British Columbia, the westernmost province of Canada, is bounded on the E by Alberta, on the S by Montana, Idaho, and Washington, on the W by the Pacific Ocean, on the NW by Alaska, and on the N by Yukon and the Northwest Territories. Along its deeply indented Pacific coast lie many islands, notably Vancouver Island (c.280 mi/450 km long) and the sparsely inhabited Queen Charlotte Islands. The province is almost wholly mountainous, with the Rocky Mts. in the southeast, the Coast Mts. along the Pacific, and the Stikine Mts. in the northwest.
Chief of the many rivers is the Fraser, which, with its tributaries, drains much of central and S British Columbia as it flows to the Pacific. Other rivers in that region include the upper Columbia and the Kootenay. In the north are the Peace, the Stikine, the Nass, and the Skeena. Hydroelectric resources in British Columbia are highly developed; large plants along the rivers operate pulp and paper mills. The station at Kemano on the Nechako River serves one of the biggest aluminum plants in the world, at Kitimat. Long, narrow lakes are found throughout the interior, supplying vast backwaters for dams; Williston Lake, on the Peace River, is the largest of these.
British Columbia attracts millions of visitors annually, and the land is a hunting and fishing paradise. There are four national parks—Glacier, Mt. Revelstoke, Yoho, and Kootenay—and hundreds of provincial parks and camping grounds. The climate along the west coast, tempered by the warm Japan Current, has made that area, especially Vancouver and Victoria, very attractive to tourists.
Large areas of central and N British Columbia are sparsely settled; almost three fourths of the population is crowded into the southwest coastal tip in the Georgia Strait region. Victoria is the capital. The largest city and chief port is Vancouver, which grew rapidly throughout the 1980s, experiencing a real estate boom and heavy immigration from China and Hong Kong. Other population centers include Richmond, Kelowna, New Westminster, North Vancouver, Nanaimo, Kamloops, and Prince George.
Less than 10% of the province's land can be used for grazing or cultivation, while nearly three fourths is covered with forests. British Columbia's evergreens make up about half of all of Canada's timber. Lumbering and related enterprises (such as pulp and paper manufacturing) are the province's major industries. During the 1990s, however, the provincial tree harvest dropped some 25%, as concerns over clear-cutting and old-growth logging were pressed by environmentalists, tour operators, indigenous peoples, and others. Mining is also important; British Columbia is rich in mineral resources. Copper, mined principally at Kamloops, Princeton, and Brittania, and coal are the province's two largest mineral resources. Also important are natural gas, oil, zinc, gold, silver, nickel, and iron. The mine at Kimberley, one of the world's largest, is known for its silver, lead, and zinc. However, pollution generated by natural-resource industries is a major environmental concern in British Columbia.
British Columbia ranks first among the provinces in fishing; the most important catches are salmon, halibut, and herring. As with logging, however, the effects of overharvesting are now being felt, exacerbated by disputes with the states of Washington and Alaska over salmon catches. Beef is also an important product, especially along the Fraser River, which is known for its sprawling ranches. Other industries include food processing and the manufacture of transportation equipment, machinery, chemicals, furniture, and electrical items. Tourism and outdoor recreation are increasingly important to British Columbia, and Vancouver is a center for Pacific Rim business.
Institutions of higher learning include Simon Fraser Univ., at Burnaby; the Univ. of British Columbia, at Vancouver; and the Univ. of Victoria, at Victoria.
The earliest known inhabitants of the province are indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest (widely known for their totem poles and potlatches); carbon dating has confirmed their occupation of some sites 6,000 to 8,000 years ago. Juan Peréz was probably the first European to sail (1774) along the coast, but he did not make a landing. In 1778, Capt. James Cook, on his last voyage, explored the coast in his search for the Pacific entrance to the elusive Northwest Passage and claimed the area for Great Britain.
