Atikokan, Ontario: A Rural Community Health Assessment

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History of Atikokan, Ontario:

Atikokan, Ontario, is located in Northwestern Ontario, approximately 200km west of Thunder Bay (, 2012). The town is often referred to as the canoeing capital of Canada. It is also known for being a safe, and healthy community with a diverse economy, and strong ties to the wilderness. Atikokan was originally established as a rail stop for the Canadian Northern Railway in 1882. The name “Atikokan” is thought to have been derived from the Ojibwa-Chippewa word for “caribou bones” (, 2012) as the town site was at one time the wintering grounds for herds of caribou- where many of them ended up passing away on the lands. The late 1600’s saw the introduction of many Europeans tourists travelling through the area, including Jacques de Noyon, one of the first European settlers to do so. The 1730’s brought along the opening of an interior fur trade and by the 1740’s, French fur traders in the area were well established to compete with the Hudson’s Bay Company (the largest fur trader in North America) (, 2012).  However, by 1821 declining fur catches caused the company and Hudson’s Bay to merge together. In 1883, sawmills were established in the region, with many of the materials providing timber for the development of the mine sites contributing to the towns economic growth.  By 1899, the east-west section of the Canadian National Railway (formerly known as the Canadian Northern Railway) was built through Atikokan as demands for transportation services increased after a number of mines were discovered. Upon hearing of the construction of the railway, many non-aboriginal settlers began to flock towards the area. Along with the settlers, came the development of much of the towns’ infrastructure, including construction of a hotel, general store, and post office (, 2012). In 1940, a small hospital was erected at the Steep Rock Iron Mines Ltd. site approximately 14.5km from Atikokan (, 2012).  Prior to this, hospital and medical services were limited to a small Red Cross outpost that operated from the inside of a train care.

Definition of a Rural Community:

            Essentially, Atikokan is a small town located in the Rainy River District in Northwestern Ontario. As defined in class, there are three things that help when defining a rural community. These factors include the rural area being located outside a population centre, having a population of a least 1,000 people, and having a population density of 400 persons or more per square kilometer. Therefore, one of the reasons it is considered a rural area is due to the fact that it is located outside of a major population centre; the closest being Thunder Bay, Ontario. There would be a very small chance that workers would commute between Atikokan and Thunder Bay, as the travel time would amount to 2.5 hours each way. Thus, the relationship would be considered as being weak when looking at the metropolitan influenced zone (MIZ). Secondly, the population density of Atikokan is 8.7/km2   as per the 2011 National Household Survey (Statistics Canada, 2013). As a result, Atikokan has a population density well below the 400 persons per square kilometer, based on its current census population count. Thirdly, Atikokan has a population of 2,787 people, which is considered a small population centre (Statistics Canada, 2013). In my opinion, I would say that the two strongest factors that would make Atikokan a rural community, is its geographic location and the size of its population.

SWOT Analysis:


o   Strong ties to the wilderness, especially in relation to being an outdoor tourist recreation destination

o   Strong health care sector- ambulance, chiropractic, counseling, dental, hospitals/clinics, optometrist, 41-bed hospital, emergency care, and youth services

o   Diverse economy- based on forestry, government services, retail services, thermal generating station


o   Shrinking population

o   High rates of youth obesity and overweight children

o   High unemployment rate- much of the employment is seasonal


o   Resolute Forest Products to build a new sawmill in the Atikokan area

o   Atikokan General Hospital accepted a grant of $8,487 from the Northern Cancer Fund of the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Foundation

o   Transportation into and out of Atikokan, particularly taking advantage of the Trans Canada Highway


o   Not enough Health care funding from the province/ state of current contract negotiations between province and health care workers

o   Collective agreement representing some health care workers in Atikokan expire in late 2014

