British Columbia’s Sesquicentennial: What’s Special About British Columbia?
Sesquicentennial. Now that’s a word you don’t hear every day. Sesquicentennial is the celebration of the 150th anniversary of something.
Depending on your age and your interest in political history, you might remember some recent sesquicentennials. On July 1, 2017, Canada celebrated its 150th anniversary, complete with fireworks, festivities, and a hockey rink on Parliament Hill (upon which, to many Canadians’ chagrin, no hockey was actually played).
British Columbia also has celebrated some sesquicentennials in recent years. One can make a strong case that there are three dates that mark British Columbia’s 150th birthday. Back on August 2, 2008, British Columbians celebrated the sesquicentennial of the official creation of the Colony of British Columbia by Great Britain. On August 6, 2011, those living west of the Rockies celebrated the 150th anniversary of the union of the colonies of British Columbia and Vancouver Island.
Today, July 20, 2021, marks British Columbia’s last political sesquicentennial: the 150th anniversary of British Columbia’s entrance into Confederation, into the Dominion of Canada. In light of this occasion (that virtually no one is celebrating), I wanted to reflect a bit about British Columbia’s place in our country, and so I asked my nine fellow ARPA staff two questions and tallied their responses:
What is your favourite thing about British Columbia?
- the beauty all around us and living among the Indigenous peoples
- the beauty
- the mountains, the sunsets, and the beauty
- the “greenery scenery”
- fern-filled forests and the ocean
- the mountains and the ocean
- the lakes, ocean, and mountains
- the forests
- lakes, rivers, ocean, and mountains
What has British Columbia contributed to Canada?
- the beauty of the entire country
- a place for tourism; BC makes Canada beautiful
- the Olympics, tourism, and the movie industry
- natural resources and a welcoming place for people all around the world
- natural resources and tourism
- an awareness of how early cherry trees can blossom
- natural resources
- hippies, granola crunchers, and flakes
- oh, nothing really (*office erupts with laughter)
Humour aside, the responses of my comrades reveal that many British Columbians have a very close tie with the land and take great pride in the beautiful environment and abundant resources that God has bestowed on this corner of the world (more on that below). With such an emphasis on the physical land of British Columbia though, is there anything else to this province or any other contribution to our larger country?
British Columbia’s Contributions to Canada
Before answering that question, a bit of history is in order. Prior to the 1750s, the area now known as British Columbia was virtually the exclusive home of dozens of thriving First Nations. Given the temperate climate of British Columbia’s west coast, the pacific northwest coast historically had a much denser indigenous population than most of Canada. Due to the mountainous terrain, this relatively populous population was divided into dozens and even hundreds of small First Nations with complex social and political structures.
Although our province is now called British Columbia, the question of which European power would ultimately claim dominion of the area was up in the air for almost 100 years. The first documented European voyage to British Columbia was recorded by a Spaniard from Mexican-controlled California – Juan Perez – in 1774. British expeditions (based all the way back in Britain) by James Cook and George Vancouver soon followed, as did exploratory expeditions by the Russians (from across the Bering Strait) and the Americans (through the Oregon trail). By the end of the century, all four powers had set up (at least temporarily) forts or settlements in the region. Only in 1846, after the Oregon Treaty, did the area firmly become British Columbia.
After a relatively brief stint of being official colonies of Great Britain in the mid-1800s, British Columbia entered the Confederation of Canada on July 20, 1871, lured by Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald’s promise of a transcontinental railway and the federal government’s absorption of the colony’s debts.
Since joining Canada, it is tempting to say that British Columbia hasn’t contributed much to the larger country (aside from more people and a larger territory). Politically speaking, that has certainly been true. Only one British Columbian has served as served a prime minister of Canada or even the leader of either of the two major federal political parties (the Liberals or the Conservatives). And the only British Columbian who served in this role – Kim Campbell – lasted only for five underwhelming months. In fact, when the former premier Richard McBride was invited to lead the federal Conservatives and to hold a federal cabinet position, he refused, preferring to “devote his entire energies to British Columbia.”
No historical federal political movement or charismatic leader such as the social credit movement and “Bible” Bill Aberhart (Alberta), the CCF-NDP and Tommy Douglas (Saskatchewan), or Preston Manning and the Reform Party (Alberta) grew out of British Columbia. The most significant British Columbian at the national political level wasn’t even a politician; Beverley McLauchlin was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada and, in the opinions of most Christians, she didn’t change the nation in a positive direction either.
