road everyone understands that you just drive around. You don’t pull up and honk.”
Zeballos, named for a crew member of an early ship of Spanish explorers, claimed fame in the 1930s when gold was discovered in the surrounding mountains. Some estimates say the population reached 1,500 when mining peaked between 1938 and 1943.
But the Privateer gold mine has long since closed, as has an iron mine. Logging, which had been the community s economic pillar, is sporadic.
What’s left is a village using its access to ocean, mountains and forest to reinvent itself as a tourist destination, says Cox, a 63-year-old ex-logger.
“People here are determined not to let the village disappear,” says Cox, who owns 12 properties in the village.
Fresh and saltwater fishing, scuba diving, surfing, kayaking, wildlife-viewing, caving and rock-climbing have replaced gold and iron as the reasons people visit and live.
Zeballos, nestled among mountains at the end of Zeballos Inlet, is 190 kilometres west of Campbell River. It's reached by a 44-kilometre gravel road off Highway 19.
Besides its stunning setting, the village's live-and-let-live attitude gives people the freedom to be themselves, Cox says.
One of Zeballos’ most famous residents is Vinnie Parker. The late logger won $1 million on the 6/49 in 1999, vowing to blow the money on muscle cars and building an RV park.
“He frittered his money away and had fun doing it,” Cox says. “There are a few Vinnie Parkers left up here.
“You can do your own thing and nobody says anything.”
TAHSIS: Former mill town beckons retirees
A Thanksgiving storm sealed Jude and Scott Schooner s fate when it blew their sailboat into Tahsis 15 years ago.
The Schooners needed shelter from the winter storms and jobs to replenish their depleted funds.
They found much more than work they found home. After a dozen years living in Terrace, Nova Scotia-born Jude fell in love with the remote village on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
Ten years ago, the Schooners launched a business catering to scuba divers, kayakers and hikers.
Jude, 62, now serves as mayor of the village of 315. That population soars by about 1,000 in the summer as visitors and absentee homeowners flock to Tahsis for its sport fishing, kayaking, hiking and caving.
Tahsis has a compelling combination of affordability and access to pristine wilderness, Schooner says.
“We’re the tomorrow of British Columbia,” she says.
“We get retirees who can sell their homes in other municipalities and with the revenue they gain put themselves into a lower-cost home in Tahsis and put the surplus funds away to see them through their years,” she says.
Detached homes currently sell for $40,000-$50,000, she says.
Tahsis has been working to make a transition to a tourism-based economy since its last sawmill closed in the early years of this century. The 62-kilometre gravel road linking it to Highway 19 is at once an attraction to tourists wildlife sightings are plentiful along the road and a deterrent to potential residents who need to live closer to medical resources.
The village, which had been home to about 2,500 people at its peak, is blessed with facilities such as a well-equipped rec centre.
But the village’s infrastructure is aging at a time the provincial government has been downloading responsibility for services, Schooner says.
“In the days of the mills, our councils spent money like drunken sailors ... and put nothing into surplus because they thought the mills would last forever,” she says. “We now know that wasn’t realistic.”
SLOCAN: No trace of its rowdy past
Slocan is a tale of two cities — and a third that’s still untold.
In the 1890s, Slocan was a rambunctious central Kootenay town that specialized in raising a little hell and a lot of silver.
Local historians describe an exuberant community of hotels, saloons, pack teams and ore-heavy rail cars crammed with miners dreaming of silver wealth.
During the Second World War, Japanese Canadians were interned in Slocan. They included environmentalist David Suzuki, whose family was housed in the village’s Arlington Hotel.
Today’s tranquil village of about 300 at the south end of Slocan Lake bears little trace of its youth.
The official closure of its sawmill and main employer two years ago has left the village searching for how it wants its third stage of life to look, Mayor Jessica Lunn says.
“We had a single industry that really defined the town and now we re experiencing a transition into an economy that’s post-industrial,” she says. “Town council is ensuring that everyone can talk about what our future can be.”
Lunn suggests Slocan may have a multi-faceted future in which tourism, telecommuting workers, retiring seniors and young people seeking alternate rural lifestyles all play a role.
The village's stunning views of the Selkirk Mountains, access to outdoor recreation and peaceful atmosphere give it an almost magnetic power over residents, she says.
Lunn, 40, grew up in the Slocan Valley just outside of the village and moved away when she was 17. She earned a communications degree at Simon Fraser University, worked in forestry and travelled in South America.
But Slocan never entirely released her. She and her husband bought a home in the village a decade ago.
“I just kept coming back,” says Lunn, who is a skills training co-ordinator with Kootenay Career Development Society.
Lunn says the sense of personal freedom and security she experienced in childhood are alive and well in Slocan.
