Island (pop., 2001: 705,000) off southwestern British Columbia, Canada. It is the largest island (12,079 sq mi [31,285 sq km]) on the Pacific coast of North America. It has several peaks of more than 7,000 ft (2,100 m), as well as several fine harbours. The chief city is Victoria. It was inhabited by coastal Indians for several millennia before it was visited by early Spanish and English explorers, including Capt. James Cook in 1778. It was surveyed in 1792 by George Vancouver and was held by the Hudson's Bay Co. until it was made a British crown colony in 1849. It united with British Columbia in 1866. The island's main industries include lumbering, fishing, agriculture, and tourism.
Learn more about Vancouver Island with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Vancouver Island is a large island in British Columbia, Canada, one of several North American regions named after George Vancouver, the British Royal Navy officer who explored the Pacific coast of North America between 1791 and 1794.
The island is 460 kilometres (285 mi) in length and 80 kilometres (50 mi) in width at its widest point. It is the largest island on the western side of North America at and the world's 43rd largest island, Canada's 11th largest island and Canada's second most populous island after the Island of Montreal, which has 1.3 million more people. The 2001 census population was 656,312. British Columbia statistics in 2004 estimated the population at 734,860. Slightly fewer than half of these (331,491) live in Greater Victoria. Other major cities on Vancouver Island include Nanaimo, Port Alberni, Parksville, Courtenay, and Campbell River.
The Vancouver Island Ranges run most of the length of the island, dividing it into a wet and rugged west coast and a drier, more rolling east coast. The highest point in these ranges and on the island is the Golden Hinde, at 2,195 metres (7,200 ft). Located near the centre of Vancouver Island in the 2,500 km² (620,000 acre) Strathcona Provincial Park, it is part of a group of peaks that include the only glaciers on the island, the largest of which is the Comox Glacier. The Golden Hinde is also part of the Karmutsen Formation, which is a sequence of tholeiitic pillow basalts and breccias. The west coast shoreline is rugged and in many places mountainous, characterised by its many fjords, bays, and inlets. The interior of the island has many lakes (Kennedy Lake, northeast of Ucluelet, is the largest) and rivers. Vancouver Island formed when volcanic and sedimentary rock scraped off the ancient Kula Plate and plastered against the continental margin when it was subducting under North America 55 million years ago.
The climate is the mildest in Canada, with temperatures on the coast even in January being usually above 0 °C (32 °F). In summer, maximum temperatures average 21-24 °C (70-75 °F). However, the rain shadow effect of the island's mountains, as well as the mountains of Washington's Olympic Peninsula, creates wide variation in precipitation. The west coast is considerably wetter than the east coast. Average annual precipitation ranges from 665 centimetres (260 in) at Henderson Lake on the west coast (making it the wettest place in North America) to only 64 centimetres (25 in) at the driest recording station in the provincial capital of Victoria on the southeast coast's Saanich Peninsula. Precipitation is heaviest in the autumn and winter. Snow is rare at low altitudes but is common on the island's mountaintops in winter.
A notable feature of Vancouver Island is the extension of Mediterranean-type summer dryness to latitudes as high as 50°N. Only in the extreme north of the island near Port Hardy is the rainfall of the driest summer month as much as one fifth that of the wettest months from November to March. West coasts of other continents at similar latitudes have a practically even distribution of rainfall through the year.
Vancouver Island lies in the temperate rainforest biome. On the southern and eastern portions of the island, this is characterized by Douglas-fir, western red cedar, arbutus, Garry oak, salal, Oregon-grape, and manzanita. This is the heavily populated region of Vancouver Island and a major area for recreation. The northern, western, and most of the central portions of the island are home to the coniferous "big trees" associated with British Columbia's coast — hemlock, western red cedar, amabilis fir, yellow cedar, Douglas-fir, grand fir, Sitka spruce, and western white pine. It is also characterised by broadleaf maple, red alder, sword fern, and red huckleberry.
