British Columbia (French: la Colombie-Britannique, C.-B.) is the westernmost of Canada’s provinces and is famed for its natural beauty, as reflected in its Latin motto, Splendor sine occasu (“Splendour without Sunset (Diminishment)”). It was the sixth province to join the Canadian Confederation.
The capital of British Columbia is Victoria, the 15th largest metropolitan region in Canada. The largest city is Vancouver, Canada’s third-largest metropolitan area and the second-largest in the Pacific Northwest.
British Columbia is bordered by the Pacific Ocean on the west, by the U.S. state of Alaska on the northwest, and to the north by the Yukon and the Northwest Territories, on the east by the province of Alberta, and on the south by the U.S. states of Washington, Idaho, and Montana. The current southern border of British Columbia was established by the 1846 Oregon Treaty, although its history is tied with lands as far south as the California border. British Columbia’s land area is 944,735 square kilometres (364,764 square miles). British Columbia’s rugged coastline stretches for more than 27,000 kilometres (17,000 mi), and includes deep, mountainous fjords and about 6,000 islands, most of which are uninhabited.
British Columbia’s capital is Victoria, located at the southeastern tip of Vancouver Island. Its most populous city is Vancouver, located in southwest corner of the mainland called the Lower Mainland. Other major cities include Surrey, Burnaby, Coquitlam, Richmond, Delta, and New Westminster in the Lower Mainland; Abbotsford, Pitt Meadows and Langley in the Fraser Valley; Nanaimo on Vancouver Island; and Kelowna and Kamloops in the Interior. Prince George is the largest city in the northern part of the province, while a town northwest of it, Vanderhoof, is near the geographic centre of the province.
The Coast Mountains and the Inside Passage’s many inlets provide some of British Columbia’s renowned and spectacular scenery, which forms the backdrop and context for a growing outdoor adventure and ecotourism industry. Seventy-five percent of the province is mountainous (more than 1,000 metres (3,300 ft) above sea level); 60% is forested; and only about 5% is arable. The Okanagan area is one of three wine-growing regions in Canada and also produces excellent ciders. The city of Penticton, and rural towns of Oliver, and Osoyoos have some of the warmest and longest summer climates in Canada, although their temperature ranges are exceeded by the warmer Fraser Canyon towns of Lillooet and Lytton, where shade temperatures on summer afternoons often surpass 40 °C (104 °F) but with very low humidity.
Much of the western part of Vancouver Island and the rest of the coast is covered by temperate rain forest. This region, which includes parts of the west coast of the United States, is one of a mere handful of such temperate rain forest ecosystems in the world (notable others being in Turkey, Georgia, Chile, New Zealand, Tasmania, and the Russian Far East). The province’s mainland away from the coastal regions is not as moderated by the Pacific Ocean and ranges from desert and semi-arid plateau to the range and canyon districts of the interior plateau. A few southern interior valleys have short cold winters with infrequent heavy snow, while those in the Cariboo, the northern part of the Central Interior, are colder because of their altitude and latitude, but without the intensity or duration experienced at similar latitudes elsewhere in Canada. The northern two-thirds of the province is largely unpopulated and undeveloped, and is mostly mountainous except east of the Rockies, where the Peace River District in the northeast of the province contains BC’s portion of the Canadian Prairies.
Before the Arrival of the Europeans
British Columbia, before the arrival of the Europeans, was home to many Indigenous peoples. The abundance of natural resources, particularly salmon and cedar, enabled the development of a complex hierarchical society on the British Columbian coast. With so much food being available, the peoples of the B.C. coast could focus their time on other pursuits such as art and politics.
The arrival of Europeans began around the mid-18th century, as fur traders entered the area to harvest sea otters. While it is thought that Sir Francis Drake may have explored the British Columbian coast in 1579, it was Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra who completed the first documented voyage, which took place in 1775. In doing so, Quadra reasserted the Spanish claim for the Pacific coast, first made by Vasco Núñez de Balboa in 1513.
Three years later, in 1778, the British Royal Navy Captain James Cook arrived in the region, searching for the Northwest Passage, and successfully landed at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island, where he and his crew traded with the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation. Upon trading his goods for sea otter pelts, his crew in turn traded them for an enormous profit in Macau on their way back to Britain. This led to an influx of traders to the British Columbian coast, and ongoing economic contact with the aboriginal peoples there.
In 1788, John Meares, an English navigator and explorer, sailed from China and explored Nootka Sound and the neighbouring coasts. He bought some land from a local chief named Maquinna and built a trading post there.
Two years later, in 1789, the Spanish commander Esteban José Martínez, a native of Seville, established a settlement and started building a fort in Friendly Cove, Nootka Sound, which was named Fort San Miguel.
Subsequently, European explorer-merchants from the east started to discover British Columbia. Three figures dominate in the early history of mainland British Columbia: Sir Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser, and David Thompson. As employees of the North West Company, the three were primarily concerned with discovering a practicable river route to the Pacific, specifically via the Columbia River, for the extension of the fur trade.
Although technically a part of British North America, British Columbia was largely run by the Hudson’s Bay Company after its merger with the North West Company in 1821. The central and northern interior of the region was organised into the New Caledonia District, a name that came to be generally attributed to the mainland as a whole. It was administered from Fort St. James, about 150 km northwest of present-day Prince George. The interior south of the Thompson River and north of the Columbia River was organised into the Columbia District, and was administered first from Fort Vancouver (present day Vancouver, Washington), and later from Fort Victoria.
