Our 10th annual ranking of B.C.’s best cities for work showcases the most resilient of the province’s 50 largest communities as they face continuing post-COVID headwinds
When Bill Collins and his business partners launched Sidney-based Cascadia Seaweed in 2019, they saw it as an opportunity to make a positive impact on a planet facing a deepening climate crisis. “We’re trying to build a business for the 22nd century and trying to prove that people, planet and profits can co-exist in harmony,” explains Collins, co-founder and board director of the aquaculture startup.
However, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic a year into the company’s launch didn’t do them any favours: it scuttled a scheduled trip to meet with the largest processor of McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish in eastern North America, who were exploring adding seaweed to their line of food products. Undeterred by this initial setback, Cascadia—which harvests and processes seaweed for a variety of applications, including crop fertilizers and animal feed for land-based farmers—has since grown to become North America’s largest seaweed cultivator.
Despite its impressive rebound, the company continues to face new hurdles. “It’s one of the worst years since 2008 for raising money,” reveals Collins. “It’s the roller coaster of financial markets over the last two to three years that make building a business as a startup extremely challenging.”
Cascadia’s experiences touch on just a few of the challenges confronting B.C. communities as they steer through a business environment that has only grown more complex since the start of the pandemic.
To delve deeper into the state of the current economic climate, we’ve once again worked with research partner Environics Analytics to assess the performance of 50 of the province’s largest communities against a battery of 10 economic indicators. Taking a broader view of economic resilience than in pre-COVID years, our ranking considers factors such as housing growth, unemployment and economic diversity, while also taking into account aspects of social and environmental resiliency.
To better unravel the post-pandemic complexities faced by B.C.’s cities, we’re spotlighting communities from three of the top-performing regions. We’ve reached out to local business leaders in aquaculture, aerospace and film production to gain insights into the challenges and opportunities for their industries in the year ahead.
Our 2024 ranking reflects a dichotomy observed every year in B.C. communities: a relatively stable collection of reliable year-over-year performers standing in stark contrast to an unpredictable batch of dynamic gainers and tumblers.
Among the former are this year’s top three cities: Central Saanich (No. 1), Sidney (No. 2) and Langford (No. 3), which all make a return appearance to the top 10—along with Kelowna (No. 5) and Squamish (No. 6)—and cement Vancouver Island as this year’s top-performing region. Representing the latter, Burnaby (No. 4), the Township of Langley (No. 7), the District of North Vancouver (No. 8), Saanich (No. 9) and the City of Langley (No. 10) all made double-digit gains to round out the top of the list.
For four years running, Vancouver Island has secured its position as B.C.’s top region. It owes its continued strength to strong household finances, low residential GHG emissions, minimal unemployment and sturdy residential sales and housing starts. This year, its economic centre of gravity has solidly shifted to the Capital Regional District—represented by its four leading communities in the top 10, plus Victoria (No. 16) and Sooke (No. 25)—where the province’s highest per capita job growth occurred.
However, the largest collective rise was made by Metro Vancouver communities, where eight cities made double-digit gains, including Richmond (No. 13), Vancouver (No. 15) and Surrey (No. 29), which rose by 25, 18 and 14 spots, respectively, from the year prior. Overall, stronger job creation helped push the region higher over the previous year.
The nearby Sea-to-Sky Corridor and Sunshine Coast communities of Squamish, Whistler (No. 23) and Sechelt (No. 19) saw moderate drops this year due to slowing residential sales and housing starts and eroding job creation numbers. Similar factors, including negative job growth, also plagued the Fraser Valley, leading to more significant year-over-year declines for Abbotsford (No. 39), Mission (No. 47) and Chilliwack (No. 33).
Despite the bright spots of Kelowna and West Kelowna (No. 11), the communities of B.C.’s Southern Interior slid a collective 52 spots over last year’s ranking, with Summerland (No. 30), Salmon Arm (No. 36) and Penticton (No. 41) taking the greatest tumbles. While strong job creation kept the Kelowna area afloat, the rest of the region was weighed down by job losses over the first three quarters of 2023. Bucking the downward trend was the Kootenay community of Nelson (No. 22), which rose 13 places on higher population growth.
