In some respects, Canadian resource towns resemble similar towns throughout the world, i.e., towns based on the extraction or processing of resources such as minerals, forest products and hydroelectric power. Characteristically, the resource town is connected to an industry or business and lacks control over its own economic development. The economic base is controlled by outside corporations or governments that determine the nature and extent of the extractive or processing activity, and thereby determine the size of the local work force and the degree of local prosperity or growth.
Because raw materials are usually shipped elsewhere, often outside Canada, for processing, most resource towns are excluded from the ultimate economic benefits derived from the resources. Boom and bust fluctuations depend on shifts in the international market for resources, or on government or corporate decisions, and not on local initiative. Recurring fluctuations can generate feelings of insecurity and impermanence in the community, feelings accentuated in mining towns by the knowledge that the resource base will eventually be exhausted.
Resource towns are also characterized by the simplified occupational structure inherent in them. The middle class is relatively weak and usually includes only a small group of managers, merchants and professionals who are oriented, as far as careers are concerned, to organizations outside the town. Workers often migrate between resource towns in search of employment.
Several factors discourage the development of a diversified economy that would generate a more heterogeneous work force. Isolation from major markets, relatively high wages paid by resource industries, and high development costs combine to prevent the influx of secondary industry. One result is that the male-female ratio in resource towns is usually slanted heavily in favour of men, since there are fewer employment opportunities for women.
Another result is that most (but not all) resource towns have a relatively small population. Therefore, they share many of the features of any small town, regardless of its economic base. A final common characteristic is physical appearance. Although recently built resource towns tend to resemble the new suburbs of large cities; older towns are generally dominated by a mine or mill.
While Canadian resource towns have a great deal in common, both with each other and with towns in other countries, it is possible to delineate several distinctive characteristics. One basic distinction involves the origins of the population.
The industrial population of many of the resource towns of the Atlantic provinces and Québec is drawn from the surrounding fishing, lumbering and agricultural population. In sharp contrast, the work force and management of the resource towns of Ontario and western Canada are drawn from populations remote from the town or from outside the country. "New towns" created in largely uninhabited areas have no physical or cultural rural connections.
A second major distinction is based on the decision-making process involved in creating and maintaining the community. Some towns are the products of decisions made by a single company or a government; others represent the outcome of a number of decisions made by a number of companies or by the residents of the community itself.
The two types of towns that result are service and supply towns (e.g., Sudbury, Ontario), which sometimes begin as boom towns, and company towns (e.g., Témiscaming, Québec), which are generally small, static communities closely attached to one industry's operation.
The physical appearance of resource towns depends, as does function, on who is responsible for planning and building the town.
Chronologically the shaping of the towns has reflected the approach to urban and regional planning that has been current in Canada at specific periods. Three generations of resource towns have been built since Confederation: first, 1867–1920, privately built towns, e.g., Cobalt, Ontario; second, 1920–39, holistically built towns, e.g., Kapuskasing, Ontario; and since 1945, comprehensively planned, third-generation towns, e.g., Kitimat, British Columbia.
The modernization of some of the larger service centres and the designs of some of the new towns dramatically illustrate the advances made in resource-town building since the first-generation towns appeared in the 19th century. But regardless of the sophistication of recent planning concepts, the basic problems facing resource towns remain unresolved.
Many have a limited lifetime, and prospects for activity and growth beyond the initial function seldom materialize. In some cases the resources simply run out; or perhaps market conditions change, or an international corporation moves its operation to another country. Mines or plants close and the town eventually dies (e.g., Pine Point, Northwest Territories; Schefferville, Québec). Hundreds of Canadian communities have disappeared in this way. In other cases, the industrial plants become obsolete. But in both cases the future remains uncertain and fluctuations between boom and bust plague attempts for orderly, long-term development.