British Columbia and Confederation

British Columbia joined Confederation on 20 July 1871, becoming Canada’s sixth province in the wake of a the Fraser River Gold Rush and on the promise of a transcontinental railway link.

First Nations

British Columbia was populated after the last Ice Age, with records of human habitation dating back at least 14,000 years. On the coast, several  First Nations emerged, including the Tagish, Tsimshian, Haida, Tlingit, Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) and Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka), while inland lived the Dakelh (Carrier), Interior Salish and Ktunaxa (Kootenay).


Europeans didn’t arrive on the Pacific coast in significant numbers until after the voyage of  James Cook in 1778 and the mapping expedition of George Vancouver in the 1790s. By 1849, the land was home to about 50,000 Indigenous people and a few hundred British settlers. The settlers established the colony of Vancouver Island that year.

Fraser River Gold Rush

Everything changed with the Fraser River Gold Rush starting in 1858, when 30,000 gold-seekers, many from the United States, raced to cash in. The influx of settlers prompted Britain to create a separate mainland colony that same year, called British Columbia.

A form of representative government was established in BC in 1864, just as the eastern colonies of British North America were debating Confederation. In 1866, the colonies of Vancouver Island and BC were united under one legislative assembly and governor, with their capital at Victoria.

When the Dominion of Canada was created in 1867, British Columbians debated joining the new country. Entering Confederation would help BC take on debt to pay for the building of roads and other infrastructure. It would also provide a measure of security and ensure the continuation of the British nature of the colony, especially following the US purchase of Alaska that same year. The Alaska purchase sparked fears that the Americans would try to annex BC to link Alaska with American territories on the Pacific Northwest.

Amid these debates, Indigenous people had little or no say in their political future. Joseph Trutch, the chief commissioner of lands and works, refused to negotiate treaties with  First Nations or recognize Aboriginal title to land (seeIndigenous Territory). He also cut the size of existing Aboriginal reserves.

Yale Conference, 1868

Politician Amor De Cosmos, a newspaper publisher, led the Confederation movement along with John Robson and Arthur Kennedy. De Cosmos formed the Confederation League in May 1868 to unite the colony with Canada and bring responsible government to BC. The league grew in popularity, with branches established in New Westminster, Hope, Yale and Lytton over the course of the summer.

On 14 September 1868, a meeting of 26 Confederation League delegates from across the colony was held in Yale. The delegates passed 37 resolutions, nearly all of them outlined possible terms for a union with the Dominion of Canada. Delegates agreed that Canada should pay down the colony’s debt, that the province should have a responsible government, and that a wagon road should be built to link British Columbia to the east. Delegates also wanted assurances that the province would have control over immigration, First Nations affairs, land grants, education and settlement policy.

However, the Confederation League’s greatest opponents were the powerful, unelected members of the colonial government who feared for their jobs and pensions if BC became a Canadian province with a fully elected, rather than a partially appointed, legislature. As a result, when the League’s proposals were brought before the legislative council, they were defeated.

Economic recession in the colony, and the presence of a group of settlers who favoured the annexation of BC by the United States, also hampered the Confederationists.

One major obstacle to union was removed in 1869 with the death of Governor Frederick Seymour, who opposed joining Canada. His replacement, Anthony Musgrave, supported union. The following year, Canada also purchased Rupert’s Land and the North-West Territories from the Hudson’s Bay Company. This gave Canada control over the vast territory between the Great Lakes and BC, clearing the way for a coast-to-coast country and, eventually, a transcontinental railroad.

BC Becomes a Province

The colony’s legislature debated Confederation in the spring of 1870 — deciding, despite opposition, to seek entry into Canada without responsible government. The colony then sent a three-man delegation to Ottawa to negotiate the terms of entry.

Federal leaders insisted on BC having responsible government if it became a province — but they agreed to provide pensions for unelected local officials who would lose their positions in the process. Canada also agreed to take on BC’s debt, build a rail link to the Pacific coast, and give BC the right to send three senators and six members of Parliament to Ottawa.

The terms were passed by both the BC assembly and the federal Parliament in 1871, and the colony joined Canada as the country’s sixth province on 20 July 1871. Construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, a central condition of the deal, was only started in 1878 after many delays and finished in 1885.

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