Updated: Mar 31, 2022
For weeks, I had Feb. 9 circled on my calendar. That day I got up at 4:30 a.m., giddy as a kid on Christmas, to prepare for the quinquennial release of the census figures.
It’s fascinating to see what changes the 2021 census captured compared to 2016, particularly in the West Kootenay/Boundary, which is home to Canada’s smallest city and BC’s second smallest village.
Thirteen out of 17 municipalities grew, one shrank, and two were essentially unchanged.
“Designated places” are unincorporated communities whose boundaries are well enough defined to be counted separately — although I am not sure why some places are omitted, particularly in the Slocan Valley, Lardeau Valley, and north end of Kootenay Lake.
Argenta, Johnsons Landing, Lardeau, Meadow Creek/Cooper Creek, South Slocan, Crescent Valley, Slocan Park, Vallican, Krestova, Rosebery, Hills, and Pass Creek all strike me as places that, although small, could be counted on their own.
Seventeen out of 30 “designated places” grew.
Regional district rural electoral areas
In the Regional District of Central Kootenay, all 11 rural electoral areas grew, from a low of 0.2 per cent (Area C) to a high of 12.1 per cent (Area J). In the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary, two rural areas shrank, one stayed the same, and two others grew in leaps and bounds.
Or to put it in words:
• The population of West Kootenay is now 82,339 and Boundary 13,322 for a combined total of 95,661. By comparison, Kamloops alone had 97,902 on the 2021 census.
• East Kootenay has a population of 65,896 and is home to by far the largest city in the Kootenays. Cranbrook now has 20,499 people. That city alone is home to 31.1 per cent of East Kootenay’s population. (For my purposes, I have not broken East Kootenay into its constituent parts.)
• The Kootenays (East plus West) have a population of 148,235 of whom 56 per cent live in West Kootenay and 44 per cent in East Kootenay. But East Kootenay grew nine per cent from 2016-21 while West Kootenay grew 4.4 per cent.
• The Boundary’s population grew from 12,080 to 13,332, a gain of 1,252 people and a rate of 10.4 per cent.
• The Kootenay-Boundary (West Kootenay plus East Kootenay plus Boundary) has a population of 161,557, which is an increase of 10,154 over 2016, a rate of 6.7 per cent. If Kootenay-Boundary was a city unto itself, it would rank as the fifth largest in BC, just ahead of Abbotsford (153,524) but well back of Richmond (209,937).
• People in West Kootenay/Boundary who live in municipalities: 52,069 (54 per cent). Who live in rural areas: 43,499 (46 per cent).
• One caveat to all of the above: it does not include that portion of West Kootenay that lies within Area B of the Columbia Shuswap Regional District, namely Trout Lake, Beaton, and Galena Bay. Area B also includes rural Revelstoke, which by most modern definitions would not be included in West Kootenay. However, the entire population of Area B is lumped together on the census. It stood at 663 in 2021 compared to 583 in 2016.
There are no “designated places” within Area B although at a minimum Trout Lake ought to be. It has a high percentage of seasonal residents, but one estimate places the permanent population at 40. Trout Lake did appear as a distinct place on the 1901 census, with a population of 165.
• Other places on the 1901 census regarded as worthy of separate mention: Anaconda (pop. 195), Cascade (144), Columbia (350), Comaplix (61), Ferguson (130), Phoenix (866), Sandon (551), and Whitewater (123).
Anaconda remains a suburb of Greenwood while Cascade is a suburb of Christina Lake. Columbia amalgamated with Grand Forks. Whitewater and Phoenix are ghost towns. Sandon has a population of five or so. Ferguson was a ghost town but has made an unlikely comeback and now has at least a seasonal population again.
Key 2021 trends
• Slocan showed the highest rate of growth among municipalities at 31.1 per cent, which is significant for several reasons. First, Slocan originally showed a population on the 2016 census of 272, a decline from 2011, which caught the village off guard. They were pretty sure they had grown, with their own data pointing to a population of more like 370. They challenged the results, and Statistics Canada responded by moving another 17 people from the Area H count to the Slocan count.
The 2021 total of 379, a gain of 90 people, pushed Slocan to its highest population since at least 1921. The previous census high was 374 in 1951, which was the first count taken following the Japanese Canadian internment. Had there been a census between 1942 and 1946, that figure would have been a lot higher. A 1942 report put the number of internees in the lower Slocan Valley at 4,814, but that included Lemon Creek, Popoff, and Bay Farm, all of which are outside village limits.
The 1901 census counted 950 people from South Slocan to Slocan City and perhaps a bit further afield. The portion that appeared to include Slocan proper plus suburbs Brandon and West Slocan came to 634, although it’s hard to be exact because specific places of residence were not listed.
Slocan’s police chief did his own census at the time, which found 445 people within city limits.
Brandon and West Slocan are still outside village limits, and neither are considered designated places by Statistics Canada. They are just lumped in with the rest of Area H of the Regional District of Central Kootenay, although Brandon’s streets are contiguous to Slocan’s.
Slocan is one of a number of towns whose peak mining-rush era population has been routinely exaggerated. A popular figure was 6,000, first used by Ken Liddell in the Winnipeg Free Press in 1954 and repeated several times in later years. This embellished the true number probably by a factor of ten.
The 2021 number is all the more amazing considering that it means the population is higher than at any point during the existence of Slocan’s waterfront sawmill, once its economic lifeblood. It operated for the last time in 2011 and was demolished beginning in 2014. The village has since acquired the property and plans to make it a key part of the community’s future.
While losing the mill might have once been seen as a death blow to the town, now I can’t imagine anyone wanting it back.