The fauna of Vancouver Island is similar to that found on the mainland coast, with some notable exceptions and additions. For example, grizzly bears, mountain goats, porcupines, moose, skunks, coyotes, and numerous species of small mammals, while plentiful on the mainland, are absent from Vancouver Island. The island does support most of Canada's Roosevelt elk, however, and one species — the Vancouver Island Marmot — is unique to the island. The island's rivers, lakes, and coastal regions are renowned for their fisheries of trout, salmon, and steelhead. It has the most concentrated population of cougars in North America.
In 1946, the Forbidden Plateau in the east of the Vancouver Island Ranges was the epicenter of an earthquake that registered 7.3 on the Richter scale, the strongest ever recorded on land in Canada. See 1946 Vancouver Island earthquake.
Vancouver Island was the location of the observation of the episodic tremor and slip seismic phenomenon.
Vancouver Island has been the homeland to many main indigenous peoples for thousands of years. These are the Kwakwaka'wakw, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Coast Salish. Kwakwaka'wakw territory includes northern Vancouver Island, with parts of the mainland, then Nuu-chah-nulth spanning from the northern western part of the island, to the south, covering the west coast, and Coast Salish covering the lower eastern part. Their cultures are connected to the natural resources abundant in the area.
Vancouver Island came to the attention of the wider world after the third voyage of Captain James Cook, who landed at Nootka Sound of the island's western shore on March 31, 1778, and claimed it for the United Kingdom. The island's rich fur trading potential led the British East India Company to set up a single-building trading post in the native village of Yuquot (Friendly Cove) on Nootka Island, a small island in the sound.
The island was further explored by Spain in 1789 by Esteban José Martínez, who built Fort San Miguel on one of Vancouver Island's small offshore islets in the sound near Yuquot. This was to be the only Spanish settlement in what would later be Canada. The Spanish began seizing British ships, and the two nations came close to war in the ensuing Nootka Crisis, but the issues were resolved peacefully with the Nootka Convention in 1792, in which both countries recognized the other's rights to the area. Supervising the British activities was Captain George Vancouver from King's Lynn in England, who had sailed as a midshipman with Cook, and from whom the island gained its name. While we know this island today as Vancouver Island the English explorer had not intentionally meant to name such a large body of land solely after himself. In his September 1792 dispatch log report for the British Admiralty, Captain Vancouver reveals that his decision here was rather meant to honour a request by the Peruvian seafarer Juan Francisco Quadra that Vancouver
If Vancouver had been vain as some writers had charged, he could have chosen to name the entire Island exclusively after himself instead of sharing its name with Quadra and placing the latter's name before his. The newly-discovered "Quadra's and Vancouver's Island" was the most prominent name on maps of the coast, and appeared on most [contemporary] British, French and Spanish maps of the period. But as Spanish interests in the region dwindled, so did Quadra's name. The Hudson's Bay Company played a major part in the transition; by 1824 'Vancouver's Island' had become the usual designation in its correspondence for the island. A quarter of a century later, Vancouver Island had become such a well known geographical feature, that the founding of the Colony of Vancouver Island in 1849 gave this name full official status. Period references to "Vancouver" referred to Vancouver Island until the naming of the city of Vancouver in 1885.
Shortly thereafter, in 1846, the Oregon Treaty was signed by the British and the U.S. to settle the question of the U.S. Oregon Territory borders. It awarded all of Vancouver Island to what would be Canada, despite a portion of the island lying south of the 49th parallel. In 1849, the Colony of Vancouver Island was established. Following the brief governorship of Richard Blanshard, James Douglas, Chief Factor of the Hudson's Bay post, assumed the role in 1851.
The first British settlement on the island was a Hudson's Bay Company post, Fort Camosack, founded in 1843, and later renamed Fort Victoria. Fort Victoria became an important base during the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush in 1858, and the burgeoning town was incorporated as Victoria in 1862. Victoria became the capital of the colony of Vancouver Island, then retained that status when the island was amalgamated with the mainland in 1866. A British naval base, including a large shipyard and a naval hospital, was established at Esquimalt, British Columbia, in 1865 and eventually taken over by the Canadian military.