o   Downturn in the forestry industry


Similar to many other northern communities rates of obesity are high in Atikokan. A study conducted by the Northwestern Health Unit, located in Atikokan, highlighted two areas as being inadequate, which were physical activity and nutrition (Northwestern Health Unit, 2014). The study found only 0.74 per cent of students claimed to get the recommended daily food servings as set out in the Canada Food Guide (NHU, 2014).  This is quite alarming, considering healthy eating, particularly of fruits and vegetables, is considered one of the key measures in the prevention of chronic disease. Therefore, the health unit in Atikokan, has plans to continue to collect data through to 2016, in hopes that the unit will be able to see whether its target programs to help combat this issue are helping teens make healthier choices (NHU, 2014). The health unit has specific programs such as the creation of apps and more targeted information for youth to use on their website highlighting healthy eating basics, and drug and alcohol use (NHU, 2014). Furthermore, Atikokan has acknowledged the problem of youth obesity and in conjunction with the Heart & Stroke Foundation formed a program called ‘Atikokan Youth Initiatives- Healthy Choices’, which seeks to bring together community partners to plan activities that will bring together all members of the community and get more youth involved in community programming (HSFSpark, n.d.). Together this program seeks to spark discussion, design solutions, and plan activities that aim to see more youth involved in active community programs. In my opinion, this program would be highly beneficial, as it would allow the community to take initiative in addressing and fixing some of the towns health problems. Since it is a subdivision of the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the Atikokan Youth Initiative program allows the community to have a stronger sense of investment and efficacy, due to the community being able to define the problem and come up with solutions themselves.

Another weakness within the town has been the noted decrease in population. As noted in the 2011 census, Atikokan has experienced a 15.4% decrease in the number of residents residing in the town. As of 2011, 2787 residents lived in the town, compared to 3293 in 2006 (Statistics Canada, 2013). While the population decreased, the median age in the town saw an increase from 43.0 years to 48.5 years.  As the town continues to age, it would be important to have transportation options for those who do not own a car or are not within relative distance to the destination they are aiming to get to. Fortunately for the residents of Atikokan, various forms of transportation offer their services. Although Atikokan does have its own General Hospital, similar to many other rural communities, Atikokan has experienced a decreased amount of health care funding over the years and thereby limiting the amount of services the local general hospital could offer.  Therefore, for patients to have access to more comprehensive and complex health services, they would have to go to larger centre, such as Thunder Bay, to receive care. Luckily, coaches are relatively frequent and cheap for residents to access. Although many complex and expensive treatments are often located in more populated centers, the town has been able to seize an opportunity through the Northern Cancer Fund of the Thunder Bay Regional health Sciences Foundation to fund the purchase of a new chemotherapy treatment chair and a fridge for maintaining and storing the hospitals stock of chemotherapy medications as of October 21, 2014 (Progress, 2014). This is a huge event for a small town such as Atikokan, and I would think many residents would be able to benefit from this grant, as cancer touches the lives of many, and I am sure many residents would be grateful having the chance to be treated close to home.

It has been noted that there are two factors that heavily contribute to the elevated unemployment rates (approximately 8.4%) in the town in comparison to the Ontario (approximately 7%) and Canada unemployment rates (Statistics Canada, 2013). The first factor relates to Atikokan’s reliance on natural resources, which leads to the creation of a number of seasonal opportunities. For example, similar to many other towns across Northern Ontario, many tourist camps close during the winter. Secondly, there is also a lack of marketable skills and knowledge demonstrated by a number of Atikokanites (, n.d.).   Many of the positions in the town that require specific expertise are often filled by people who come from out of town who have the required knowledge and trades. However, Atikokan has a very diverse economy and there are other means for residents to seek employment and capitalize on the towns’ strengths, such as outdoor recreation and natural resources. The once-struggling forestry sector in Northwestern Ontario, and specifically Atikokan, has also received positive news as a new sawmill and economic partnership is to be completed by late 2014 by Resolute Forest Products. Fortunately for the town, the mill will employ about 90 people and add additional indirect jobs related to hauling lumber and residual chips (CBC News, 2013).  Furthermore, the introduction of this partnership will aid in providing economic stability for the towns future, particularly with the company agreeing to supply the Ontario Power Generation plant, a significant employer in the community, with wood pellets for the next 10 years.

Works Cited

Progress. (2014, November 21). Northern cancer fund backs equipment upgrade at AGH. Atikokan Progress and Printing RSS. Retrieved October 20, 2014, from

Atikokan youth initiatives – healthy choices | Spark. (n.d.). Heart and Stroke- Spark. Retrieved October 28, 2014, from

CBCNews. (2013, January 31). Resolute Forest Products to build $50M Atikokan sawmill. CBCnews. Retrieved October 28, 2014, from

CBCNews. (2014, September 30). Unifor rallies in Thunder Bay over health care, contract issues. CBCnews. Retrieved October 28, 2014, from

Community history. (n.d.). Home. Retrieved October 28, 2014, from

Compass survey results 2014. (n.d.). Northwestern Health Unit. Retrieved October 15, 2014, from

Experience Atikokan. (n.d.). Experience Atikokan : Atikokan Economic Development Corporation. Retrieved October 28, 2014, from

NHS profile- Atikokan, 2011. (2013, September 11). Statistics Canada. Retrieved

October 25, 2014, from