So, what has British Columbia contributed to Canada?
Arguably, the greatest contribution that British Columbia has given to Canada is access to the Pacific Ocean. Vancouver, Kitimat, and Prince Rupert are all terminuses for railways and ports for container ships, exporting the vast natural resources of the rest of Canada to emerging markets in Asia. Conversely, British Columbia is also the gateway to Canada from Asia, attracting millions of Asian immigrants and hundreds of billions of dollars in Asian investment into Canada.
As the responses of many of the staff show, the land and the environment of British Columbia is held in high regard by people throughout the province and is one of our province’s greatest contributions to the country. Not only does this land give us opportunities for an enormous range of outdoor activities (skiing, hiking, quadding, swimming, kayaking, camping, mountain-climbing, hot-springs searching, hunting, fishing, and the list goes on), but it also has incredible beauty. Natural resources such as hydroelectric power, minerals and metals, agricultural products, and timber are also land-based benefits of British Columbia. It should be little surprise then that British Columbia has led Canada – and even the world – in environmental movements dedicated to preserving the land that we love and depend on. This love for the environment and the desire of many across the province to preserve that environment have led to “tree-hugger,” “granola-cruncher,” and “hippie” stereotypes in the rest of Canada. In fact, perhaps the most enduring political contribution of British Columbia is one that is still developing: the environmental movement and the Green Party, led by persons like David Suzuki and Elizabeth May (more on that below).
British Columbia’s interactions with First Nations are also unique, though they have yet to really contribute to the national scene. Unlike most of the rest of Canada (and the United States), most of the land area of British Columbia has not been covered by treaties between the government and First Nations. That lack of clarity has prompted much legal action, angst, and greater recognition of Indigenous title to land (territorial acknowledgements have a stronger history in British Columbia than elsewhere in North America). But this lack of treaties has also prompted First Nations and the provincial government to negotiate new treaties and agreements, such as the ones signed by the Nisga’a, Scheldt, and Tsawwassen First Nations, that were significant improvements on the status quo. Unfortunately, we have recently been reminded of British Columbia’s complicity in forcibly removing indigenous children from their families and placing them in residential schools. Although unique to some degree in the relations between the government and First Nations, British Columbia, like the rest of the country, has a long way to go before reconciliation is complete.
Our fundamental freedoms (of religion, expression, assembly, and association) have been top of mind in the past year and a half. On these freedoms, British Columbia has an interesting – and checkered – history. It is the least religious English-speaking province in Canada, yet the Legislature continues to open each day with prayer and provides Christian schools with a significant degree of funding and independence. British Columbia hasn’t had a truly conservative government (one most traditionally tied to defending fundamental rights and freedoms) since 1928. While other provinces, especially those ruled by conservative governments, jailed or handed out million-dollar fines to pastors of churches that defied health regulations, enforcement of restrictions on most churches throughout COVID-19 was less harsh in British Columbia.
A Young Province with an Uncertain Future
Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritime provinces might lump British Columbia in with the Western provinces, but British Columbia has always had its own distinct culture, focused more on preserving itself and solving its own problems than on being a national leader. That, combined with the mountain ranges separating us from the rest of Canada, is why British Columbia is sometimes known as the west beyond the west.
Ultimately, British Columbia is still one of the youngest modern jurisdictions in the world. When the first documented European explorer arrived in Canada in 1774, the United States was about to sign its Declaration of Independence. Great Britain was just beginning its Industrial Revolution. Canadian cities in the East – like Montreal – were already closing in on their own sesquicentennials. New France had already come under the British banner.
In 1904, Sir Wilfrid Laurier said, “Canada has been modest in its history, although its history, in my estimation, is only commencing.” While pondering this sesquicentennial of British Columbia, my colleague Tabitha reflected on these words of our fifth Prime Minister: “In many ways, I think those words are true of British Columbia today. While British Columbia’s history dates much further back than 150 years (especially considering the First Nations who were here long before the Europeans), I think as a province we are only just figuring out our identity and place in this world.”
As we remember this landmark anniversary of British Columbia’s entry into Confederation, let us pray that God would bless and mold our province and that we may be active participants in shaping the future of both our province and our country.
Levi Minderhoud is the British Columbia Manager for ARPA Canada
 Jean Barman. (2007). The West Beyond the West. University of Toronto; USA. p 209; for those interested in exploring British Columbia’s history, this book is an excellent place to start