An SFU professor says that Squamish’s exploding population may be an indicator of a Lower Mainland population looking for better housing deals amidst a beautiful natural setting.
However, Andy Yan, director of the university’s city program, said that it also brings into focus what may be existential questions for the town.
The latest census data, which was gathered in 2021, was published on Feb. 9.
Initial results focused on population size, showing that Squamish’s headcount has jumped by over 22% to 23,819 last year, up from 19,497 during 2016, the previous census year.
It’s something that’s plainly obvious to see.
Yan, who periodically visits Squamish, said that each time he’s stopped by town, he’s struck by the speed of the community’s growth.
“I do like to take…a trip out to Squamish just to see how much growth has occurred. And it’s like, whoa,” said Yan.
“I’ve known Squamish since I was a teenager, and, yeah, it’s changed a lot. It’s not the sawmill town at the mouth of the Squamish River. I think it’s something else.”
Indeed, the town’s uptick in population has been breathtaking. With an increase of over 22% from the last census year, it beats out the provincial average of 7.6%, as well as the national average of 5.2%.
That amount of growth allowed the census to name Squamish the fourth fastest-growing B.C. subdivision with over 5,000 people. The top community in that category was Langford, which had an increase of 32% since 2016.
In B.C., Squamish has been labelled the 32nd most populated municipality. As of 2015, there were about 190 municipalities registered in the province.
Nationally, this makes Squamish place as the 186th most populated place in Canada, out of a total of about 4,800 communities.
There was a similar increase in the number of occupied private dwellings in Squamish.
In 2021, that number was about 9,100, which was an increase of over 26% from 2016.
However, Yan said that these initial figures only indicate the “what” but not the “why.”
For instance, he said, a new occupancy can be counted if the owner of an existing house starts to also rent out their basement. However, a new occupancy can be counted if a new home is built from scratch and someone moves in.
As a result, causal details can be hard to parse out from the numbers.
However, Squamish’s rapid growth has been posing certain existential questions for some time, Yan said.
“At first, there is being this kind of middle space between Vancouver and Whistler,” he said.
“It has these kinds of economic and probably commuter relationships between those two communities, which brings in benefits but also brings in challenges.”
Some factors that come with Squamish’s proximity to the Vancouver area are well-known by locals.
For example, the most recent property assessment values reflect the increasingly expensive state of real estate in town. The town was among the top on the list of communities where valuations increased.
“For all the increases in terms of, say, housing costs, what happens to local incomes?” Yan said.
The influx of people could be driven by two factors, he said. This would be the search for a place that is relatively more affordable.
“When you see population changes in places like Langley and places like Squamish, part of it is this population looking for affordability. Drive until you qualify. But it’s also mixed in with livability,” said Yan.
“Out in Squamish, you can get a home that’s big enough for your two kids as opposed to your 600-square-foot two-bedroom apartment in downtown Vancouver.”
A spectacular natural setting can certainly sweeten the deal.
“For Squamish, its incredible kind of natural setting, I think, evokes a level of livability,” he said. “And I think the units tend to be bigger — for now — out in Squamish that, I think, have people moving out there for livability.”
The pandemic has also played a role in where and how people can work.
Some people can now work remotely, which affects where people choose to live.
This can highlight a divide between those who have the luxury to work anywhere and those who don’t.
“What happens to those who are earning local incomes?” said Yan.
“Those that are in the service industry that pays less as opposed to the service industry that pays more. Working remotely as a consultant…you’re in really good shape. But if you’re a person working in restaurants or a person working in the shop, that becomes a lot harder.”
Yan said that national statistics suggest that about 40% of jobs in the country can be done remotely, but about 60% of jobs are location-locked.
Those employees are typically in manufacturing, industry or service jobs that require people to physically show up at the same workplace every day.
“For that population that’s moving in there, it’s those looking to be a hippy rock climber, to somebody wanting to find a great place to raise their families, and they can see a job that can help them kind of meet that goal that they can’t find, say, in the Lower Mainland, to the worker who can’t find a place in Whistler but can find a place in Squamish,” Yan said.
There were also results in the census for communities outside of the District’s borders.
Area D, referring to the rural zone surrounding Squamish, had no population change, staying steady at 1,057.
There were, however, some significant changes for some Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) on-reserve populations.
The Kowtain 17 reserve, around the Garibaldi Estates, had a population jump to 59, up from 35, signifying a 69% increase.
Cheakamus 11, bordering Brackendale and the Squamish Valley, experienced similarly large growth to 95, up from 57 — a 67% increase.
There were big population losses, however, for Seaichem 16. It dropped to 15, down from 51 — a 71% drop from 2016. Seaichem is located by the eagle viewing dike, around the Watershed Grill.
The second biggest population drop for a reserve occurred in Yekwaupsum 18, which is on Government Road, near the railway museum.
That population dropped to 17, down from 28 — a 39% decrease from 2016.
The biggest reserve population in the Squamish remains Waiwakum 14, in Brackendale at the end of Axen Road. It most recently recorded 224 residents, up from 175, which is an increase of 28%.
The Squamish Chief requested a comment from the Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) but did not hear back by press time.