Further north, the commodity-driven communities of the Cariboo, North Coast and Northeast failed to break out of last year’s bottom 10 placements as they continued to grapple with slower growth and development and the highest unemployment rates in the province. One notable exception was Prince George (No. 35), which managed to jump ahead nine spots this year thanks to slightly higher growth, a healthier rental vacancy rate and strong job creation.
Central Saanich and Sidney—neighbours on Vancouver Island’s Saanich Peninsula—top this year’s list. Sidney has been a notable contender in recent rankings, having secured its position in the top 10 for three of the last four years. Meanwhile, Central Saanich has showcased remarkable resilience, maintaining its presence in the top 10 for an impressive five consecutive years. Its continued success has most recently been aided by solid job creation, low unemployment and the most secure household finances in the province. These have been supported by a healthy construction industry in Central Saanich, an active real estate market in Sidney and, most importantly (according to locals), the area’s desirable quality of life.
“The overall livability of this region is fantastic,” says Al Smith, executive director of the Saanich Peninsula Chamber of Commerce. “It’s one of the best in Canada.” According to Smith, a high quality of life and advantageous infrastructure and amenities have long made the region an attractive destination for retirees. “You have the ferries and the airport—which has international status—right here, so getting on and off the island is really easy,” he explains.
These same factors have also supported a growing diversity of industries, from tech and tourism to manufacturing and health care. “There are a lot of businesses that build on airport land and there are a lot of businesses that rely on ferries,” notes Smith. He highlights just a few of the home-grown success stories, including internationally renowned tourist attraction Butchart Gardens, radiation imaging sensor producer Redlen Technologies, train electronics and software provider Quester Tangent and Titan Boats—a specialized manufacturer of rigid hull inflatable boats for military, law enforcement and search and rescue agencies. More recently, the area’s distinct geography and lifestyle have also introduced a unique business opportunity for Cascadia Seaweed.
Headquartered in Sidney with a second land-based operation in Port Alberni, the company is working on creating a third hub in Prince Rupert to complement its network of seaweed farms that span the province’s coast. “The southernmost farm to the northernmost farm is about the same distance as from here to San Francisco,” explains Collins, reflecting on the vastness of B.C.’s coastline.
Although Collins may have been initially attracted to the area’s natural offerings, his inspiration for starting Cascadia was driven by a deeper desire to address what he sees as an urgent climate crisis. “There’s an increase in global demand for new thinking and part of the solution is going to be bringing new products to market to replace older products that are more carbon-intensive,” says Collins. “Seventy percent of the world is covered with water—the oceans—yet only two percent of our food comes from there, so it’s very important that we seek product solutions for beyond this century that we can extract in harmony with the planet.”
Despite Cascadia’s rapid growth, the last four years haven’t been without their challenges. The company’s most recent troubles are related to what Collins describes as the “yo-yo world of finance” that has unfolded following the onset of the pandemic. As the world began opening back up in 2021, pent-up demand initially created an influx of investment capital into startups like Cascadia. But as talk of a looming recession cropped up in mid-2022, that funding dried up, causing uncertainty and stifling opportunities for growth.
Compounding the issue is what Collins describes as a cultural proclivity for frugality when it comes to investing in startups: “Canadians are risk averse to new business, so it’s not necessarily the best place to innovate.” While it’s an outcome Collins would prefer to avoid, he recognizes there are other options. “There’s a constant pressure from our neighbours to the south to move down there. If we have to, we will in order to get the job done,” he says.
The Chamber’s Smith believes businesses are struggling even more now than they were in 2020: “I think entrepreneurs all dug in hard to get through the pandemic [and] made sure their companies survived.” After stretching their resources thin and making use of government stopgap measures, such as the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) program, some businesses are now running on empty in the face of looming loan repayments and shifting post-pandemic consumer trends. “The results of that are starting to show up,” says Smith. “We’re seeing more closures in the small business world now than we did during COVID.”
A labour shortage exacerbated by the area’s astronomical housing costs isn’t making the situation any easier, Smith adds: “Staffing is the number-one risk to businesses here, period.” He points to a multidecadal decline in housing construction as a cause for the area’s high cost and labour woes. “That’s the root of the cost problem here—it’s all because we haven’t built enough housing,” he says.
