Story of a steadfast town

Sometimes when you’re the youngest, everything is handed to you because the older ones have cut a wide swath; sometimes, though, you have to work even harder to make your way.

For one of Alberta’s youngest communities, the path has always been harder.

Created as an order-in-council in September 1966, construction on the town officially began in earnest three years later, in 1969. By 1971, it had a hospital and a school and a mitt-full of stores and Phase 1 of the housing was complete. It was a boom town.

And like all boom towns, it soon went bust.

The province created the community to open up access to the rich resources around it: broad veins of high quality coking coal in particular, but dense stands of spindly pine, as well. During the boom years, town facilities bulged at the seams as miners and loggers from around the country and around the world made their way to the mountain town 1,280m up the Rocky mountain foothills. Things were good and development was active.

In the early 1980s, though, the primary employer – McIntyre Porcupine Mines – laid off the majority of its workforce in response to plummeting world coal prices. It was as if someone had pulled the plug in a tub, and the town’s 5,000-person population drained away almost overnight. Suddenly, former miners found themselves twisting logs as they transitioned into the forestry sector, represented by British Columbia Forest Products.

The timber company never really lived up to its potential, and, like coal, was a volatile industry prone to bust cycles.

Hard times came to Grande Cache. Not even the opening of a provincial prison could stem the outflow of residents. Soon there seemed to be more homes for sale than occupied. It could have been the end.

But rather than roll over and play dead, residents decided to fight for their town and aggressively pursued a vision of diversification they still chase today.

It started with the idea of marketing this wilderness-ready backcountry town to the leading edge of the Baby Boom generation; men and women hitting the age of early retirement with a pocketful of disposable income and a desire to be active in the outdoors. For much of the late 1990s, this was Grande Cache’s marketing strategy.

More recently, Grande Cache has garnered international attention as host of the Great Canadian Death Race, a grueling marathon through the mountains.

Today, 40 years after construction began, the town continues to fight to be vibrant. The mine and the mill are both operational again, though under different ownership. Though important to the bottom line, today they’re not the only game in town.

Credit for that lies directly with the people of the town. Even though they may not always see eye-to-eye, they all want to see the community continue to thrive, and they’re not willing to let someone else do the work for them

The process hasn’t been perfect. Feathers have been ruffled, missteps taken. But on the whole, this little Alberta town has taken a direct interest in its future.

Alberta would benefit from more towns like this.

So, too, would the rest of Canada.