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.
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.
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 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 and in 1991 by Rita Johnston, the province's first woman premier. The New Democratic party again took power in late 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. Liberal Christy Clark succeeded the retiring Campbell as premier in 2011; the Liberals remained in power after the 2013 elections.
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.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.