Located on the east coast of Vancouver Island, Courtenay is the urban and cultural hub of Comox Valley.
Archaeological evidence suggests there was an active Coast Salish fishing settlement on the shores of the Courtenay River Estuary for at least 4,000 years. Due to its gentle climate, fertile soil and abundant sea life, the Coast Salish residents called the area kw'umuxws (Li'kwala for plentiful), which was eventually anglicized to Komoux and then to Comox.
At the time of first contact with Europeans, the Pentlatch Nation occupied the shores of present-day Comox Bay. Another Nation, the K’ómoks, occupied settlements further north along the east coast of Vancouver Island, in the area of present-day Campbell River.
By the 19th century, the K'ómoks had been driven out of their lands near Campbell River by the Lekwiltok, a particularly fierce group of Kwakwaka’wakw. In 1862, a major smallpox epidemic swept across Vancouver Island, killing an estimated 30 percent of First Nations people.
At the same time, the first government-approved settlers arrived. The majority staked out farm lots on the east side of the river, and a small village sprung up on the east bank of the river. In 1888 Robert Dunsmuir established a mine in nearby Union, later renamed Cumberland, which brought an influx of settlers, and Chinese and Japanese immigrants. The townsite on the drier west side of the river quickly developed. The opening of the Comox Co-operative Creamery in 1901 encouraged the development of dairy farms in the valley. Courtenay was incorporated as a town in 1915.
The town’s population experienced steady growth in the years between the First and Second World Wars.
The climate in Courtenay is Mediterranean, with low levels of precipitation in the summer months. In spring and fall, Courtenay tends to be cool and wet. It has one of the mildest winters in Canada.
Courtenay is known for surviving a 1946 earthquake that was the largest to hit Vancouver Island, and the largest onshore earthquake in Canada on record.
Notable Courtenay-ites include Sex and the City’s Kim Cattrall; NHL players Byron Dafoe, Olaf Kölzig, and Brett McLean; Olympians Cameron Levins and Spencer O’Brien; and musicians Sue Medley and Sarah Neufeld, a member of Grammy-winning Canadian rock band Arcade Fire.
In 2020, the average price for a house in Comox Valley was $590,177, a five percent increase over the previous 12 months.
The approximate population of Courtenay in 2020 was 26,000.
From its inception, Courtenay relied heavily on the extraction of natural resources for its economy. As this natural resource extraction decreased, Courtenay turned to supplying services to the large retiree community and the military families at CFB Comox, which is the largest employer in the Comox Valley. Tourism has also been steadily increasing and has become a vital part of the economy.
The average household income is $59,136, which is 16 percent less than the BC average and 18 percent lower than the Canadian average.
Along with elementary and high schools, Courtenay is home to the largest of North Island College’s four campuses. The campus offers many certificate, associate degree, and bachelor’s degree programs.
Provincial parks in the area include Mitlenatch Island Nature Provincial Park, on Mitlenatch Island; Kitty Coleman Provincial Park, south of the mouth of the Oyster River; Mount Geoffrey Regional Nature Park, Tribune Bay Provincial Park, and Helliwell Provincial Park, all on Hornby Island.
Other attractions are Woodhus Slough, a nature area known for bird-watching. Walking trails are found at Nymph Falls Regional Park, Seal Bay Regional Nature Park, and the Courtenay Riverway Heritage Walk.
Mount Washington Alpine Resort is the largest commercial ski area on Vancouver Island. Activities include skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, snow-tubing, snowshoeing, and sledding. Summer attractions are mountain bike riding and hiking.
The Comox Valley Glacier Kings play junior hockey in the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League in the Comox Valley Sports Centre, located in Courtenay.
Courtenay is home to the three-day Vancouver Island Musicfest, the largest music festival on the island.
Other area festivals include the North Island Festival of Performing Arts, Fiddlefest, and the Comox Valley Highland Games. The Sid Williams Theatre, located in downtown Courtenay, is the major performance theatre in the Comox Valley. Performing theatre groups include the Rainbow Youth Theatre and the Courtenay Little Theatre. The Comox Valley Piano Society performs at the Stan Hagen Theatre.
Courtenay is also home to the Comox Valley Youth Music Centre, an annual summer school. Alumni include Grammy-winning musician Diana Krall.
The HMCS Alberni Museum and Memorial is located in downtown Courtenay and features the memorial to the men of HMCS Alberni and U-480, as well as exhibits from the Great War to the present day of the Canadian Forces.
The Courtenay and District Museum and Palaeontology Centre offers fossil tours of local rivers and historical exhibits.
The Comox Air Force Museum and Heritage Airpark has exhibitions from the First World War. The Heritage Airpark is home to several aircraft.
Art galleries in the city include the I-Hos Galler, which displays modern and traditional B.C. coastal First Nations art.
Restaurants in Courtenay include the Hen and Hog Café, Locals Restaurant at the Old House, and the Atlas Café. The rustic Gladstone Brewing Company serves craft beer on license plates.
Downtown Courtenay is home to a number of unique boutiques and clothing shops. Gift shops include Artifact, Design Therapy, and Backdoor Gallery & Studio. The Potter’s Place, run by a collective of local ceramic potters, features the largest selection of clay works on Vancouver Island and one of the largest in B.C. and Canada.