The more southerly portion of the municipality is bounded on the west by the lower reaches of the Stave River, which consists mostly of the lakewaters of two hydroelectric reservoirs, Stave Lake and Hayward Lake. Although the vast majority of the population of Mission lives well to the east of the Stave, over 50% of the northern land area of the municipality is west and north of that river; its extreme northwest corner is on the far side of upper Alouette Lake. A small portion of the lower Stave still runs free in its last two miles before its confluence with the Fraser at Ruskin; its last three-quarters of a mile forms the border with the larger municipality of Maple Ridge to the west.
Over 40% of Mission is actually tree farm, making it only one of two communities with municipal tree farms. (Revelstoke BC, with a much smaller and newer farm, is the second.) Mission's tree farm celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2008.
The eastern boundary of the municipality roughly coincides with the division between the Mission upland and the alluvial floodplain of Hatzic Prairie, which resembles much of the rest of the Fraser Valley Lowland. The unincorporated communities from Hatzic eastwards through Dewdney and Nicomen Island to Deroche are part of the social and commercial matrix centred on Mission but have never joined the municipality, as is also the case with areas north of Hatzic and Dewdney such as McConnell Creek and Durieu; the local economy and societies are built on dairy, berry and corn farming as well as a large First Nations community at Lakalhamen on Nicomen Island.
The largest group is Caucasian, comprising approximately 91.6% of the population, but even within that Mission's ethnic makeup is very complex, with large numbers of Germans and Dutch, but also Finns, Norwegians and other Scandinavians, Hungarians, Poles and others. The largest visible minority group in Mission are South Asians, primarily Indo-Canadians comprising 5.1% of the population, and it is a centre for services and governments of the communities in the area to the east.
Notable former or current residents include:
Forest and wood related industries dominate the manufacturing sector, with an emphasis on redcedar shake and shingle mills. Mission also holds the only municipal tree farm license in British Columbia.
Agriculture is mostly restricted to a narrow belt along the Fraser River, and the unincorporated Dewdney-Deroche district east of Mission contains the majority of the farms in the area. There are about 96 commercial and hobby farms in the area. Dairy is the chief agricultural enterprise; other income sources include poultry, hogs, beef and vegetables.
Mission's largest employer is the local school district, School District #75, and its second largest employer is the District (i.e. the municipality) itself.
At the time of founding, the swing-span Mission Railway Bridge opened in 1891 was the only crossing of the Fraser River in the Fraser Valley below Yale, and all rail traffic between Vancouver and the United States was necessarily routed through Mission until the New Westminster Bridge at New Westminster was built in 1904. The rail bridge at Mission doubled duty as a one-way alternating vehicular bridge until 1973, when a long-promised new Mission Bridge was finally completed. The bridge's location is geographically important at the head of the tidal bore on the Fraser River, and its water level gauge is an important measure of the Fraser's annual and sometimes dangerously large spring freshet.
Mission City's original retail core was in the small area of lowland between the CPR mainline and the river. Following the great flood of 1894 a few years after the town's founding, the core was relocated just north of the rail line at the foot of the hillside rising above the rail junction. This small commercial strip, only four or five blocks long, was one of the principal commercial centres of the Fraser Valley for many decades and had a lively retail trade and social life.
The western part of the district, the Stave Valley, is largely rural and forested but its watercourse is home to what was the largest hydroelectric project in British Columbia until the Bridge River Power Project opened in 1961. It was built by the British Columbia Electric Railway (BCER) to provide power to the electric street railway and interurban system in Vancouver. The Stave Falls Power Co. operated a light-gauge railway for passenger and freight service up the lower canyon of the river to the dam at Stave Falls. During the construction of the Ruskin Dam (completed 1931) the railway was rebuilt at a higher elevation so as to skirt the new Hayward Lake reservoir. The rail line has long been discontinued, but the old grade and its trestles are now part of a recreation trail circling the reservoir.
Flanking the outraces of the powerhouse at Stave Falls there was once a fairly large community (300 houses), which was served by the railway via connections to the CPR line at Ruskin, although the (then very rough) Dewdney Trunk Road used the dam to cross the Stave River. Population in the Stave Falls area is now away from the dams, west along the Dewdney Trunk towards Maple Ridge, in a rural farm-and-wilderness area south of Rolley Lake Provincial Park.
Up against the Maple Ridge boundary near the waterfront on the west side of the Stave, and halfway between the dam and the mills at Ruskin, was a large drive-in theatre for many years. It is now a large trailer park, and the most populated of Ruskin's neighbourhoods.