Collins says Cascadia has largely managed to avoid the issue given that the nature of its work attracts young professionals who are passionate about making a positive impact on the planet. But he admits that affording a home isn’t exactly easy in the area. “I think that will remain a challenge, particularly if you’re young and looking to buy or even rent a house,” he says. However, Collins is a bit more optimistic that market forces will eventually rectify the issue: “At some point, market forces will catch up, whether it’s salaries rising to meet the requirements of the standard of living or whether the cost of housing becomes somewhat ameliorated.”
In the meantime, the Chamber’s Smith worries about a decline in business opportunities in the coming years. However, with the continued influx of retirees into the area, he does see a silver lining: “I think there is opportunity in the business space if someone can figure out how to capitalize on the aging population here.”
Having endured a historically destructive wildfire season, West Kelowna—one of the Interior’s top performers this year—exemplifies the resiliency of the Okanagan in the face of troubling climate trends. Despite losing dozens of homes to fire in the summer of 2023, West Kelowna benefited from comparatively solid residential sales, balanced rental vacancy and a diverse economy supporting robust job creation and the lowest unemployment rate in the province.
“The wildfires here in West Kelowna were certainly a challenging time,” notes Heather Robinson, executive director of the Greater Westside Board of Trade. Offering evacuees a place to stay, setting up emergency shelters and donating and delivering food were just some of the efforts made by businesses and the broader community in support of their fellow Westsiders. “To see how the community and businesses pulled together to support each other was incredible,” says Robinson.
One business that played a pivotal role in local wildfire efforts was Alpine Aerotech. While the Okanagan is well known for its wineries, lake life and vibrant tourism industry, Alpine—which specializes in helicopter maintenance, repair and parts manufacturing and distribution—is a key player in the region’s growing aerospace industry.
“This year it hit very close to home,” says Jeff Denomme, president of Alpine Aerotech. During the wildfire season, the public heliport across the street from its operations, which is managed by neighbouring Alpine Helicopters, was repurposed to serve as the local base of operations for firefighting activities. “It really is key to the community that we have this heliport here and we’re very proud to support all the operators within the region [that provide] fire suppression.”
Starting with four employees in 1990, Alpine has since grown to become one of the largest globally recognized helicopter service centres in the world, with 150 employees. Unsurprisingly, Alpine’s maintenance centre has also grown to include a separate parts manufacturing shop in West Kelowna and a second maintenance centre in Abbotsford.
However, as the company has continued to grow, it’s become a victim of its own success. “We would love to expand,” says Denomme. “We’re bursting at the seams here.” But finding an appropriate parcel of available industrial land to support that growth has proven challenging. “With our employee base, probably 75 percent live on the Westside, so it would be great if there was something available here to discuss with the community.”
Denomme is aware that expanding their operations isn’t exactly an easy sell. “It’s a bit tough being in the middle of the city with noisy helicopters,” he notes.
With the region having the tightest unemployment rate in the province, labour shortages have been another impediment to Alpine’s growth, despite an active recruitment effort that includes fostering close ties with local post-secondary institutions like Okanagan College. “Everybody’s faced with the cost of living, so one of our biggest challenges is retaining [workers] and attracting people to the Okanagan and West Kelowna,” Denomme explains. “There is a shortage of skilled labour in our industry and it’s not getting better.”
At the very least, COVID, which had major impacts on the area’s tourism industry, is in the rearview mirror. “Some of the work that the operators do out there like tourism or heliskiing, all those activities were shut down, which rolled into the maintenance activities that we do,” he says.
Unfortunately, the recent wildfire season also proved problematic for the Okanagan’s tourism industry. “The travel ban that was imposed by the province really hurt our business community—August is a key month in the Okanagan,” reveals the Board of Trade’s Robinson. “We have heard from many of our members in both tourism and other industries how their business [was] down 60 percent or more.”
But looking ahead, Robinson is more bullish. Citing a growing number of businesses relocating to West Kelowna as well as the recent completion of a new official community plan, she believes the area is in a good position moving forward.
