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Nestled next to the Slave River just above the Alberta border, Fort Smith is a place most people just don't want to leave.

It is surrounded by boreal forest, and boasts a climate that lets residents have a garden despite the near-Arctic setting. The Slave River rapids can lull you to sleep with their roar, or offer you a fantastic kayaking challenge. Nature is everywhere.

And with about 2,500 residents, Fort Smith is just small enough that people know their neighbours and lend a hand to those in need.

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Marina Devine, who nominated it as one of Canada's great communities, spent 10 years there and says the people are the best part of Fort Smith – "values of caring and respect permeate the town."

Located on a portage route around three sets of rapids, Fort Smith was established in 1874 by the Hudson's Bay Company, and served as the administrative centre of the Territories until Yellowknife was declared the capital in 1967.

Everyone belongs, says Leon Peterson, who arrived 50 years ago and raised his two sons there. "When the boys were growing up, the kids on the block here – it's like the kids had about 20 parents," he says. "They were welcome in every house."

Fort Smith's population is almost equally divided between aboriginal, non-aboriginal and Métis residents. "The people, they're just amazing," says Mayor Jane Hobart.

And they have a well-honed sense of community. The town holds regular celebrations – summer solstice in June, Slave River Paddlefest in August, the town's birthday, and even the winter "frolics" at nearby Wood Buffalo National Park – to bring everyone together.

"We're surrounded by nature's beauty," says Denise Yuhas, a beauty-salon owner and community volunteer. Wood Buffalo, which is Canada's largest national park, and the Slave River are "a constant reminder that we're really small in the big scheme of things."

As well, Ms. Yuhas says, "There is a lifestyle here. There are a lot of people who come for one or two years, and 25 years later, they're still here. We have a very big, happy family."

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Michaela Johnson has lived in Fort Smith her whole life, and says there's "pretty much everything you need here." She has worked as an economic development officer with the territory's industry and tourism department since graduating from the local Aurora College in 2007. Soon she will head south to the University of Lethbridge to turn her diploma into a degree, but says she'll be back.

Ms. Johnson also says she loves the place more as time goes by. "I don't think people from Fort Smith realize how lucky we are."

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