Grande Prairie is the main city in the northwestern part of the province of Alberta in Western Canada. It is located on the southern edge of the Peace River Country (part of the Peace Region or simply "The Peace", as is often locally known, which encompasses much of northwestern Alberta and northeastern British Columbia). The city is surrounded by Grande Prairie County. The city of Grande Prairie is one of Canada's fastest growing cities and as of its 2007 civic census, its population was 50,227, up 6.9% from the Canada 2006 Census figure of 47,076. As of 2006, the population of the Grande Prairie Census Agglomeration was at 71,868 (The census agglomeration has now been expanded to cover the entire County of Grande Prairie). It is currently Alberta's 7th largest incorporated city by population. Grande Prairie is the largest city between Edmonton and Fairbanks, Alaska along the Highway 43, Alaska and a portion of the Richardson Highway (Alaska) routes. It lies about and from each city respectively.
The city has adopted the endangered Trumpeter swan as an official symbol because it is near the migration route and summer nesting grounds of this large and graceful swan. For that reason, Grande Prairie is sometimes nicknamed the "Swan City".
The Edson Trail from Edson to Grande Prairie was opened in 1911 as a means for settlers to reach the Grande Prairie area. It was basically nothing more than a tract of clear cut bush and forest, and thus was a very difficult route for many settlers, especially during wet weather. Because of this, large scale settlement came late compared to other major farming regions further south in Canada. Grande Prairie was incorporated as a town by the Province of Alberta in 1914. It was not until the arrival of the railway in 1916 that farmland quickly expanded as waves of settlers came into the Peace region. A local recession in the 1920s caused a temporary depopulation of Grande Prairie. But the population rebounded afterwards by the 1930s, by which time the population had reached 1,464. Settlement continued unabated even into the 1930s during the Dust Bowl era because the Peace Region was able to escape the severe drought conditions that plagued the Canadian Prairies further south at the time.
The Second World War saw the US and Canadian military establish Grande Prairie as a part of the Northwest Staging Route for the construction of the Alaska Highway from Dawson Creek to Alaska. Although Dawson Creek was chosen as the major starting point of the construction of the Alaska highway, Grande Prairie was a major stopover point for military aircraft during the war, and benefited economically from this.
Although Grande Prairie was well located in the southern edge of the Peace Region, it was competing with the towns of Peace River and Dawson Creek for the title of the most important centre of commerce and agriculture in the region until the late 1950s, when its population growth began to outstrip these towns as oil and natural gas exploration was underway in the Peace Region, especially since the first major discovery of oil further south in Leduc near Edmonton in 1947 and the construction of a large pulp mill in the early 1970s.
The construction and paving of Highway 43 (originally sections of Highways 2, 34 and 43 from the BC border to the Yellowhead Highway just west of Edmonton) in 1956 cut down on the travel time by road significantly, further enhancing Grande Prairie's accessibility and economic status. The town was incorporated as a City in 1958. At that time, its population was approximately 7,600.
The opening of the Procter & Gamble kraft pulp mill in 1972 and the discovery of the Elmworth deep basin gas field spurred an economic boom. Grande Prairie's population went from just over 12,000 in the early 1970s to over 24,000 by the time the oil boom went bust in 1981.
A tornado struck the downtown area and east side of Grande Prairie on July 8, 2004. Although the tornado was considered a very weak one (F0-F1 on the Fujita scale) and the weather was not severe at the time, it was still strong enough to incur damage to houses and flip vehicles over. Fortunately, there were no casualties or fatalities.
Grande Prairie is located just north of the 55th Parallel, and is 465 km (289 miles) northwest of Edmonton. The city of Grande Prairie lies at an elevation of 669 m (2195 ft) above sea level. The city is surrounded by farmland to the north, east and west. To the south, it is mostly a vast boreal forest with aspen, tamarack, lodgepole pine, jack pine, and black spruce extending well into the foothills of the Canadian Rockies south and southwest of the city.
Bear Creek goes through the city from the northwest to the south end and is a tributary of the Wapiti River to the south. The Bear Creek Reservoir is the small body of water by Grande Prairie Regional College in the northwest part of the city, and is ringed by marshy wetland. The terrain immediately surrounding Grande Prairie is largely flat to gently rolling, but rises gradually to hilly terrain closer to the foothills to the south and southwest. On clear days, some peaks in the Rockies are visible to the southwest from Grande Prairie.
The city lies on the southern edge of aspen parkland, which is a transitional biome between boreal forest and prairie. The Peace Country contains the northernmost area of aspen parkland in North America. However, much of the aspen parkland in the region has long since been altered by extensive farming and oil/gas drilling activity.