• Silverton, already our region’s smallest municipality and the second-smallest in BC, got a good deal smaller. One of just three municipalities in the region that saw a population decline, it had both largest loss of people between 2016 and 2021 (46) and the largest percentage decrease (23.6). It now has 149 residents. On the previous two censuses (censi?) Silverton held steady at exactly 195.
In fact, Silverton is the smallest it has ever been since it incorporated in 1930. However, this makes no sense to mayor Colin Ferguson, who says he would have thought they held steady again or grew. Possibly it has something to do with the way part-time residents were counted?
The Vancouver Island village of Zeballos — with whom Silverton has traded the title of smallest municipality in BC — is smaller still, despite actually growing between 2016 and 2021. There were 126 people in Zeballos last year compared to 107 in 2011, which might have been the smallest population ever recorded by a BC municipality. At a glance, I can find no municipalities that ever fell below 100 people and remained incorporated (Jumbo Glacier notwithstanding).
To think of it another way: the entire populations of Silverton and Zeballos could probably fit together comfortably in the average school gym.
Silverton is, based on the latest census, now smaller than at least 23 unincorporated West Kootenay/Boundary communities.
Greenwood city hall was built as a courthouse in 1903 and converted into municipal offices in 1953.
• How much could Greenwood (pop. 702) grow without giving up the title of smallest city in Canada? Quite a bit, it turns out.
In fact, the next several smallest cities in Canada are also in BC, a quirk of the fact that when they were incorporated, there were only two types of municipalities in this province: cities and districts.
Enderby is Canada’s second smallest city with a population of 3,028. The third and fourth smallest cities are also in our area: Rossland (4,140) and Grand Forks (4,112). Grand Forks, however, is now the largest it has ever been.
Rossland was the biggest city in West Kootenay in 1901, when it had a population of 6,159, but its decline in the following decade was dramatic, down to 2,830 in 1911. City status in BC now requires 5,000 people, but cities established before that rule was enacted (not sure when it happened) were allowed to keep the title.
Slocan, incorporated in 1901, was by 1951 boasting of being the smallest city in North America, which was probably true. Its population actually increased, however, from a low of 183 in 1941 to 374 in 1951, as a result of the Japanese Canadian internment.
Slocan city clerk Frank Norris had a rubber stamp made with the above boast. (Greg Nesteroff collection)
But in a referendum, residents voted to reincorporate Slocan as a village in 1958. The title of Canada’s smallest city then fell, briefly, to Kaslo, which had about 650 people, before it too became a village in 1959. Greenwood then inherited the title, although it appears it took until 1966 for anyone to notice.
Greenwood is now smaller than at least four unincorporated West Kootenay/Boundary communities and if incorporated today would only qualify as a village. The one difference between it and other local cities is that it has a council of five rather than seven.
Creston, now a town of over 5,500, could pursue city status if it felt like it. In 2021, Creston hit a record high population for the fourth straight census.
• Castlegar set a record population for the fifth straight census. It now stands at 8,338 and is West Kootenay’s second-largest city, something that would have been hard to imagine when it incorporated as a village in 1946. On the 1951 census, it had a population of 1,329 while its twin village of Kinnaird had 947. The pair grew up to be towns in the 1960s and then amalgamated into a city in 1974.
• Nelson broke the 10,000 mark for the first time on the 2011 census and has now set an all-time high for the third straight census to stand at 11,106. This is within 500 of the largest population ever recorded by a West Kootenay municipality on a census.
The latter mark belongs to Trail, which had a population of 11,600 in 1966. And that’s not counting Tadanac, then a district of 367 people, which amalgamated with Trail in 1969. Nor is it counting the surrounding areas; just the City of Trail proper. By contrast, Trail now has only 7,920 people, although that’s up by a couple of hundred from 2016.
Given that the city’s footprint was a little smaller back in 1966, how the heck did they pack those other 3,680 people in? A couple of theories: I think there were more rooming houses. Single employees at the smelter could find cheap accommodation if they were willing to live like sardines.
And a few neighbourhoods have since been wiped off the map, like Byers Lane in the Gulch and number of homes at the east end of Bay Avenue and on Riverside Drive. There was also an entire subdivision opposite the smelter itself, but it was gone by 1961.
• Big White showed a near 300 per cent increase in population, from 251 to 991. Vicki Gee, who is the regional district director for the area, believes it’s the direct result of the pandemic. People who already owned vacation properties at the ski hill and were being told to work from home figured they might as well take up permanent residence there.
• Three places (Ainsworth, Oasis, and Paterson) showed no change in population whatsoever in five years. Although in Ainsworth’s case — the smallest place on the list with 20 people — that might just be a quirk of Statistics Canada’s methodology. Salmo and Edgewood were each down one person. Both of whom presumably moved to Midway, which was up by two.
• While I look at population figures mostly as nerdy trivia, they can have actual consequences. Municipalities that cross the 5,000 threshold, as happened in Creston a number of years ago, find themselves on the hook for the lion’s share of policing costs. Rossland, which showed 11 per cent growth on the 2021 census, has started socking away money to prepare for this eventuality.
Furthermore, size affects voting clout at the regional district level. Each 2,500 people that a municipality or rural electoral area has means more say in weighted votes — which are those that affect operation and administration of services, contracts, or financial plans. In 2011, Nelson, Castlegar, and Creston each gained an extra vote due to population increases.
This time around, it happened to Regional District of Kootenay Boundary Area E, which went from 2,155 to 3,004 on account of the Big White boom mentioned above, and Regional District of Central Kootenay Area H (Slocan Valley), which crossed the 5,000 mark. However, I can’t remember any instance in the last 20 years where the outcome of a close vote hinged on weights.