Canada’s only west coast province, British Columbia, hogs the country’s entire border with the Pacific Ocean, stretching from the Alaskan panhandle in the north to the American state of Washington in the south. As a result of its location, the province is the most temperate part of a country otherwise known for its cold weather, and houses many of the iconic symbols of natural beauty — giant evergreens, sky-high waterfalls, jagged, snow-capped peaks — that have long formed the popular postcard image of “Canada” around the world.
The third-largest province in terms of population, “B.C.” is nevertheless over three thousand miles from Canada’s major cities of Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa, and has evolved a somewhat distinct culture as a result. The large coastal city of Vancouver and its surrounding suburbs are the dominant population centres, while the interior and north remain far more rural.
B.C.’s geography is so unlike the rest of Canada’s that it’s usually classified in a distinct category all its own. The province occupies what is known as the country’s Cordillera region, which is a vast, thickly forested area of enormous mountain ranges, deep valleys and long rivers. A largely rainy climate has helped contribute to a diverse mix of vegetation, most notably a wide array of evergreen trees which once formed the backbone of the province’s historically lumber-based economy.
The coast of British Columbia is a jagged mess of fjords, rocky coves and sandy beaches, with numerous islands crumbling off the edges. The two largest of these is the massive Vancouver Island in the south, home to the provincial capital of Victoria, and the more remote, but still populated, Queen Charlotte archipelago to the north (recently returned to its aboriginal name, Haida Gwaii).
Mainland British Columbians usually speak of their province in terms of two broad regions: the Lower Mainland, containing Vancouver and its surrounding suburbs, and the Interior, which contains everything else. The vast majority of citizens dwell in the Lower Mainland, though decent-sized communities can be found in almost every region of the province.
History and Economy
Settled and governed independently from the rest of Canada, British Columbia had a long history as an independently-run British colony before agreeing to join the country in 1871.
What we now know as “British Columbia” was originally two distinct colonies; the Crown colony of Vancouver Island, which was discovered by British and Spanish navigators in the late 18th century, and the mainland territory of New Caledonia, which was settled around the same time by fur traders who had migrated west from Britain’s eastern Canadian colonies. An enormously difficult place to visit in an era without airplanes or railroads, the two colonies had tiny, mostly aboriginal populations until an 1858 gold rush flooded the land with new settlers. Many stayed to become full-time miners or loggers, and in 1866 the Island and mainland were merged into a single political unit: British Columbia.
After Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick merged to form the Dominion of Canada in 1867, both British and Canadian elites quickly put pressure on B.C. to join as well. British Columbia agreed to become Canada’s sixth province in 1871, with the promise of a trans-Canadian railroad helping seal the deal.
Throughout the remainder of the 19th century and early 20th, advancements in industry and transportation allowed British Columbia to become one North America’s natural resource hubs, trading lumber, minerals and fish across the continent. A booming economy spawned dozens of new cities and drew thousands of immigrants from all over the world — both European and Asian alike. In modern times, B.C. has mostly abandoned its resource-based economy in favour of new model where the vast majority of British Columbians work in “service” industries like retail, tourism and technology. Only 25 per cent of the provincial GDP is still drawn from chopping trees or mining rocks.
Most British Columbians claim to come from Vancouver, but the city itself is not terribly large. Housing less than 600 000 people, it’s only the country’s eighth-largest city, behind powerhouses such as (ahem) Winnipeg and Mississauga. It’s only when you incorporate the population of Vancouver’s surrounding, less famous, largely suburban cities, such as Surrey, Burnaby and Richmond that the population climbs to over a million.
A scenic, oceanfront city, Vancouver is the epicentre of Canadian trade with Asia as well as a popular destination for cruise ships, border-crossing Americans and other varieties of holidaymakers. Along with tourism, a number of modern industries such as banking, real estate and software design have come to play a large role in the municipal economy, allowing Vancouver to aggressively market itself as a hip haven for international investment. Waterfront / mountain views do not come cheap, however, and the city is easily the most expensive place to live in Canada. Some studies have said it’s one of the most expensive places to live in the whole world, in fact.
A close proximity to Asia has also contributed to city’s racial diversity, Vancouver’s Chinese, Korean and Indian populations have visibly skyrocketed in recent years, giving the city an aggressively multicultural character that’s not always without tension. Like Toronto, Vancouver’s visible minority population is now over 40 per cent, and in some neighbourhoods the English language may be rarely seen or heard.
B.C. Culture and Politics
Sitting so far away from the major population centres of Ontario and Quebec, British Columbians often feel somewhat alienated from the goings-on in other parts of Canada, which has led to a somewhat obsessive culture of constantly contrasting “West versus East.” The most common stereotype is that British Columbians tend to be more laid-back and easy-going than Eastern Canadians, but also less ambitious and successful. Neither cliche is without some basis in reality. Historically, “moving west” has been a popular journey for easterners eager to escape the rat race of Toronto or Montreal, while the opposite trek has been equally popular with British Columbians seeking big jobs and big money.
Home to so much picturesque nature, British Columbians have a tradition of environmentalism that often manifests in the form of so-called “green” politics and fads, such as organic gardening or natural energy. The province’s controversial embrace of marijuana is sometimes said to be an outgrowth of this, and while still illegal, the popularity of homegrown “B.C. Bud” and household “grow-ops,” or hydroponic gardens, have formed cultural cliches that are proving particularly hard to shake.
Across the country, B.C. politics have something of a reputation for being wacky or erratic, a stereotype that probably comes from the larger cliche of British Columbians as goofy bohemian hipsters. Historically, the province’s politics have been dominated by a sort of exaggerated, stylized class conflict between aggressively left-wing labour unions, particularly the public sector teacher, nurses and government employees unions (who back the provincial New Democratic Party), and a hard-nosed, libertarian-minded business community (who originally backed the Social Credit Party, and now largely support the B.C. Liberals).