The average January temperature is −15 °C (−9 °C average high and −19 °C average low) and the average July temperature is 15.9 °C (22 °C average high and 10 °C average low). However, temperatures as low as −52 °C and as high as 36 °C have been recorded. Grande Prairie gets 317.7 mm (12.5 inches) of rain and 158.6 cm (62.4 inches) of snow per year on average. The total annual precipitation is 446.6 mm (17.6 inches) which includes both rain and snow. Snowfall amounts, however, vary greatly from year to year. Being fairly close to the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, it can get quite windy in Grande Prairie, especially in the spring and fall. Chinooks are not an unheard of occurrence in the Grande Prairie area. Grande Prairie has 314 sunshine days per year on average.
Summers can bring thunderstorms, although they are not as frequent nor as severe as those further south in Central Alberta. Rainfall can vary from year to year, but the Peace Region is noted for never having experienced truly severe drought conditions more typical of Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. Although a tornado struck the city on July 9, 2004, which was weak but still powerful enough to flip vehicles and do minor damage, tornadoes are rare but not unknown in the Peace Region. Damage was done to a number of buildings, including the Park and York Hotels, and minor damage to construction sites in the eastern portion of the city.
October 28, 2006, heralded a new record for the city: nearly 40 centimetres (15 inches) of snow fell in 24 hours. It was the greatest single-day snow fall in nearly fifty years.
Agriculture was the first economic mainstay of Grande Prairie since settlement began in the early 20th Century, and is still an essential part of the local economy today. A variety of crops such as barley, wheat, canola and oats is widely grown in the Peace region, as well as livestock such as cattle, and even buffalo (bison). Despite the latitude (north of 55°N), the climate is mild enough to allow for farming on a large scale to prosper. Daylight hours also tend to be quite long during the summer at this latitude, aiding in crop production. The Peace Region is the northernmost major farming region in North America, and land there is still being cleared for new farmland.
Although some oil and gas drilling has been ongoing in the South Peace since the 1950s, oil and gas exploration did not begin to occur on a large scale until the late 1970s. It was in the mid-1970s that the Elmworth gas field was discovered and exploited, causing the city to grow rapidly until the last oil boom ended in 1981.
Forestry is a major part of Grande Prairie's economy, for large tracts of forest lie to the south in the foothills and the Canadian Rockies. The Weyerhaeuser Canada kraft pulp mill is one of Grande Prairie's largest employers and was opened in 1972. It was originally owned by Procter & Gamble until it was sold to Weyerhaeuser Canada in 1992. Canfor runs a sawmill and lumber yard operation in the west side of the city. The Ainsworth OSB (Oriented Strand Board) plant opened in late 1995.
Grande Prairie serves as the economic and transportation hub for a trading area of nearly 250,000 people. Grande Prairie is also on the CANAMEX trade route linking Canada, the United States and Mexico.
Due to the fact that Alberta has no provincial sales tax and that Grande Prairie is fairly close to the Alberta-BC border, there is a high number of shoppers from British Columbia. Hence, it is not unusual to see a large number of vehicles with BC license plates in retail and mall parking lots in Grande Prairie.
Highway 43 is the primary highway into the city from the north and from Edmonton. Highway 43 meets Highway 2 a few kilometers north of the city at an intersection known locally as Four Mile Corner, then continues south into the city via a northwest bypass and west to the Alberta/BC border.
The stretch of Highway 2 extending north from Grande Prairie to Four Mile Corner and west to the Alberta/BC border was renumbered to Highway 43 in the late 1990s to link with the rest of Highway 43 from Four Mile Corner to the Yellowhead Highway just west of Edmonton. (This explains why newer maps no longer show that stretch west and a few km north of the city as Highway 2) The renumbering was also partly due to Highway 43 now being a part of the CANAMEX trade route and also that it is being widened to a four-lane divided highway along its entire length. Highway 40 is the primary access road into Grande Prairie from the south.
Construction of a new Highway 43X bypass to go around the northwest side of the city from Four Mile Corner to Highway 43 just west of the airport has begun as of August, 2007 ("Four Mile Corner" is not an actual settlement - it is an intersection so-named because it is four miles north of the intersection of Clairmont Road (100th Street) and Richmond Avenue (100th Avenue)). The construction is in two phases, with the first phase under construction and the second currently in the design stage. The first phase extends west to Range Road 63 (116 Street within city limits), while the second phase runs west from Range Road 63 south to Highway 43 west of the airport. The future bypass is intended to replace the current one. The current bypass, which was built in the late 1960s, is no longer functioning well as one due to high traffic volumes and new intersections. The rapid population growth of Grande Prairie is contributing to such a high increase in vehicle traffic that traffic jams are now common during peak hours.
Grande Prairie sees many vacationers heading to the Alaska Highway by road during the summer because Highway 43 leads towards Dawson Creek, BC, which is the "Mile 0" of the Alaska Highway.Street layout Grande Prairie's streets are usually numbered rather than named, with the exception of some major roadways. In fact, the street numbering system is modeled after that of Edmonton's.
The downtown core is centred at 100 Street (Clairmont Road) and 100 Avenue (Richmond Avenue). Streets run north-south, while avenues run east-west. The letter "A" is sometimes used if a street lies between two streets but doesn't correspond to the street numbering grid. For example, 100A Avenue would lie between 100 and 101 Avenues.