Rival British and Spanish claims for the area were partly resolved by the Nootka Conventions of 1790-92 (see Nootka Sound), which gave both equal trading rights but did not resolve ownership. The British sent George Vancouver to take possession of the land, and in 1792-94 he explored and mapped the coast from Oregon to Alaska. In 1793, Sir Alexander Mackenzie reached the Pacific overland; he was followed early in the 19th cent. by fur traders and explorers of the North West Company who crossed the mountains to establish posts in New Caledonia, as the region was then called.The Hudson's Bay Company Era
After the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) absorbed the North West Company in 1821, the region became a preserve of the new company. In 1843, Fort Victoria was established by James Douglas as an HBC trading post. Rival British and American claims to the area were settled three years later when the boundary was set at the 49th parallel (see Oregon, state), but further controversy led to the San Juan Boundary Dispute. Partly as protection against American expansion, Vancouver Island was ceded (1849) to Britain by the HBC and became a crown colony.
In 1858 gold was discovered in the sandbars and tributaries of the Fraser River. The gold rushes that resulted brought profound changes. Fort Victoria boomed as a supply base for miners, and a town sprang up around it. Officials of the crown were dispatched to keep order and to supervise government projects and the building of roads. Some 30,000 miners moved into what was then unorganized territory; this led to the creation (1858) of a new colony on the mainland, called British Columbia, and the end of the HBC's supremacy. In 1863 the newly settled territory about the Stikine River was added to British Columbia.Confederation
In 1866, Vancouver Island and British Columbia were merged, and in 1871 the united British Columbia, lured by promises of financial aid and the building of a transcontinental railroad that would link it to the rest of Canada, voted to join the new Canadian confederation. The Canadian Pacific Railway finally reached the coast in 1885, and a new era began. By providing access to new markets, the railroad furthered agriculture, mining, and lumbering; steamship service with Asia was inaugurated, and Vancouver grew as a busy port, serving many provinces. The opening (1914) of the Panama Canal further boosted trade and commerce. A long dispute with the United States over the Alaska boundary was finally settled by the Alaska Boundary Commission in 1903.The Twentieth Century
The Conservatives and Liberals alternated in power from 1903 (when the national parties were first introduced into local politics) until 1941, when a wartime coalition was formed. The Social Credit party came into power in 1952, under the leadership of W. A. C. Bennett, and retained control until 1972, when the New Democratic party, led by David Barrett, won a majority. The Social Credit party regained control in 1975 under Premier William Richards Bennett, who was succeeded in 1986 by William Vander Zalm. The New Democratic party again took power in 1991, with Michael Harcourt as premier, succeeded in 1996 by Glen Clark, in 1999 by Dan Miller, and in 2000 by Ujjal Dosanjh (Canada's first nonwhite provincial premier). In 2001, however, the Liberals, led by Gordon Campbell, won a landslide victory; they were returned to power in 2005 and 2009, albeit with narrower majorities.
This fastest growing of Canada's provinces increased its national political clout in 1995 when it was given its own veto power over constitutional amendments rather than being subsumed under the western regional vote. By the end of the 1990s, metropolitan Vancouver had become one of the Pacific Rim's most dynamic cities, with a population c.10% Chinese and c.7% Asian Indian. At the same time, land claims by indigenous peoples, claims that could return much of the province to aboriginal ownership, had become a significant political and economic issue in the province. British Columbia, unlike Canada's other provinces, largely did not have signed treaties with most indigenous peoples, despite a 1763 Crown directive requiring such treaties. As a result, the provincial and federal governments began negotiating with the native tribes in the 1990s to sign treaties with them.
British Columbia sends 6 senators and 32 representatives to the national parliament.
See M. A. Ormsby, British Columbia (1958, repr. 1971); J. L. Robinson, ed., British Columbia (1972); M. L. Farley, Atlas of British Columbia (1979); J. King, British Columbia Handbook (1989); B. Christensen, Prince George: Rivers, Railways and Timber (1989).