In 1849, the crown Colony of Vancouver Island was created; and in 1851, James Douglas was appointed Governor. Douglas, known as the father of British Columbia, established colonial institutions in Victoria. Meanwhile on the mainland, New Caledonia continued to be an unorganised region of British North America, its 100 or so European inhabitants (mostly HBC employees and their families) under the administrative oversight of Douglas, who was also the HBC’s regional chief executive.
In 1858, gold was found along the banks of the Fraser River in the Fraser Canyon north of Yale. When word got out about the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush, Victoria was transformed overnight into a tent city as prospectors, speculators, land agents, and outfitters flooded in from around the world, mostly from San Francisco. The Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Langley burgeoned economically as the staging point for many of the prospectors heading by boat to the Canyon.
At the time, the region was still not under formal colonial authority. Douglas, fearing challenges to the claim of British sovereignty in the region in the face of an influx of some 20,000 Americans, stationed a gunboat at the mouth of the Fraser in order to obtain licence fees from those seeking to head upstream. The British colonial office responded to the new situation by establishing the mainland as a crown colony on August 2, 1858, naming it the Colony of British Columbia. The capital was established at New Westminster on the southern reaches of the Fraser, which became the first city incorporated on the mainland in 1860. Douglas was named joint governor of the two colonies.
A second gold rush in the Cariboo region of the colony occurred in 1861-62. The influx of gold into B.C.’s economy led to the creation of basic infrastructure in B.C., most notably, the creation of the Cariboo Wagon Road which linked the Lower Mainland to the rich gold fields of Barkerville. However, poor judgement and mismanagement of funds made by the gold rush left B.C. in debt by the mid-1860s. In 1866, because of the massive debt leftover from the gold rush, the mainland and Vancouver Island became one colony named British Columbia, with its capital in Victoria.
Part of Canada
Both the depressed economic situation arising from the collapse of the gold rushes, as well as a desire for the establishment of truly responsible and representative government, led to enormous domestic pressure for British Columbia to join the Canadian Confederation, which had been proclaimed in 1867. The Confederation League, spearheaded by three future premiers of the province — Amor De Cosmos, Robert Beaven, and John Robson — took a leading role in pushing the colony towards this goal. And so it was on July 21, 1871, that British Columbia became the sixth province to join Canada. In return for entering Confederation, Canada absorbed B.C.’s massive debt, and promised to build a railway from Montreal to the Pacific coast within 10 years. In fulfillment of this promise, the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven in Craigellachie in 1885.
The Twentieth Century to present
During the 20th century, many immigrant groups arrived in British Columbia and today, Vancouver is the second most ethnically diverse city in Canada, only behind Toronto. However, before 1945, racism was more rampant and socially acceptable in Canada and British Columbia’s immigration policies of the past still leave an embarrassing scar. In 1886, a Head Tax was imposed on the Chinese, which reached as much as $500 per person to enter Canada by 1904. By 1923 the government passed the Chinese Immigration Act, which prohibited all Chinese immigration until 1947. Sikhs had to face an amended Immigration Act in 1908 that required Sikhs to have $200 on arrival in Canada, and immigration would be allowed only if the passenger had arrived by continuous journey from India, which was impossible.
During the Second World War, security concerns following the bombing of Pearl Harbor and Canada’s entry into the war versus Japan led to controversial measures. The local Japanese-Canadian population was openly discriminated against, being put in internment camps. The Pacific Coast Militia Rangers were formed in 1942 in order to provide an armed presence on the coast in addition to the pre-war fortress garrisons, which were expanded after hostilities.
The 1950s and 1960s were marked by development in the province’s transportation infrastructure. In 1960, the government established BC Ferries as a crown corporation, in order to provide a marine extension of the provincial highway system. That system was improved and expanded through the construction of new highways and bridges, and paving of existing highways and provincial roads.
Vancouver and Victoria become cultural centres as poets, authors, artists, musicians, as well as dancers, actors, and haute cuisine chefs flocked to the beautiful scenery and warmer temperatures. Similarly, these cities have either attracted or given rise to their own noteworthy academics, commentators, and creative thinkers. Tourism also began to play an important role in the economy. The rise of Japan and other Pacific economies was a great boost to British Columbia’s economy.
In 1986 the City of Vancouver celebrated its centennial, hosting the Expo ’86 World Exposition. That same year, the Sechelt Indian Band was the first Aboriginal group in BC to gain a municipal style of self-government.
Today, BC’s population is wonderfully diverse. More than 40 major Aboriginal cultural groups are represented in the region. The province’s large Asian communities have made Chinese and Punjabi the most spoken languages after English.
In July 2003, Vancouver was named the host city for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.
Half of all British Columbians live in the Greater Vancouver Regional District, which includes Vancouver, Surrey, New Westminster, West Vancouver, North Vancouver (city), North Vancouver (district municipality), Burnaby, Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Maple Ridge, Langley (city), Langley (district municipality), Delta, Pitt Meadows, White Rock, Richmond, Port Moody, Anmore, Belcarra, Lions Bay and Bowen Island, as well as 17 Native reserves and the unincorporated regional district electoral area known as Greater Vancouver Electoral Area A.
The second largest concentration of British Columbia population is located at the southern tip of Vancouver Island, which is made up of the 13 municipalities of Greater Victoria, (Victoria, Saanich, Esquimalt, Oak Bay, View Royal, Highlands, Colwood, Langford, Central Saanich/Saanichton, North Saanich, Sidney, Metchosin, Sooke and several Native reserves), or the Capital Regional District. Almost half of the Vancouver Island population is located in Victoria.