The 2016 census shows rural communities across the country losing residents to larger urban centres.

The 2016 census shows rural communities across the country losing residents to larger urban centres.

Declining population is a challenge for rural towns

Across the country, small rural communities lost residents to larger urban centres, the 2016 census shows.

“We all have to sit back and look at this,” says the Rural Advisory Council’s Debra Arnott, about the fact that, as shown in the 2016 census results, rural communities are losing residents to larger centres; not just in the Thompson-Nicola Regional District (TNRD), but around the province and across the country.

The numbers show that of the 11 communities in the TNRD, Clinton, Lytton, and Merritt made slight gains (26 or fewer more residents than in 2011); Kamloops and Sun Peaks increased more substantially; and all other communities (Ashcroft, Cache Creek, Logan Lake, Barriere, Chase, and Clearwater) lost residents.

Andrew Ramlo, executive director of Urban Futures, says that there is a continuing trend of larger metropolitan areas growing faster than the rest of the province. “If you lump the two major metropolitan areas—Greater Vancouver and the Capital District—together, those two regions alone accounted for about 70 per cent of B.C.’s population growth.”

Arnott says that an overview of rural strategy has been completed, and that the council hoped to see it before the end of February, when it was to be sent to Premier Christy Clark. She adds that the provincial government confirmed, in last week’s budget, that the Rural Dividend Fund, which has already benefited several area communities and First Nations, is committed to distributing $75 million over three years (it is currently in year one) to communities with a population of less than 20,000 residents.

“Why do people pick Ashcroft to come and live in?” she says. “Sometimes just by chance. They’ve come to the community, or they know someone here, and want to live here.”

She notes, however, that housing—or the lack of it—is huge in rural communities. “The lack of rental spaces or houses for sale is a really big challenge. People can’t find anything that’s appropriate for them. They’re not necessarily looking for a big house.

“Action needs to be taken on affordable housing. Communities need to have a discussion about this with all levels of government and community leaders. The affordable housing question isn’t going to go away. People might think ‘Maybe if we leave it long enough it’ll fix itself’; but it won’t. So maybe the census results will stimulate rural communities.”

Ashcroft mayor Jack Jeyes notes that the drop in population in rural communities is happening everywhere. “The large centres are sucking people out of small towns, to the detriment of the province, because I believe that life in small towns is superior to that in larger cities.”

He says that “Attracting and keeping people here is the tough part. We have to work on economic development techniques, work with the business community to see what they need to be successful, and minimize the loss of business to Kamloops. We need to keep people shopping locally.”

Jeyes adds that council will be conducting a business walk through Ashcroft in spring 2017, to speak with local business owners about the challenges they face and what support they need.

He agrees with Arnott to a certain degree about housing, but adds that “Houses in Ashcroft are selling, so they’re appealing to a certain market. But rental housing is a concern.”

Jeyes says that Ashcroft council and staff are working to review and upgrade the village’s Official Community Plan and zoning and subdivision bylaws, to facilitate new development in Ashcroft. “That way we can find out what people want to see, especially regarding the property on the Mesa and the development of that.”