“There’s less fear here,” she says. “Most people know each other. In many ways, the good old days are here now.”
SILVERTON: The calm after the silver boom
In Silverton, the loudest sound may be the hum of your own thoughts.
Late in the evening, when the traffic on Highway 6 running through town dies away, the serenity of this village on Slocan Lake is commanding, says Mayor Jason Clarke.
“Silverton is quiet and calm,” says Clarke, 37. “In Vancouver, when you want to listen to yourself think you have to set a time and place aside. Here, that’s not the case.”
Clarke and his partner, Robin, moved to the Kootenay village five years ago from East Vancouver. Robin was born in nearby New Denver and when they visited Silverton, Clarke found a place he could love.
His employer, a Richmond-based food distributor, agreed to let him work remotely as an IT administrator and solutions developer.
He and Robin also rent log cabins.
Clarke knows he s lucky. The biggest challenge for people moving to Silverton is figuring out how to earn a living, he says.
“That’s tricky,” he says. “There are not a lot of local jobs.”
Silverton peaked more than 115 years ago.
People flooded to the Slocan Valley late in the 19th century after silver and lead were found in the area mountains.
“By the late 1890s, Silverton reportedly had six hotels, three general stores, a newspaper (The Silvertonian), a school and telephone connections to the mines, New Denver and Sandon,” according to the Silverton Historical Society.
“After the rush, the population waned and Silverton verged on becoming a ghost town.”
With about 200 residents today, Silverton is B.C.'s second smallest municipality.
Clarke says that mineral riches have been replaced by wealth of spirit.
“This is a place where any individual that has a dream or vision, if they apply enough hard work, can make that dream a reality,” he says. “I’ve seen that a few times. The community will support people.”
People are more likely to discover what they want to do with their lives in Silverton without the distracting noise of the city, he says.
“It’s a lot easier to lead an intentional life here,” Clarke says. “Here, you’re alone with your thoughts and the things you choose to do are generally the things you want to do.”
GREENWOOD: Copper capital home to the world’s best tapwater
Greenwood Mayor Ed Smith is trying to set a good demographic example for the people his city wants to attract as residents.
Smith and his wife sold their house in Calgary and moved to the Kootenay-Boundary community in 2008, building on a property they bought from a friend.
Smith, 71, is a retired manager at an engineering firm that catered to Alberta s oilpatch.
“We were looking to downsize and get away from the big city to a slower pace of life,” Smith says. “We found it here.”
The growing numbers of retirees and younger families moving to Greenwood are also finding a community that provides easy access to amenities such as golf, and proximity to larger cities for shopping, Smith says.
Not to mention the opportunity to drink municipal well water rated by Berkeley Springs International Water Testing as being among the best tap water in the world.
Calling itself Canada’s smallest city, Greenwood was incorporated as a city in 1897 as copper production in the area boomed.
The population plunged in later decades after worldwide copper markets weakened. In 1941, the community saw a chance to boost its population in the Canadian government’s decision to intern Japanese-Canadians.
“Mayor W.E. McArthur Sr. asked the Canadian government for the Japanese-Canadians to come here in order to revive the town,” according to the Greenwood Heritage Society.
About 1,200 internees came to Greenwood in 1942. The internees saved the dying community of 200 from becoming a ghost town.
Many of their descendants remain, Smith says.
In 1998, Greenwood portrayed the fictional town of Amity Harbor in the movie Snow Falling On Cedars, which chronicled the lives of Japanese-American internees.
B.C.’S 25 SMALLEST INCORPORATED COMMUNITIES:
Zeballos Population: 110
Port Clements 371
Alert Bay 443
Sun Peaks Mountain 451
New Denver 497
Port Edward 536
New Hazelton 661
Pouce Coupe 726
Canal Flats 736
Radium Hot Springs 766
Port Alice 799
B.C.’S 10 SMALLEST UNINCORPORATED COMMUNITIES
West Fernie Population: 5
Gold Bridge 10
Mount Baldy 15
Winter Harbour 20
Dodge Cove 29
Hemlock Valley 39
Canoe Point 47
Defining communities in B.C.
Technically, a community with fewer than 2,500 residents is a village. That's the technical defintion of a municipality with a population in the hundreds, but it's their small-town lifestyle and sensibility that defines the province s tiny communities
• Village: Fewer than 2,500 residents.
• Town: Up to 5,000 residents
• City: 5,000 or more.residents
• A community is incorporated after a vote by local residents. It is governed by an elected municipal council. If a community s land base is greater than 800 hectares, it s usually deemed to be a district.
• Regional districts are federations of municipalities and broader rural areas called electoral areas. An electoral area may have several unincorporated communities within it.