Native Western Canada -- According to generally accepted theories, the Native peoples of North America arrived on this continent about 15,000 to 20,000 years ago from Asia, crossing a land bridge that spanned the Bering Strait. At the time, much of western Canada was covered with vast glaciers. Successive waves of these peoples moved south down either the coast or a glacier-free corridor that ran along the east face of the Rockies. As the climate warmed and the glaciers receded, the Native peoples moved north, following game animals like the woolly mammoth.
The ancestors of the tribes and bands that now live on the prairies of Alberta didn't make their year-round homes here in the pre-Contact era. The early Plains Indians wintered in the lake and forest country around present-day Manitoba, where they practiced basic agriculture. In summer and fall, hunting parties headed to the prairies of Alberta and Saskatchewan in search of buffalo. The move to a year-round homeland on the Great Plains was a comparatively recent event, caused by Native displacement as the eastern half of North America became increasingly dominated by European colonists. Thus, a number of linguistically and culturally unrelated tribes were forced onto the prairies at the same time, competing for food and shelter.
The Native peoples of the prairies relied on the buffalo for almost all their needs. The hide provided tepee coverings and leather for moccasins; the flesh was eaten fresh in season and preserved for later consumption; and the bones were used to create a number of tools.
The Native peoples along the Northwest coast had a very different culture and lifestyle, and in all likelihood migrated to the continent much later than the Plains Indians. Living at the verge of the Pacific or along the region's mighty rivers, these early people settled in wooden longhouses in year-round villages, fished for salmon and shellfish, and used the canoe as their primary means of transport. The Pacific Northwest coast was one of the most heavily populated areas in pre-Contact America, and an extensive trading network developed. Because the temperate coastal climate and abundant wildlife made this a relatively hospitable place to live, the tribes were reasonably well-off, and the arts -- carving and weaving in particular -- flourished. Villages were organized according to clans, and elaborately carved totem poles portrayed ritual clan myths.
European Exploration -- The first known contact between Europeans and the Native peoples of western Canada came in the last half of the 18th century, as the Pacific Northwest coast became a prize in the colonial dreams of distant nations. Russia, Britain, Spain, and the United States each would assert a claim over parts of what would become British Columbia and Alberta.
In 1774, the Spanish explorer Juan Perez landed on the Queen Charlotte Islands and then on the western shores of Vancouver Island, at Nootka Sound. England's James Cook made a pass along the Pacific Northwest coast, spending a couple weeks at Nootka Sound in 1778, where the crew traded trinkets for sea otter pelts. Later in the same journey, Cook visited China and discovered that the Chinese would pay a high price for otter furs.
Thus was born the Chinese trade triangle that would dominate British economic interests in the northern Pacific for 30 years. Ships entered the waters of the Pacific Northwest, their crews traded cloth and trinkets for pelts of sea otters, and then the ships set sail for China, where the skins were traded for tea and luxury items. After the ships returned to London, the Asian goods were sold.
Since the Spanish and the English had competing claims over the Pacific Northwest coast, these nations sent envoys to the region -- the Spaniard Don Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra and the British Captain George Vancouver -- to further explore the territory and resolve who controlled it. The expeditions led by these explorers resulted in a complete mapping of the region, though the ownership of the territory wasn't resolved until 1793, when Spain renounced its claims.
Fur traders also explored the interior of British Columbia and the Alberta prairies. Two British fur-trading companies, the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) and the North West Company, began to expand from their bases along the Great Lakes and Hudson's Bay, following mighty prairie rivers to the Rockies. Seeking to gain advantage over the Hudson's Bay Company, the upstart North West Company sent traders and explorers farther inland to open new trading posts and to find routes to the Pacific. Alexander Mackenzie became the first white man to cross the continent when he followed the Peace River across northern Alberta and British Columbia, crossing the Rockies and the Fraser River Plateau to reach Bella Coola, on the Pacific, in 1793.
Simon Fraser followed much of Mackenzie's route in 1808, though he floated down the Fraser River to its mouth near present-day Vancouver. Another fur trader and explorer was David Thompson, who crossed the Rockies and established Kootenay House trading post on the upper Columbia River. In 1811, Thompson journeyed to the mouth of the Columbia, where he found Fort Astoria, an American fur-trading post, already in place. Competing American and British interests would dominate events in the Pacific Northwest for the next 2 decades.
By the 1820s, seasonal fur-trading forts were established along the major rivers of the region. Cities like Edmonton, Kamloops, Prince George, and Hope all had their beginnings as trading posts. Each of the forts was given an assortment of trade goods to induce the local tribes to trap beaver, otter, fox, and wolf. Although the fur companies generally treated the Native populations with respect and fairness, there were tragic and unintentional consequences to the relationships that developed. While blankets, beads, and cloth were traded for furs, nothing was as popular or as effective as whiskey: Thousands of gallons of alcohol passed from the trading posts to local tribes, corrupting traditional culture and creating a cycle of dependence that enriched the traders while poisoning the Native peoples. The traders also unwittingly introduced European diseases to the local population, who had little or no resistance to such deadly scourges as smallpox and measles.