The building of the Highway 1 freeway on the south side of the Fraser in the early 1960s brought huge population growth and large shopping malls to formerly rural Abbotsford, Matsqui, Sumas and Langley; as a result Mission lost its "anchor", the main Eaton's department store in the Valley, and the town's Main Street businesses lost much of their business to the new shopping malls a few minutes away across the river. This process was accelerated with the opening of the new bridge in the mid-1970s.
Despite a cohesive business community and new retail malls on the edges of the old core, Mission's retail community has never regained its former prominence in the Fraser Valley. Burgeoning "exurban" population growth connected with the rapid growth of the population of the Lower Mainland and encouraged by a new commuter rail line direct to downtown Vancouver, the West Coast Express, has reversed this trend although Mission's real estate remains some of the cheapest in the heated Fraser Valley market.
Outside of the core "urban" area, most of which had been the Town of Mission City, the former District of Mission was a collection of distinct rural communities, each with their own history and sometimes distinct ethnic flavour. Silverdale, 7 kilometres west of Mission on the east bank of the lower Stave River, was homesteaded in the 1880s by Italian immigrants (including the Gagliardi family); their descendents reside there to this day. Neighbouring Silverhill was founded by a Finnish Utopian sect who were superseded by Scandinavian and German settlers following a forest fire that virtually wiped out the Finns.
Steelhead, in the northern part of the district, was originally a weekend retreat for some of Vancouver's press community. Other localities such as Ferndale, Cedar Valley and Hatzic were farming communities of mixed origin, with Europeans and anglicized French-Canadians alongside the usual British-Scottish Canadian mix typical of much of the Fraser Valley. Throughout the Mission area before World War II, there was a large Japanese-Canadian population involved in berry farming, logging and milling and in the fishery on the river.
In 1954, Benedictine monks obtained land near Mission, where they set up their Westminster Abbey and Seminary of Christ the King. They have lived there ever since, running their own farm and teaching high school and college men at the seminary.
The berry industry, formerly the district's largest and most important, formed the heart of the town's annual summer party, the Strawberry Festival. But with the impacts on this industry (relocation of the Japanese during wartime and the devastating flood of 1948), the strawberry theme was abandoned. The town acquired the rights to the Western Canada championships of the Soap Box Derby, which were held annually in a specially-built facility until 1973; the Derby has been revived in the new millennium.
Mission's other major industry was logging, and the town's several mills were noted for being the world's largest suppliers of red cedar shakes and shingles. The District of Mission has operated for many years its own tree farm, covering most of its northern and northwestern mountainous forests. This tree farm served as a model for silvicultural management on a larger scale throughout British Columbia as well as provided a unique income source for the municipality. From 1967 through the 1970s the Soap Box Derby shared Dominion Day with a large Loggers Sports event, one of the largest in British Columbia and important on the North American Loggers Sports Association circuit.
In the 1960s and 1970s there was a large cluster of productive mills on the waterfront in Mission, for many years world capital of red cedar shake production (the mill at Whonnock outproduced the largest of the Mission mills, but Mission's city of mills was the largest overall producer). Nearby Eddy Match Co., between Mission and Hatzic, was the largest matchstick-making plant in the world until it closed in the 1960s; its only rival was in Hull, Quebec.
Adjoining it was the Empress Foods Co. cannery, the survivor of the struggles of the berry industry in the Central Fraser Valley, and dating from the days of Mission's supremacy as strawberry capital of the valley before the 1948 Fraser River flood wiped it out. In more recent times one of these buildings was for a while converted into the province's largest marijuana grow-op, in a scandal involving one of the town's wealthiest families (who shall remain nameless here) and which at the time was the largest busted grow-op on record.
Mission is noted as the home of a long-established professional dragstrip, Mission Raceway Park, which was moved in relatively recent times outside the dyking of the lower part of town to reduce noise in residential and commercial areas nearby.
In 1972 a large tract of land in central Mission's Ferndale area, flat upland at the top of the slope above downtown, was acquired by the federal government and developed into two large penal facilities. One is a minimum security "golf resort", as the media deride it, and the other is a medium security prison. The northern part of the district, and the wilds of the Stave River basin to the north of it, are home to a few wilderness work camps for young offenders and low-risk convicts; these camps have over recent decades participated in the ongoing clearing of vast forests of flooded-out trees from the inundated areas of Stave Lake, opening the lake to water recreation and public exploration.
Mission's neighbourhoods include a number of rural localities which were part of the District Municipality before amalgamation and which still have some strong local identity. The following list is incomplete, due to the emergence of modern-era development neighbourhoods, but covers the historical localities: