Grande Prairie, AB
Demographic Factsheet:
Population: 55,032 (2011)
2006 to 2011 population change (%): 16.8%
2001 to 2006 population change (%): -19.9%
Population density: 755.9 per km2
Median age of the population: 30.3
Total visible minority population: 2,550 (3.6%)
Aboriginal identity population: 6,300 (8.8%)
Land area (square km): 72.80 km2
Participation rate: 80.2%
Employment rate: 77.2%
Unemployment rate: 3.8%
Grande Prairie is a city in west central Alberta, around 425 km northwest of Edmonton, lies along the Bear River, near the British Columbia border. Grande Prairie is French for ‘large meadow’, which derives from the way 19th-century fur traders described the vast expanse of open and fertile land parkland that surrounds the town site. It serves as the primary business and transportation centre for the Alberta Peace River region.
In the early 1800s, people of the Beaver First Nation, who occupied the geographical area of Grande Prairie, began trading with the North West Company at Dunvegan on the Peace River. Grande Prairie was originally established by Thomas Kerr, 21 km northwest of the present city, located near Cutbank Lake, as a Hudson Bay Company trading post in 1881. During the same period, the prairie to the south was settled by Cree and Iroquois from the Jasper and Lac Ste Anne districts. Roman Catholic missionaries followed, building the first Mission at Lake Saskatoon. Seventeen townships were surveyed for homesteading in 1909, and, in 1910, the Grande Prairie townsite was subdivided. Beginning in April of 1911, numerous settlers reached the bourgeoning settlement via a wagon trail from Edson, and, in the same year, the Grande Prairie Public School District formed and the first Post Office opened. In 1914, it became a village, complete with the new Pioneer Hospital (later re-named Katherine Prittie Hospital), a bank, hotel, post office and land office, and a newspaper in 1913, as the Grande Prairie Herald started printing weekly. Today the Grande Prairie Daily Herald-Tribune, an offshoot of the original Herald, delivers news to the south Peace River Country. Until the 1920s Grande Prairie would steadily develop as the major regional service centre for the Peace River district of northwestern Alberta and northeastern British Columbia, setting the village apart as a “district metropolis”. The settlement’s “real development” is said to have began when Grande Prairie became the terminus of the Northern Alberta Railway in 1916, opening the area to large-scale homesteading. Following subsequent influx of settlers, it officially became a town in 1919, with a population of approximately 1,040.
The population climbed drastically to reach 2,500 in 1920. Residents had a local high school, water works, electric light plant, telephone system, farmers market, fire department, movie theatre, covered skating rink, and churches. In spite of the seemingly unstoppable growth of the previous decade, Grande Prairie experienced a temporary recession and depopulation during the early 1920s. Yet, as of 1928, Grande Prairie began to grow rapidly once again, due in part to both its international grain-growing reputation as well as an influx of Southern Albertan farmers leaving the “drought stricken southern prairies” for the “the moister soils of the Peace”. Grande Prairie regained its position as a wholesale and retail centre for the region. Today, the region continues to produce more grain than the entire province of Manitoba, one source states. Grande Prairie and its surrounding area remained an agricultural centre, “with some coal and lumber produced for domestic use”, until the 1950s.
Grande Prairie was no exception the the Great Depression of the 1930s, suffering its effect until the Second World War and the construction of the Alaska Highway. Prosperity ensued into the following decades. The discovery of oil in 1947 brought about a subsequent period of dramatic economic growth and a concordant increase in population. John Bickell, an American Homesteader, formed The Northern Planing Mill in Grande Prairie in the late 1940s. Highway 43 created a direct connection between Edmonton and Grande Prairie in 1955. Bickell would later partner to establish Alberta's first plywood mill, Northern Plywoods, which would later be partially bought by Canadian Forest Products, and subsequently assumed and expanded by Canfor. Grande Prairie became a city in January of 1958, dubbed “Home of the Trumpeter Swan” and “Swan City” after it was discovered that swans were nesting in the Grande Prairie area. Grand Prairie offers many areas for enjoying the natural environment, such as Muskoseepi Park, in the heart of the city, and Saskatoon Island Provincial Park, which surrounds the city.
As a city, Grande Prairie’s economy would “grow at twice the national average and the population had more than doubled” between until 1975. In 1972, a major Procter & Gamble kraft pulp mill opened to the south and, in 1977, the Elmworth deep basin gas field was discovered, further accelerating Grande Prairie’s economic growth into the following decade. To put in further into perspective, the population of Grande Prairie was approximately 12,000 in the early 1970s and doubled to reach about 24,000 by 1981, only half a decade later, when oil activity eventually plummeted and the region entered another recession— only to then rebound in the 1990s thanks to a rebounded international demand for oil, natural gas and forestry.
Grande Prairie persisted as one of the fastest growing cities in Canada into the early 2000s. Thousands again began moving to Grande Prairie from 2006 to 2007, as another economic boom struck the region. In 2001, the population was 36,983 and would swell to just over 50,000 by the latter end of the decade. As with other booming communities, the rapid growth in such a short period of time meant the City had to adapt and mitigate issues presented by drastic increases in regional activity, namely urban sprawl and a high crime rate which has “has detracted from the prosperity of the city and its hinterland”. Grande Prairie’s modern economy is supported by agriculture, forest products, and oil and natural gas, augmented by tourism, namely sports tourism.

Dr. Leith Deacon PhD