With a population that surged 18 per cent while most rural municipalities were shrinking, Fernie is the fastest growing community of its kind in Canada, says the 2016 census.
Its population is now 5,249 according to 2016 census data released Feb. 8 by Statistics Canada. The increase represents 801 people added to the community since 2011 when the population was 4,448.
The new total does not include West Fernie, which will be added into the city in 2018.
StatsCan classifies the nation’s communities by size. Census Metropolitan Areas (CMAs) are big cities where the total population is at least 100,000 of which 50,000 or more live in an urban core.
Census Agglomerations (CAs) are big towns or smaller cities with populations of at least 10,000.
Anything outside of a CMA or CA is designated a Census Metropolitan Influenced zone (MIZ). These are further categorized according to the percentage of their labour forces that commute to big towns or cities for work.
Fernie is considered a Weak MIZ, which means less than five per cent of its residents work in CAs or CMAs.
“Of all the Weak MIZs in Canada with more than 5,000 population, Fernie is actually the fastest growing in all of Canada,” said Stacey Hallman, a Statistics Canada demography division analyst.
Hallman cautioned that growth rates for smaller communities can be hard to interpret because a small change in the number of individuals can mean a big change in percentage.
However, Fernie’s growth rate more than doubled that of St. Paul, Alberta – the second fastest growing Weak MIZ, which grew at a rate of 7.8 per cent.
It also bucked a national trend that shows rural municipalities are struggling. There are a total of 70 Weak MIZs with populations over 5,000 in Canada. Thirty-six of them (about 51 per cent) saw their populations fall between 2011 and 2016.
“The difference is a little bit astounding actually,” said Hallman. “Unfortunately I can’t say why, but something is happening.”
Where are all these people coming from?
Fernie Chamber of Commerce executive director Patty Vadnais theorized that people who’ve been coming to the community to recreate are choosing to live here because of good schools, an outdoor lifestyle and other amenities.
She said some of the people who previously owned second homes in the community might be making Fernie their primary residence.
“That’s exciting,” she said. “Growth is exciting. It definitely brings some challenges with it. It’ll be interesting to see when the demographic piece of the census comes out to see what age group we are and to see if there’s a baby boom in Fernie.”
According to Interior Health, there have been an increasing number of babies born at the Elk Valley Hospital.
From 2012 to 2015, there were 449 births – 50 more than in the previous four years – and 2015 alone saw 129 births, making it the busiest year since at least 2004. The numbers for 2016 will be available soon, but they haven’t been finalized yet.
Fernie’s growth presents a number of challenges to its residents. Increased police costs will exacerbate an affordability issue. The city’s also running out of commercial real estate and has taken steps to find more by expanding the Ghostrider Service Commercial area.
More information on the 2016 census will be made available. For the first time, all census data will be released within 18 months of collection.
Five official releases are scheduled between now and November, which will reveal information on everything from the age to the ethnic origin of Canadians.
In general, the census showed that Canada’s suburbs and cities are growing the fastest.
The region around Fernie also saw remarkable growth. With an increase of 6.6 per cent and a population of 60,439, East Kootenay is the third fastest growing census district in Canada behind Squamish-Lillooet and Central Okanagan.
Sparwood also grew with a 3.2 per cent increase to 3,784 residents while Elkford’s population decreased by about one per cent to 2,499 people.
B.C. grew 5.6 per cent, making it one of the only provinces to surpass the national growth rate of five per cent.