The Okanagan also known as the Okanagan Valley and sometimes as Okanagan Country is a region located in the Canadian province of British Columbia defined by the basin of Okanagan Lake and the Canadian portion of the Okanagan River. As of 2001, the region's population is approximately 297,601. The primary city is Kelowna. The name derives from an Okanagan language word S-Ookanhkchinx meaning "Transport toward the head or top end". The region is known for its dry, sunny climate, arid landscapes and lakeshore communities and particular lifestyle. The economy is retirement and commercial-recreation based, with outdoor activities such as boating and watersports, snow skiing and hiking. Agriculture has been focused primarily on fruit orchards, with a recent shift in focus to vineyards and wine.
In 1811 the first non-natives came to the Okanagan Valley, a fur trading expedition voyaging north out of Fort Okanogan, a Pacific Fur Company outpost at the confluence of the Okanagan and Columbia rivers. Within fifteen years, fur traders established a route through the valley for passing goods between the Thompson River region and the Columbia River for transport to the Pacific. The trade route lasted until 1846, when the Oregon Treaty laid down the border between British North America and the United States west of the Rocky Mountains on the 49th parallel. The new border cut across the valley. To avoid paying tariffs, British traders forged a route that bypassed Fort Okanogan (by then in the hands of the Hudson's Bay Company, which had merged with the North West Company, which had bought the Pacific Fur Company) via the Fraser Canyon, following the Thompson, Nicola, Coldwater and Fraser rivers to Fort Langley instead. The Okanagan Valley did not see many more outsiders for a decade afterward.
In 1859, the first European settlement was established when Father Charles Pandosy led the making of an Oblate mission where Kelowna is now. In the decades that followed, hundreds of ranchers came to settle on Okanagan Lake. The Fraser Canyon Gold Rush of 1858 eventually encouraged more settlement as some prospectors from the United States took the Okanagan Trail route on their way to the Fraser Canyon, although at the height of the rush the American adventurers who used the route did not settle because of outright hostilities from the Okanagan people, whom a few of the parties traversing the trail had harassed and brutalized. A few staked claims around the South Okanagan and Similkameen valleys and found gold and copper in places. A mining industry began in the southern Okanagan region, and more farmers, as well as a small service industry, came to meet the needs of the miners.
Fruit production is a hallmark of the Okanagan Valley today, but the industry began with difficulty. Commercial orcharding of apples was first tried there in 1892, but a series of setbacks prevented the major success of commercial fruit crops until the 1920s. But until the 1930s, the demand for shipping fruit and other goods did drive a need for the sternwheeler steamboats that serviced Okanagan Lake: the S.S. Aberdeen from 1886 and then the S.S. Sicamous and S.S. Naramata from 1914. The Sicamous and Naramata survive as a tourist attraction in Penticton.
While the last half-century has grown several resource-based enterprises in the region, for instance forestry in Princeton, the fastest-growing industries in the Okanagan today are real estate, tourism and retirement accommodation as well as the ripping up of orchards and their replacement by wineries and vinyards. Favoured by its sunny climate, lakes, and winery attractions, the valley has become a hot destination for vacationers and retirees. The area is a seasonal magnet for itinerant fruit-picking labourers, primarily from Quebec and Mexico who are housed in migrant-worker camps.
Geographic features include:
The Indian reserves of the Okanagan people also form identifiable communities: