Elkford: full of youthful exuberance

Statistics Canada’s 2016 census shows it is one of the youngest communities in the province

Statistics Canada’s 2016 census shows Elkford is full of children and economists are speculating that high paying mining jobs are to blame.

Newly released data on age and sex shows that Elkford has the ninth highest portion of children (21.6 per cent) out of the 269 B.C. communities with 1,000 or more residents. Out of its 2,499 residents, 540 of are under the age of 15, giving it by far the highest proportion of children of any town in the East Kootenays.

Elkford’s situation stands in stark contrast to the greying East Kootenays where kids make up only 15.9 per cent of the population. It is also defying national trends, which show the number of seniors in Canada is greater than the number of children for the first time on record.

“It is quite a paradoxical situation which contrasts with the situation in the Kootenay region and B.C. as a whole,” said Patrick Charbonneau, a population analyst with Statistics Canada. “There’s something going on.”

Elkford exists in relative isolation at the tail end of Highway 43, which is the easternmost spur off of B.C.’s segment of the Crowsnest Highway. After the town, an unpaved road stretches out into a mostly uninhabited wilderness.

It was incorporated in the 1971 because it is only a short drive from Teck Resources’ five open-pit coal mines. Mining is its main industry and many of its residents work for the mines or as contractors.

A pair of economics professors are speculating on why Elkford has a high proportion of kids.

Tammy Schirle, an associate professor of economics at Wilfrid Laurier University, says that a difference in the quality of job opportunities between genders could make it more economical for Elkford’s women to have children.

“When thinking about the relationship between education or income and fertility, what really matters here is the job opportunities for women, not so much men,” she said.

When women have good career opportunities, the costs of having children, in terms of the time they would take out of the labour force and the wages they would give up are much higher, she said. Therefore, women with university degrees in urban areas are often reluctant to have many children since they’d be giving up good careers to do so.

“I suspect that while the local resource industry offers many good jobs, those jobs are male-dominated,” said Schirle. “Most women, especially if they are lower-educated, are likely foregoing minimum wage at part-time jobs if they decide to have more children, which makes having more children relatively attractive.”

Kevin Milligan, a professor from the UBC Vancouver School of Economics, suggested following the money to explain the town’s profusion of children.

He speculated that the availability of high-paying mining jobs makes it more attractive for couples to start families.

“There’s a clear relationship between middle class incomes and fertility,” he said. “When people feel like they have secure jobs and they’re paid well they’re more likely to make those decisions that lead them to have more kids.”

Milligan noted that past resource booms have also been linked to increases in fertility.

He cited a new paper by researchers at the University of Maryland by economics professor Melissa Kearney and her co-author Riley Wilson.The study’s authors wanted to explore how U.S. fracking booms affected marriage and fertility and found that more money resulted in more births.

Their results showed that every $1,000 per capita increase in an area’s fracking output was linked to an increase of 5.96 births per 1,000 women.

Futhermore, Chantel Dawson, Elkford’s marketing coordinator, has her own explanation. She said the town’s workforce is aging and reaching age of retirement. This has generated replacement mine hiring and an increasing number of young families coming to Elkford for work.

“(The data) tells me that people feel that Elkford is a great place to work, play, live and raise a family,” she said. “Elkford’s residents are welcoming, the community is family-friendly and it’s easy for people of all ages to find their niche and settle in.”

For his part, Elkford Mayor Dean McKerracher is delighted that his community has so many children. He’s noticed the increase reflected in higher student numbers at the local elementary and secondary schools, as well as higher enrollment at the Elkford Playschool.

“Seeing more and more young parents out and about in town with their families takes me back to when my family and I first moved to Elkford in the 1970s,” he said. “We are pleased to see more and more young families and look forward to welcoming more newcomers.”

More information will be available when Statistics Canada releases census data on income in September.