“We’re very optimistic—the industry has picked up,” concurs Denomme. “There’s not a lot of places around Canada with a concentration of helicopters in one region, so for us the Okanagan is a great place to be.”
Leading Metro Vancouver’s performance surge this year is Burnaby, which leaped to the No. 4 spot—a feat it last achieved for our inaugural 2015 ranking, which also marked its last appearance in the top 10. Stable household finances, robust job growth, a diverse economy and one of the most active residential construction sectors in the province all helped push Burnaby to the top of the Metro Vancouver heap.
“If you look around the city, it’s growing, it’s developing, businesses are moving here and the economy and the business community here is doing well,” declares Paul Holden, president and CEO of the Burnaby Board of Trade. Holden points to a number of key players headquartered in Burnaby that underscore the diversity and weight behind the city’s economic success. These include digital media mainstay Electronic Arts and life science leaders LifeLabs—the largest medical testing provider in the country—and Stemcell Technologies, Canada’s largest biotechnology firm.
“A sector that’s really booming of late is clean energy, particularly in the hydrogen fuel cell area,” adds Holden. Companies like Ballard Power have been a long-time anchor for that sector, and have served to incubate a thriving business ecosystem. Pointing to additional companies specializing in batteries and carbon capture, Holden notes that Burnaby is beginning to garner a reputation as “the Silicon Valley of the clean energy sector.”
Another economic pillar for the city has been the film industry, which is only now beginning to recover from the dual Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA actors’ strikes. “Although it’s obviously had its challenges this year with the strikes, the film and TV industries are significant here in Burnaby,” confirms Holden. “Almost 70 percent of the province’s studio space is in Burnaby, so the industry is really centred around here with a lot of big players in the studio business.” According to Holden, the studios have spawned a large industry of supporting businesses around them.
HollyNorth Production Supplies is one of those businesses. It has been providing lighting, special effects machines, costumes and props to the film industry for over 25 years.
“November 1, 1998, was our first official day of business,” reflects Mike Kaerne, HollyNorth’s president and CEO. “I chose Burnaby because, at that time, where I am at 1st and Boundary was kind of central to the existing studios—Bridge Studios, Vancouver Film Studios, North Shore Studios.”
And even as the film industry has grown over time to include new studio spaces in farther-flung Langley and Maple Ridge, HollyNorth has continued to benefit from Burnaby’s central location and the operation’s convenient highway access. Of course, with a bevy of recently completed and under-development studio spaces in Burnaby, including Lake City Studios—poised to become Canada’s largest film and TV studio complex upon opening in 2025—Burnaby is slated to remain the heart of Metro Vancouver’s film industry for the foreseeable future.
However, the recent strikes caused a major slowdown for the industry over 2023. “It [was] a tough six months, that’s for sure,” says Kaerne. “[Staff] went to half days and as it got worse and worse, the production shut down and then when the actors went on strike, it just dwindled down to a small percentage of what we normally do, so I couldn’t afford to keep staff.”
For Kaerne, it has been reminiscent of past slowdowns, where it took time to rebuild staffing. “I remember back in 2008 when we went through a similar situation, about 80 percent of the industry returned right away,” explains Kaerne. “But then another 10 percent took a little bit of time because they found other jobs and they have to put in notice and things like that, and then probably 10 or 12 percent we just lost to other industries.”
Getting staffing back to pre-strike levels could prove extra challenging this time around as Kaerne highlights a recurring theme: “Finding staff is so hard these days, not only for us but for pretty well everybody.”
Like much of the province, labour shortages have been a citywide issue for Burnaby—so much so that the Burnaby Board of Trade created a new initiative to help address the challenge. “We recently launched a really comprehensive and in many respects groundbreaking program called BurnabyWorks,” explains the Board of Trade’s Holden. The program includes working with K-12 students, post-secondary institutions and the public, private and nonprofit sectors to facilitate better connections between employers and job seekers.
Despite the challenges, HollyNorth’s Kaerne is encouraged by the efforts being made by the Board of Trade as well as by the city’s overall business-friendly attitude: “They really look after small business and so does the City of Burnaby—they’ve been really good to work with over the years.” For the film industry more specifically, Kaerne has little concern regarding its future: “I fully expect that within six months we’ll be back up to the levels before the strike and with lots of good prospects on the horizon.”