The Louisiana Purchase, which gave the U.S. control of all the territory along the Missouri River up to the 49th parallel and to the Continental Divide, and the Lewis and Clark Expedition from 1804 to 1806 gave the Americans a toe-hold in the Pacific Northwest. As part of the settlement of the War of 1812, the Pacific Northwest -- which included all of today's Oregon, Washington, and much of British Columbia -- was open to both British and American exploitation, though neither country was allowed to set up governmental institutions. In fact, Britain had effective control of this entire area through its proxies in the Hudson's Bay Company, which had quasi-governmental powers over its traders and over relations with the Native peoples, which included pretty much everyone who lived in the region.
B.C. Consolidates & Joins Canada -- From its headquarters at Fort Vancouver, on the north banks of the Columbia River near Portland, Oregon, the Hudson's Bay Company held sway over the river's huge drainage, which extended far into present-day Canada. However, with the advent of the Oregon Trail and settlement in what would become the state of Oregon, the HBC's control over this vast territory began to slip. In 1843, the Oregon settlers voted by a slim majority to form a government based on the American model. The HBC and Britain withdrew to the north of the Columbia River, which included most of Washington and B.C.
The U.S.-Canada boundary dispute became increasingly antagonistic. The popular slogan of the U.S. 1844 presidential campaign was "54/40 or fight," which urged the United States to occupy all of the Northwest up to the present Alaskan border. Finally, in 1846, the British and the Americans agreed to the present border along the 49th parallel. The HBC headquarters withdrew to Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island; many British citizens moved north as well. In order to better protect its interests and citizens, Vancouver Island became a crown colony in 1849 -- just in case the Americans grew more expansionist-minded. However, population in the Victoria area was still small: In 1854, the population counted only 250 white people.
Then, in 1858, gold-rush fever struck this remote area of the British Empire. The discovery of gold along the Fraser River, and in 1862 in the Cariboo Mountains, brought in a flood of people. By far the vast majority of the estimated 100,000 who streamed into the area were Americans who came north from the by-now-spent California gold fields. Fearing domination of mainland Canada by the United States, Britain named the mainland a new colony, New Caledonia, in 1858. In 1866, the two colonies -- Vancouver Island and the mainland -- merged as the British colony of British Columbia.
As population and trade increased, the need for greater political organization grew. As a colony, British Columbia had little local control, and was largely governed by edict from London. In order for British Columbia to have greater freedom and self-determination, the growing colony had two choices: join the prosperous United States to the south, with which it shared many historic and commercial ties, or join the new Dominion of Canada far to the east. After Ottawa promised to build a railroad to link eastern and western Canada, B.C. delegates voted in 1871 to join Canada as the province of British Columbia.
The Railroads Link Canada -- Meanwhile, the rule of the HBC over the inland territory known as Ruperts Land relaxed as profits from trapping decreased, and in 1869, the Crown bought back the rights to the entire area. The border between the United States and Canada in the prairie regions was hazy at best, lawless at worst. Although selling whiskey to Native people was illegal, in the no man's land between Montana and Canada, trade in alcohol was rife.
In response to uprisings and border incursions, the Canadian government created a new national police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In 1873, a contingent of Mounties began their journey across the Great Plains, establishing Fort Macleod (1874) in southern Alberta along with three other frontier forts, including Fort Calgary at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers. The Mounties succeeded in stopping the illegal whiskey trade and creating conditions favorable for settlement. By 1875, there were 600 residents at Fort Calgary, lured by reports of vast and fertile grasslands.
However, for the prairies and the interior of Canada to support an agrarian economy, these remote areas needed to be linked to the rest of Canada. In 1879, the Canadian Pacific Railroad reached Winnipeg, and in 1883 arrived at Banff. Finding a route over the Rockies proved a major challenge: The grades were very steep, the construction season short, and much of the rail bed had to be hacked out of rock.
Canada's transcontinental railway needed a mainland coastal terminus in British Columbia, as the new province's population center and capital, Victoria, was on an island. Railroad engineers set their sites on the sheltered Burrard Inlet, then a sparse settlement of saloons, lumber mills, and farms. The first train arrived from Montreal in 1886, stopping at a thrown-together, brand-new town called Vancouver. A year later, the first ship docked from China, and Vancouver began its boom as a trading center and transportation hub.
All along the railroad's transcontinental reach, towns, farms, and other industries sprang up for the first time. In Alberta, huge ranches sprawled along the foothills of the Rockies, and Calgary boomed as a cow town. The railroads also brought foreign immigration. Entire communities of central and eastern European farmers appeared on the prairies overnight, the result of the railroads' extensive promotional campaign in places like the Ukraine. Other settlers came to western Canada seeking religious tolerance; many small towns on the prairies began as utopian colonies for Hutterites, Mennonites, and Dukhobors. Alberta became a province in 1905, and in 1914 the Grand Trunk Railroad, Canada's second transcontinental railroad, opened up the more northerly prairies, linking Saskatoon and Edmonton to Prince George and Prince Rupert. By 1920, Alberta was Canada's leading agricultural exporter.
