By P. E. Bryden
Before Europeans arrived in North America, by far the most heavily populated part of the continent was the Pacific Coast. Perhaps as many as three-quarters of Canada’s First Nation population lived west of Ontario. But all these First Nations communities, and the lands that they called home, were nothing more than fantasies in the imaginations of European explorers, who first landed on North America’s east coast.
In the late 1700s, Captains James Cook and George Vancouver each claimed the northwestern coast of North America for Britain, establishing what would become the province of British Columbia. At about the same time, fur traders and missionaries were slowly making their way onto the Great Plains. But with so little really known about the great western expanse of Canada, Europeans were left to imagine its potential.
In the north, the Arctic offered the possibility of a shorter trade route to Asia from Europe; the search for the elusive northwest passage fueled many unsuccessful forays into the far north. Dreams of fame and fortune kept people like John Franklin mounting expeditions, some just as unlucky as he in meeting an icy grave in the unforgiving north.
The plains, too, inspired dreams of expansion. As areas in the eastern half of Canada, particularly Ontario and Quebec, began filling with immigrants, many hoped that the land west of the Great Lakes and east of the Rocky Mountains would bring prosperity to settlers who moved into the territory. But until 1868, the year after Confederation, most of the land in the interior was owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company, a British fur-trading corporation. The land was not even open to settlement, but that did not stop many politicians and businessmen from planning for its eventual acquisition by Canada.
The discovery of gold in British Columbia in 1858 and in the Yukon at the end of the 19th century proved to many that the dreams of the expansionists could, indeed, come true. But there were few opportunities to truly get rich quick. Settlement occurred in a land that remained peopled by both First Nations and Métis, the mixed-blood product of more than a century of fur trade activity in the Hudson’s Bay Company territory. Conflicts were not uncommon between the different cultures.
Manitoba was the first of the prairie provinces to enter into Confederation, joining the union in 1870 as a result of the protests of the Métis Louis Riel; British Columbia, promised a railway from the east, followed the next year. Alberta and Saskatchewan were more sparsely populated, and remained territories until into the 20th century. But in the 1880s, the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway tied the country together at its southernmost border, linking the industrial heartland of Ontario to the Pacific coast. It also established a way to travel easily into the interior of the continent and, with the creation of a strain of wheat that flourished in the climate of the Great Plains, agriculture became a viable venture in western Canada. Immigrants from eastern Canada, the United States, and Europe flocked into the prairie region, essentially eradicating the remaining buffalo and marginalizing First Nations dependent upon the hunt. They also established the foundations of an economy built on cattle ranching, wheat farming, and resource extraction.
All parts of the west continued to grow and attract immigrants throughout the 20th century. British Columbia has always been a particularly attractive destination, especially for people from other countries on the Pacific rim, and has remained Canada’s third most populous province since entering Confederation. The fishery, lumber, and mining industries have been mainstays of the provincial economy since the 19th century. Farming has predominated in the prairies, but the region has also benefited from resource extraction: the oil and gas industry has made Alberta one of the wealthiest provinces in the country, and Saskatchewan is a global leader in the provision of potash.
The political landscape in the west has been just as varied as the physical landscape. Saskatchewan elected the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in 1944, North America’s first socialist government, while Alberta dabbled with more right-wing politics under the Social Credit party. British Columbia seems to swing regularly between the left and the right. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the rise of new western political parties has been the introduction of national health insurance. Medicare began as a provincial program in Saskatchewan, an election promise of the CCF premier Tommy Douglas. More recently, western political activity has focused on shifting the balance of power away from both Ottawa and the industrial core of Ontario and toward the new and economically vital west.
Investment, industry, and technology are rebuilding the west in ways unimaginable to the 19th century schemers who dreamed about settling it. Perhaps the undiscovered riches of the north still inspire fantasies, but as climate change becomes an increasing worry, those dreams may soon become nightmares.
Next Instalment: The Atlantic Provinces