Looking ahead, Holden is similarly optimistic, if somewhat pragmatic. “I think there will be hiccups along the way with the economy, but I think overall Burnaby is well positioned to have a very positive and strong economic future,” he says, adding: “Burnaby truly is one of the most diverse communities anywhere in the country—in some schools over 100 languages are being spoken—and so I think with that diversity comes a lot of opportunities.”
In our quest to identify British Columbia’s most economically resilient cities, we analyzed 10 key metrics, each assigned weightings ranging from 5 to 15 percent. Carried over from the previous year, our post-pandemic indicators examine a broader perspective of economic resiliency than in years past, including aspects of social and environmental resiliency. Each city was assigned a score out of 100 points and is ranked based on their performance.
Five-year population growth (maximum score of 10 points)
This figure represents the population growth for each city from 2018 to 2023. We gave the highest-growth city 10 points and scored the others in proportion to that.
Household financial vulnerability (15 points)
This figure—an index created by Environics Analytics—looks at a range of household financial variables, including debt, liquid assets and discretionary income, to show how precarious a typical household’s finances are in a given city. The higher the index value, the more vulnerable a city’s households are on average. Therefore, we gave the lowest value 15 points and scored the others in relation to that.
Resident sense of belonging (5 points)
This value represents the sense of belonging that a resident has within their community, as derived from Environics Analytics’ Community Life Survey. Cities who had a greater share of residents reporting a “very strong” or “somewhat strong” sense of belonging scored higher than those with more residents reporting a “somewhat weak” or “very weak” sense of belonging. We assumed that cities with a stronger sense of community had stronger social resiliency. The city with the highest sense of belonging received a score of 5, with the others scoring in proportion.
Residential greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per 10,000 residents (5 points)
This number reveals the amount of residential GHG emissions produced by a city annually per 10,000 residents, measured in tons of CO2. Derived from B.C.’s Provincial GHG Emissions Inventory, this value reflects residential energy use, including emissions estimates from electricity, natural gas, wood, oil, and propane consumption. Given the economic risk and uncertainty posed by climate change, as well as the impact unpredictable geopolitical events can have on energy prices, we assumed a positive correlation between a city’s environmental and economic resilience. As cities that use less energy and/or cleaner sources see fewer emissions on average, the city with the lowest value received 5 points, with the others scoring accordingly.
Rental vacancy rate (10 points)
This indicator reflects the reported vacancy rate for rental housing units from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.’s annual Rental Market Survey. Housing market observers, such as the Royal Bank of Canada, consider a healthy rental vacancy rate to be between 3% and 5%. Therefore, a vacancy rate of 4% received the maximum score of 10, with cities above or below that value scoring proportionately less.
Residential sales per 10,000 residents (10 points)
This number, from quarterly BC Assessment data, reflects the year-to-date sales totals for single-family and strata residential properties to the end of September 2023. After dividing sales totals by total city population, we multiplied that figure by 10,000 to determine the number of sales per 10,000 residents. We gave the highest value 10 points and scored the others accordingly.
Housing starts per 10,000 residents (10 points)
We derived this value from the year-to-date housing starts from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.’s monthly Starts and Completions Survey to the end of September 2023. The city with the highest number of housing starts per 10,000 residents (Saanich took it this year) received a score of 10, with the other cities scoring in relation to that.
Change in jobs per 10,000 residents (10 points)
This figure measures the change in the employed labour force from January to September 2023, derived from StatsCan’s monthly Labour Force Survey. We scored the year-to-date difference in jobs out of a maximum value of 10.
Average annual unemployment rate (10 points)
We averaged unemployment rates for each city from the first three quarters of the year. The averages were derived from rates reported in StatsCan’s monthly Labour Force Survey for January through September 2023. We gave the lowest average 10 points and evaluated the others in relation to that.
Economic diversity (15 points)
This value is derived by applying the Herfindahl–Hirschman Index—a common means of measuring diversity—to StatsCan employment data to determine labour force diversity. The closer this number is to 10,000, the less diverse a city’s workforce is.