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Silverton mayor ‘can’t wrap head around’ town’s population drop

Colin Ferguson says he thinks the latest census report is flawed
Silverton had a 23 per cent population decrease over five years, according to the 2021 census. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

by John Boivin

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice

Silverton Mayor Colin Ferguson says he was shocked by the 2021 census report that shows his town shrunk by nearly one-quarter in the last five years.

“We can’t wrap our heads around this at all,” says Ferguson, whose village on the shore of Slocan Lake was found to have fallen from 195 to 149 people, about 23 per cent, since the 2016 census. “There has been no drop in general activity in the village, and we have two new house builds ongoing right now.”

Silverton’s growth had been stagnant for nearly 20 years before the 2021 census, gaining or losing about one per cent between each five-year count. This year’s precipitous drop doesn’t jive with what Ferguson says he can see happening in the village. As mayor of a very small town, he can keep track of the comings and goings of most residents.

“I can think of 18 new full-time households that we’ve gained in the past few years – representing 38 people,” he says. “Even allowing for replacement in some cases that’s about 31 new residents. And there could be more – that’s just a rough count off the top of my head.”

Ferguson says the census takers may have had problems contacting all the actual residents of the village.

“Lots of residents leave the village each year for one or two months at a time. We have retirees who are mobile and travel, and we also have absentee homeowners,” he told Valley Voice.

“It’s always difficult to get a good grasp of actual population because of the part-time residents and people on extended vacation.”

That could be a factor, as the census shows only 78 out of the total 128 residences in town were occupied by permanent residents on census day (May 11). But the census results “just do not match anecdotal experience here in the village, where for the past couple of years, we’ve seen every available property sold in short order,” says Ferguson.

Slocan boom

It’s just the opposite story down the lake from Silverton, where the Village of Slocan has had huge growth, according to the Census Canada stats released last month.

There, the population has grown a staggering 31.1 per cent since the 2016 census—from 289 to 379 people.

“After the last census we were shocked by the numbers,” says Mayor Jessica Lunn, recalling how 2016 showed Slocan had lost eight per cent of its population. “I would say this census definitely captured what we’re seeing on the ground.”

Lunn says the community’s growth is part of its transition away from being a one-industry lumber town, and underscores the need for the community to start a conversation about the direction it’s heading.

“Our Official Community Plan update is happening at the right time,” she said. “We’ve seen a lot of new community members come in, and we have a lot of folks who have been here forever. We have a lot to talk about. It’s an exciting time.”

Growing in most areas

With a few exceptions, most rural and urban areas in the West Kootenay saw significant growth in the five years between the 2016 and latest census.

The Regional District of Central Kootenay saw an overall growth of five per cent for a population of 62,509, while individual area districts grew as well. Area D (North Kootenay Lake) grew 8.98 per cent, Area H (Slocan Valley) just a bit slower at 8.4 per cent, while Area K (Nakusp area) grew 6.1 per cent.

“This may speak to why our building department has been so busy for the past four years,” RDCK chief administrative officer Stuart Horn said.

Some communities in the readership area showed strong growth. Burton (south of Nakusp) grew by 18.9 per cent to 111 people, and neighbouring community Fauquier grew by 20.3 per cent to 142 residents.

Kaslo grew second fastest of the municipalities in the Valley Voice coverage area, to 1,049.

Some areas stagnant

Some communities didn’t see much change. At first glance, New Denver had a moderate three per cent growth with 487 residents, up from 473. But it had seen a six per cent drop in the 2016 census, so the rate was more robust than it first appeared.

New Denver had 248 homes occupied by permanent residents, out of a total of 304 homes in town.

The slowest growing community was Nakusp, which stagnated and lost one per cent of its population (about 16 people) between the two counts, according to Stats Can. However, Village Mayor Tom Zeleznik, like Silverton’s mayor, doesn’t buy the numbers.

“School District 10 has seen the biggest increase in enrolment, the highest since 2011,” he says. “The Village of Nakusp has seen a building boom in 2021, the biggest building boom ever seen for the village as more building permits were issued and accepted than ever before for processing.”

Zeleznik says much of the growth in his area occurred just outside village boundaries, in Area K. While that doesn’t officially count as village growth, the impact is the same, he says.

“The increase in population outside the village will increase the use of our facilities, including the Nakusp and District Sports Complex, library, museum, hot springs and marina,” he told the Valley Voice. “Local not-for-profits will hopefully see their memberships increase as well. Overall, the area growth will likely lead to a stronger economy to support local businesses and result in more sustainable usage of our area facilities.”

Edgewood, on the west shore of Arrow Lakes, also went down in size. It lost exactly one resident between the census counts, says the agency, and has 235 residents.

Meanwhile, local municipal leaders and village staff are taking stock of the numbers and what impact it might have on them. Some civic grants are based on population, so the number can end up in a loss to a community of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Silverton’s Ferguson hopes that won’t be the case for them.

“We are not convinced there is a drop … but we’re hoping it doesn’t affect funding – it wouldn’t make much sense on the basis of one count…,” he says, “especially if the count doesn’t add up.”

However, he says the village won’t be appealing the numbers.