Changes in the composition of local communities through time (i.e. species turnover) is a common phenomenon in insular biology. However, the mechanisms promoting variation in species turnover, both among islands and among species, are poorly understood. In an effort to better understand the causes of variation in species turnover, we evaluated the colonization and extinction dynamics of plant populations on 18 small islands off the west coast of Canada. In 1997, we quantified total population sizes of 10 woody angiosperm species. A decade later, we resampled islands to test whether: 1) species turnover occurred, 2) colonization events were offset by extinction events, 2) variation in extinction rates among islands was associated with population sizes, average plant heights, island area, island isolation or each island's exposure to ocean-born disturbances, and 3) variation in extinction rates among species was associated with plant life history traits. Results showed that extinction events outnumbered colonization events, suggesting that the metacommunity is in ‘disequilibrium’. Variation in extinction rates among islands was unrelated to island area and isolation. However, extinction rates increased with exposure to ocean-born disturbances and decreased with both initial population sizes and average plant heights. Species with thicker, tougher leaves (i.e. high leaf mass per area) were less prone to extinction than species with thinner, more papery leaves. Overall results indicate that species turnover is common and that it is generated primarily by extinction. Variation in extinction rates appears to result from an interaction between among-island effects (exposure, population size and plant stature) and among-species effects (leaf toughness), suggesting that ocean-born disturbances play a key role in determining metacommunity structure.