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Discover Squamish: Squamish is a boomtown

Here's what that means for a few of those who live here.
Squamish realtor Fiona Yu with her nine-month-old baby Rose in the Squamish Estuary.

Linda Simpson's roots in eastern Ontario are deep. Her family traces back to the United Empire Loyalists, who fled the American Revolution in the 18th century. 

Simpson was born and raised in Brockville, on the St. Lawrence, due south of Ottawa. But last November, Simpson pulled up stakes at age 72 and relocated to Squamish "with all flags flying," she says.

With a son in Squamish and another in Whitehorse — and two grandkids in each town — Simpson was making frequent trips across the continent.

"I would come here for a couple of weeks and then go to Whitehorse for a couple of weeks," she said, adding that the two communities share a similar vibe.

Her first full winter on the West Coast was a joy that she tried not to rub in too badly with her friends back east.

The Brockville demographic is 15 years older than Squamish, she said, and the difference shows.

"The vibrancy in this town is exhilarating," she said. "There's an incredible openness in the town because everybody is from somewhere else."

When not hanging out with family, the retired school teacher continues a relatively new writing career, focusing on topics of education, parenting and divorce.

The rapid population growth in Squamish makes even newcomers like Simpson worry that the very things that attract people to come may be at risk.

"Obviously, you're not here very long before you start to hear all the issues around development," said Simpson. "That is a worry. It's on the council and the District to make sure that it can keep as much of its flavour as possible because you can't stop development. I think it's really on them to make sure that they can keep at least most of the population of the town happy."

While Simpson admits her hometown of Brockville is lovely, another former Ontarian has fewer fond memories.

'We absolutely love our roots here.'

"We're heading back to Toronto in a month, just for a month, and we're dreading it," said Fiona Yu, a Squamish Realtor and new mom. "We absolutely love our roots here." 

In just seven years as a Squamish resident, Yu has already seen change in town, including more multicultural diversity.

"When I first arrived, being Chinese-Canadian, there really weren't many Chinese people here," she said. "Now I'm seeing them here and there, and they have little ones on scooter bikes, and I'm seeing a bigger Filipino community. There are just more Asian people, I find. That's good to see."

As a realtor, Yu has also seen lots of folks moving from Vancouver condos to townhouses in Squamish or young families graduating from Whistler's overheated housing market to settle down here.

Like many, or most, newcomers, Yu immerses herself in the range of activities available.

"We are avid rock climbers, so we're always either outdoors, or we visit the indoor climbing gym a lot," she said. Parents at the gym take turns entertaining the babies and toddlers while other parents exercise.

"We visit the pool; we go to the library, we just take walks up and down downtown," she said. "I just absolutely love it here. Our careers are flourishing here — my husband is a massage therapist, I'm a new realtor. Both of our businesses have just taken off. We love the people and we just want the lifestyle and we really dread going back to the concrete jungle of Toronto."

'Surprised at how easy it was to meet people here'

Despite spending decades in Metro Vancouver and years living in North Vancouver, moving to Squamish was never really a consideration for Todd Wade and his family.

"We were looking at moving to Nanaimo," he said, foreseeing a reasonable leap into homeownership for a couple that had been renting. "Then, just by fluke, I guess, my wife found a house in Squamish, and so we drove up, and we fell in love with it. We went from not having Squamish on the radar to owning a house in probably five days."

The family's budget is stretched a bit by the mortgage, but homeownership in North Van was not even a possibility, he said. There have been a few surprises — all good so far.

"We were surprised at how easy it was to meet people here," said

Wade. "We were in North Van, near Edgemont Village, for two years and we didn't really meet anybody. We would say hi, there would be things like that, but there wouldn't be any connections."

He thinks that, because so many Squamish residents are new, they may be more open to meeting than people in longer- established communities.

The other delightful surprise was the restaurants — especially finding a top-notch sushi place downtown.

Even newcomers understand that things are changing fast.

"I'm curious where it's going to be in 10 years," said Wade. "Are there going to be 15-storey buildings? Is it all going to be multifamily lots? It definitely seems like it's on the cusp of something — but it's probably been on that cusp for a number of years."

"For where we are in our lives, it's a great place to be," he said.

'I felt right at home immediately'

Of all the newcomers in Squamish, few have come from as far away as Habib Ly. He came to Squamish in 2017, from Mauritania, in West Africa, by way of Grande Prairie, Alberta.

Ly teaches English language learners at Capilano University, but before that he drove taxis in Whistler and Squamish. While he loves living here— "I felt right at home immediately," he said — Ly's story is not all roses like some others.

"I used to run into people that were very racist to me," he said

of his cabbie experience. "That's surprising from local Canadian people. But those incidents aren't frequent. They are just surprising when they happen."

A more subtle experience is being stared at while walking around town.

"It's a very awkward situation," he said. "I just point my face where I'm walking. If someone is staring at you and you catch them, you put them in a situation and you don't know what to do, whether to tell them, 'What are you looking at?' or 'Do you need my picture?'" Living in Whistler didn't feel like the real world to Ly, especially when people found out he didn't ski or snowboard. In Squamish, he finds more variety of activities, including soccer, one of his lifelong pursuits. He also does a five-kilometre run most days and has met people easily and built a wide network.

One drawback is that he needs to travel to Vancouver's Middle Eastern food shops to find ingredients for familiar African dishes. 

Opinions and discussion

Tight housing markets, high housing costs, transportation challenges —these are all issues facing Squamish residents. But perhaps there is nothing new under the sun, according to Eric Andersen.

Andersen is a first-term District councillor and a longtime resident.

"This isn't new," he said. "When my family came to Squamish in the early 1960s, there was a severe housing shortage. Enormous growth took place because of the opening up of new industries. A lot of the dialogue was the same back then, for different reasons. But this isn't a new thing for Squamish to be under growth management pressure."

While ensuring adequate (and affordable) housing is critical, Andersen laments that huge swaths of the community have been rezoned over the years to residential or mixed residential- commercial, resulting in the disappearance of much of the industrial lands or what the councillor calls "employment lands." Ensuring that there are adequate jobs, as well as amenities, for new residents is as important as finding them housing, he said.

From both an environmental and a community-building perspective, Andersen said, reducing commuter traffic on Highway 99 is a priority. 

Alternatives should be available for those who do need to commute, he said, noting private ventures like Squamish Connector, the bus service that shuttles people north and south. Andersen said that rail infrastructure to Vancouver has been destroyed — tracks torn up, rail stations in Squamish, North Vancouver, Whistler and Pemberton torn down — making a West Coast Express-type commuter rail option economically unfeasible. But a Squamish-to-Vancouver ferry would require few infrastructural upgrades, he said, and such vessels between Seattle and its adjacent islands and in the San Francisco Bay area provide an excellent model.

As growth inevitably brings density, Andersen warns against a cookie-cutter approach.

"There are legacy neighbourhoods that are attractive environments and they play a role in our community," he said. "There is going to be a tailored solution to each neighbourhood. We can't apply the same growth density management strategy across the board."

As an elected official, Andersen admits: "We don't have all the answers."

What we do have, he said, is opinions and discussion.

"We do have healthy dialogue, to put it mildly," he said. From this, he hopes, will emerge solutions and compromises that will, as new Squamish resident Simpson put it, "keep at least most of the population of the town happy.”

**Please note, this story originally ran in the summer of 2022 edition of Discover Squamish magazine. No one involved in the publication received any benefit from those featured in this story. 














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