Houses and buildings with odd numbers are on the east side of a street or the south side of an avenue. Dropping the last two digits of a house number tells you what two streets or avenues the house lies between, for example 9835 101 Avenue is between 98 Street and 99 Street, and 11610 91 Street is between 116 Avenue and 117 Avenue.
In 2006, according to the Canada 2006 Census, Grande Prairie had a population of 47,076 living in 17,941 dwellings, a 27.3% increase from 2001. The city has a land area of and a population density of .
As recorded in the Canada 2001 Census, the median age was 29.7 (Alberta median age was 35.0), and the Median Total Income for age 15 and up was $25,414.
About 9 percent of residents identified themselves as aboriginal at the time of the 2006 census. Almost 90 percent of residents identified English as their first language at the time of the 2006 census, while almost three percent identified French and two percent identified German as their first language learned. The next most common languages were Polish, Tagalog, Cree, and Ukrainian. More than 70 percent of residents identified themselves as Christian at the time of the 2001 census while almost 28 percent indicated they had no religious affiliation. For specific denominations Statistics Canada counted 9,255 Roman Catholics (about 25 percent of the population) and 3,955 members of the United Church of Canada (about 10 percent), as well as 2,165 Anglicans and 2,020 Lutherans (about 5 percent each). Less numerous denominations included 880 Baptists and 790 residents identifying as Pentecostal (about 2 percent each).
The Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) had plans to build a new campus in Grande Prairie on the southeast corner of 68 Avenue and Wapiti Road (Highway 40) in the near future. NAIT currently offers some programs through GPRC. NAIT no longer plans on building a new campus.
Grande Prairie Regional College recently adopted the Dean-system of administration. It's largest faculty, Arts and Education, is currently headed by Dr. Scott McAlpine. As of Jan. 2007, the college is administered by Don Gnatick, following the resignation of former institution President Jim Henderson.K-12 Grande Prairie has three public high schools. The Catholic system is publicly funded in Alberta. Grande Prairie Composite High School serves City of Grande Prairie high school students, and Peace Wapiti Academy serves high school students of the surrounding County of Grande Prairie. It also has ten elementary/junior high public schools for Grades K-9, some of which have programs for special needs students. There is also the Bridge Network, a school specially geared for students who cannot or will not attend the traditional high school education system due to various problems. Grande Prairie has 11 Catholic schools, one of which is St. Joseph's High School. Grande Prairie also has 3 Christian Schools including Grande Prairie Christian School located on the south west corner of the city.
Recently there has been a huge upswing in the local music scene in Grande Prairie. This is attributed to the large number of younger citizens due to the economic growth in the last five years. The underground music scene is rather strong. Bands such as This Conviction, Calculating Collapse, Halide,Phaedrus, The Psychic Knife Fight, Damn Plastards, The Dharma Bums, Stacy Lloyd Brown / The Goodbye Generation and Emerson Drive are some of the more popular., Emerson Drive
Cultural venues include the Bowes Family Crystal Centre (a concert hall and hockey rink — the local AJHL team, the Grande Prairie Storm, plays there), the Grande Prairie Museum, the Prairie Art Gallery (closed due to a structural disaster), Second Street Theatre and Studio "Y?".
Golfing is possible as late as after 11 o'clock in the evening in early summer due to the northern latitude. Grande Prairie has three 18-hole golf courses nearby (Dunes, Bear Creek, and Grande Prairie Golf & Country Club) and also a couple of 9-hole courses as well.
Cross-country skiing and snowmobiling are popular activities during the winter in the Grande Prairie area. There is a local ski hill called Nitehawk located south of the city on the south bank of the Wapiti River. Aside from skiing, Nitehawk also has the only North American natural luge track certified for international events and over the summer months freestyle ski jumpers can practice using the Northern Extreme water ramp facility. It is also active in luge as a naturally refrigerated venue, hosting the FIL World Luge Natural Track Championships in 2007.
The foothills south of Grande Prairie and around Grande Cache are popular year-round for hiking in the summer and for snowmobiling and other winter sports in the winter. Kakwa Wildland Park on the Alberta-BC border, about 180 km south of the city, is a beautiful and mountainous natural area and is known for a beautiful waterfall called Kakwa Falls.
The Leisure Centre — formerly, the "Rec-Plex" — is located in the northwest side near the Bear Creek Reservoir, features a pool, an ice rink, fitness equipment, and aerobics facilities.
There is a lot for families to do in Grande Prairie for little to no cost. Many families enjoy the free entertainment offered at Muskoseepi Park, Studio Y?, The Public Library, and at other city-run organizations.
The city includes some thirty churches of various denominations.
In 1995, the City of Grande Prairie hosted a national event similar to the Olympic Winter Games called the Canada Winter Games. The event was televised nationally (the internet was still in infancy and not able to allow video at the time) on CBC. Hundreds of performers competed in the events and the city gained status and recognition as a result.