All this development demanded lumber for construction, and in Canada, lumber -- then as now -- meant British Columbia. In return for building the transcontinental railroad, the CPR was granted vast tracts of land along its route. As the demand for lumber skyrocketed, these ancient forests met the saw.
As the population, industry, logging, farming, and shipping all increased in western Canada, it was not just the local ecosystem that took a hit. Although European diseases wiped out enormous numbers of Native peoples, they had reasonably cooperative relations with the HBC trappers, who did little to overtly disturb their traditional life and culture.
That awaited the arrival of agriculture, town settlements, and Christian missionaries. After the HBC lost its long-standing role in Indian relations, authority was wielded by a federal agency in Ottawa. The Native peoples received no compensation for the land deeded over to the CPR, and increased contact with the whites who were flooding the region simply increased contact with alcohol, trade goods, and disease. The key social and religious ritual of the coastal Indians -- the potlatch, a feast and gift-giving ceremony -- was banned in 1884 by the provincial government under the influence of Episcopal missionaries. The massive buffalo herds of the open prairies were slaughtered to near-extinction in the 1870s and 1880s, leaving the once proud Plains Indians little choice but to accept confinement on reservations.
The 20th Century -- The building of the Panama Canal, which was completed in 1914, meant easier access to markets in Europe and along North America's East Coast, bringing about a boom for the western Canadian economy. As big business grew, so did big unions. In Vancouver in the 1910s, workers organized into labor unions to protest working conditions and pay rates. A number of strikes hit key industries, and in several instances resulted in armed confrontations between union members and soldiers. However, one area where the unions, the government, and business could all agree was racism: The growing Chinese and Japanese populations were a problem they felt only punitive legislation and violence could solve. Large numbers of Chinese had moved to the province and were instrumental in building the CPR; they were also important members of hard-rock mining communities and ran small businesses such as laundries. Japanese settlers came slightly later, establishing truck farms and becoming the area's principal commercial fishermen. On several occasions, Vancouver's Chinatown and Little Tokyo were the scene of white mob violence, and in the 1920s, British Columbia passed legislation that effectively closed its borders to nonwhite immigration.
The period of the world wars was turbulent on many fronts. Settlers with British roots returned to Europe to fight the Germans in World War I, dying in great numbers and destabilizing the communities they left behind. Following the war, Canada experienced an economic downturn, which led to further industrial unrest and unemployment. After a brief recovery, the Wall Street crash of 1929 brought severe economic depression and hardship. Vancouver, with its comparatively mild climate, became a kind of magnet for young Canadian men -- hungry, desperate, and out of work. The city, however, held no easy answers for these problems, and soon the streets were filled with demonstrations and riots. Vancouver was in the grip of widespread poverty.
With the beginning of World War II, anti-German riots took hold of the city streets; and German-owned businesses were burned. In 1941, Japanese-Canadians were removed from their land and their fishing boats and interned by the government on farms and work camps in inland British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.
Perversely, for other Canadians, social calm and prosperity returned as World War II progressed: the unemployed enlisting as foot soldiers against the Axis nations, and the shipbuilding and armaments-manufacturing industries bolstering the region's traditional farming, ranching, and lumbering.
Alberta's wild oil boom began in 1947, when drillers struck black gold near Leduc and a period of tremendous economic growth ensued. By the 1960s, Alberta was supplying most of Canada's crude oil and natural gas. In the 1970s, as oil-producing nations joined together to form the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and oil shortages hit North America, Alberta was left holding the hose. The value of the province's petroleum resources tripled almost overnight; by the end of the 1970s, their value had quadrupled again, allowing for a period of nearly unlimited building and infrastructure development. Calgary morphed from a sleepy ranchers' town into a brand-new city of soaring office towers, the financial and business center of Canada's oil industry. Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, boomed as the center of oil technology and refining.
After the war years, British Columbia generally boomed economically as well, especially under the leadership of the Social Credit Party, supposedly the party of small business. Father and son premiers, W. A. C. and Bill Bennett, effectively ruled the Social Credit Party and the province from 1952 until 1986. With close ties between government ministers and the resources they oversaw, business -- especially manufacturing, mining, and logging -- certainly boomed, but along with prosperity came significant governmental scandals, opportunistic financial shenanigans, and major resource mismanagement. Social Credit Premier Bill Vander Zalm was forced to resign in 1991. Reform-minded governments have been in place in Victoria since, although corruption still seems rampant in both government and business.
The 1990s saw a vast influx of Hong Kong Chinese to the Vancouver area, the result of fears accompanying the British handover of Hong Kong to the mainland Chinese in 1997. Unlike earlier migrations of Chinese to North America, these Hong Kong Chinese were middle- and upper-class merchants and business leaders. Real-estate prices shot through the roof, and entire neighborhoods became Chinese enclaves. Currently, Vancouver has one of the world's largest Chinese populations outside of Asia.
Asians are not the only people bolstering western Canada's fast-growing population. Canada has relatively open immigration laws, resulting in a steady flow of newcomers from the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and Europe. Additionally, many young Canadians from the economically depressed eastern provinces see a brighter future in the west. With their strong economies and big-as-all-outdoors setting, Vancouver, Edmonton, and Calgary serve as magnets for many seeking new lives and opportunities.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.