The Changing Valley: How shifting demographics are upending old Fraser Valley stereotypes

Rapid growth is rendering old stereotypes about the Fraser Valley even less accurate. As the region changes, new possibilities, opportunities, and challenges are emerging.

By Tyler Olsen | October 8, 2021 |4:04 pm

This is the first story in The Changing Valley, an ongoing series on how housing and migration are changing the Fraser Valley. For the second part, a look at the widening price gap in housing across the valley, click here. For immediate access to every story we write and more in-depth news about the Fraser Valley, subscribe to our daily newsletter below. 

Laura Scotten never envisioned herself living in the Fraser Valley. She and her husband had lived in East Vancouver and been happy there. They liked the city: its walkability, the food options, and the other great things about urban life.

But life, COVID, and the economics of homeownership in one of the least affordable housing markets on earth, had other thoughts. When Laura and her husband Jason Nicholls had a child, and then as that kid started to move around, the couple learned something that parents everywhere quickly realize: space is a precious commodity when a kid goes from crawling to running. That was especially true amid a pandemic that left families everywhere grasping for room outside. So Laura and Jason sold their house and temporarily moved into Jason’s parents’ larger home in Surrey. And as they looked around for a place of their own, it became evident that going back to condo living—or Vancouver—likely wasn’t in the cards.

“After living there for a few months until playgrounds opened again, we realized how much we wanted yard-space and workshop-space and space-space in general,” Laura said. That’s when they started looking at homes in Abbotsford.

The Scotten-Nicholls family was hardly alone. In the last five years, tens of thousands of Metro Vancouver residents have moved to the Fraser Valley. Rising house prices have helped drive an unprecedented migration from Vancouver to its eastern neighbours. And that migration is changing the Fraser Valley in new ways.

For decades, the Fraser Valley has been known for sprawling neighbourhoods, conservative politics, a dependence on cars, and its peripheral relationship to Vancouver. Outsiders occasionally ridicule it as a backwater: a place stuck in the past or a series of highway signs with an economy defined by the smell of agriculture. Those stereotypes have always been too simple. But as the 21st century brings unprecedented rates of change, they are becoming even more outdated.

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The Lower Mainland heads east in search of housing

The Fraser Valley has been growing rapidly for decades. But that pattern has accelerated in the last five years, compared to Vancouver and its immediate suburbs. Between 2001 and 2015, three of the 10 fastest growing municipalities in the Lower Mainland were in the Fraser Valley. Since 2015, seven of the 10 fastest growing municipalities can be found in the valley. (Only Langley City isn’t in that group.) That shift is partly because when the Fraser Valley gains a person, Vancouver or a nearby city loses a resident.

That migration is altering where and how people live, the stores they shop at, the food they eat and grow, and the political parties they support. More people create more opportunities, but also pose new challenges.

The provincial NDP has won seats in Chilliwack. Abbotsford is increasingly a multicultural hub. Hope and Agassiz are growing and facing their own housing crunches. SkyTrain is set to bring new commuters and challenges to Langley. And Mission is planning to re-imagine its connection to the Fraser River and the region. And that shift—for both long-time residents and newcomers like the Scotten-Nicholls—has only been accelerated by the pandemic.

Over the coming months, the Current will explore the rapid changes impacting the Fraser Valley, and how that’s posing both challenges and opportunities for people who have called the region home for decades and for those moving here to join a community they can call their own.

Abbotsford has become one of Canada's most diverse communities. Food trucks are increasingly common, with a range of food cultures represented.
Abbotsford has become one of Canada’s most diverse communities. Food trucks are increasingly common, with a range of food cultures represented. đź“· Oleg Mayorov/Shutterstorck

Complexity is nothing new for the Fraser Valley

This region is not newly complex. It has always been thus, dating back to and before the arrival of Europeans. Many of the most recent stereotypes about the Fraser Valley are simplifications, residents know. The region contains multitudes in its people and history that can be easy to miss for an outsider, even assuming good faith (which is often lacking). We will try to explore these topics with our readers.

This series will evolve and shift. Any news story in the Fraser Valley, in a way, is about how the valley is changing. But our Changing Valley stories will focus specifically on the way new and increased migration is altering the demographic make-up and, in turn, what the “Fraser Valley” means in the first place. We hope you not only read along, but become part of the conversation and share your stories about life in the valley.

As the Fraser Valley grows and evolves, those changes are making the region more attractive to people who may have previously balked at leaving Vancouver for the east, like Laura Scotten and Jason Nicholls (but not only people just like them). Jason and Laura had been wary about being isolated in a suburb. But the evolution of downtown Abbotsford into a livelier, hipper place had changed her feelings on the Fraser Valley.

“I never, ever thought we would be valley people, that we would live in the country… That was not our trajectory,” she said. But the pandemic hit, and for a net cost of about $300,000 the couple traded in their Vancouver condo for a full house with a garage in central Abbotsford. “Our rule had always been [to be] within walking distance of a brewery and we are now. So it fit the parameters, despite us never expecting it to fit the parameters.”

Are you a retiree who has recently moved to the valley? Or do you run a restaurant that serves Indian food? We’d love to chat with you! Please email tyler@fvcurrent.com to get in touch.

Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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