The economic situation of the colony declined following the Cariboo Gold Rush of 1861-1862, and pressure grew for amalgamation of the colony with the mainland colony of British Columbia (which had been established in 1858). The colony's third and last governor, Sir Arthur Kennedy oversaw the union of the two colonies in 1866.
Vancouver Island's economy outside Victoria is largely dominated by the forestry industry, with tourism and fishing also playing a large role. Many of the logging operations are for paper pulp, in "2nd growth" tree farms that are harvested approximately every 30 years. In recent years the government of British Columbia has engaged in an advertising program to draw more tourists to beach resorts such as Tofino.
Logging operations involving old-growth forests such as those found on Clayoquot Sound are controversial and have gained international attention through the efforts of activists and environmental organizations.
Between Vancouver Island and the Canadian mainland there are several high voltage power cables (HVDC Vancouver-Island).
There is also a fast building IT field on Vancouver Island. High Speed Internet is delivered to the island from Shaw, Telus, CRTV and CRCable.Net Wireless Internet connections can be found all over the island, many free for public use. Many coffee shops provide free wireless Internet access and charge an average of five cents a minute for using their computers.
Higher education plays an economic role in the Greater Victoria area; students and staff of the many post secondary institutions number well over 50,000. The University of Victoria is a large research university with 19,475 students in 2006/2007 and 4,124 staff. Royal Roads University is much smaller with 2,268 students and 680 staff. Camosun College is also located on a few campuses across the Greater Victoria region and has 17,000 students and almost 1,000 staff (though close to half of the students are under the distance education umbrella). Vancouver Island University is Vancouver Island's other main university with its main campus in Nanaimo, as well as other campuses in Duncan, Parksville and Powell River. Vancouver Island University represents a unique combination of a degree-granting university and a practical college. University Canada West, located in central Victoria, is a private institution. There are also numerous community colleges and international education centres. Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific is an international school dedicated to the promotion of world peace, cooperation, and coexistence. It is named after former Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson.
SVI also runs passenger service under contract with VIA Rail. Western Forest Products operates Canada's last logging railway out of Woss to Beaver Cove on the northern end of the island. The former Canadian National Railway out of Victoria to the Cowichan Valley was abandoned in the late 1980s/early 1990s, and the former grade between Victoria and Sooke, and Shawnigan lake and Lake Cowichan is now a multi-use trail. The BC Forest Museum has a narrow gauge railway winding around the park, and the Alberni Pacific Railway operates during the summer from the restored E&N Railway station in Port Alberni to the McLean's Mill on former E&N Railway trackage.
Vancouver Island is well served by secondary routes, and a numerous active and decommissioned logging and forest service roads provide access into the back country.
Many communities are served by public transit. Greater Victoria is one of the few places in North America where double-deck buses are used in the regular public transit system.
Proposals have been made for a "fixed link" to the mainland for over a century. Because of the extreme depth of the Georgia Strait and potential seismic activity, a bridge or tunnel would face monumental engineering, safety, and environmental challenges at a prohibitive cost.
Other smaller airports on Vancouver Island include Nanaimo harbour and Campbell River. In 2008, WestJet starts direct flight three times per week to Las Vegas, and United Airlines will begin direct flights to the San Francisco Bay Area; these will be seasonal flights.
Floatplane and helicopter traffic to and from Victoria's inner harbour accounts for approximately 300,000 additional passengers per year, making it the second busiest airport on Vancouver Island. Much of the floatplane traffic is downtown-to-downtown services from Victoria harbor to Vancouver harbor or Nanaimo harbor, most of which is carried by the operations Harbor Air, West Coast Air, and Baxter Aviation. Harbor Air also flies to other areas around Vancouver. These carriers make several daily scheduled flights, weather permitting.