British Columbia (1871)

Map: Canada, 1871

Map: Canada, 1871
© Natural Resources Canada

Early British Columbia

In the years leading up to 1858, there were between 40,000 and 50,000 people, nearly all of these Aboriginal, living in what is now British Columbia. The first Europeans had come to the area in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. However, it was not until 1849 that Britain formally established the colony of Vancouver Island in order to maintain sovereignty in the West. There were but a few hundred British settlers at that time, most of them living at Fort Victoria as employees of the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC).

The character of the region changed drastically with the Fraser River gold rush of 1858. Between April and September of that year, as many as 30,000 people arrived in the region. Consequently, the population of Fort Victoria rose from around 500 to more than 5,000. (There was such an influx of people, in fact, that Britain established the colony of British Columbia on the mainland, in order to strengthen its control over the area.) The gold rush brought with it people of many ethnicities, among them Hispanic and Chinese. People came from the United States and from other parts of British North America. Though British culture dominated the west  --  Victoria was almost more British than Britain itself  --  ties to the United States were strong.

Until the gold rush of 1858, fur trading had been the dominant industry, controlled by the HBC. With the rush, mining became the predominant economic activity: at its peak, there were as many as 20,000 prospectors. Coal mining, as well as forestry and fishing, also emerged during this period, but none rivalled gold in importance. The period of prosperity was short-lived: by the mid-1860s the gold rush had collapsed, sinking British Columbia into a painful recession.

The colony on Vancouver Island was ruled by a governor, with the help of an appointed council and an elected assembly. After British Columbia was established, the two colonies shared a governor. However, the mainland was ruled by decree, rather than with the help of a council. The mainland colony received some measure of representative government in 1864, when a partially elected assembly was created by order of the British authorities. Important political figures of the time included Amor De Cosmos and John Robson (both newspaper publishers who turned to politics), Arthur Kennedy (governor of Vancouver Island), and Frederick Seymour (governor of British Columbia).

Union of British Columbia and Vancouver Island, 1866

While Canada and the Maritime provinces were negotiating Confederation in the mid 1860s, British Columbia and Vancouver Island were contemplating a union of their own. In the recession that followed the gold rush, separate colonial administrations were an unjustifiable financial burden. Some argued that the two western colonies should each be reorganized into a federal union with responsible government institutions, in a manner similar to that discussed at the Charlottetown and Quebec conferences. Instead, the two western colonies were combined into one, with the seat of government installed, eventually, at Victoria. The assembly remained dominated by unelected officials.

The union of the two colonies became official in 1866. Yet, it was clear that the reorganization would not solve all the region's problems. There was an increasing demand, made by people like De Cosmos and Robson, for responsible government. The government was quickly going into debt because of the high costs of building infrastructure, such as roads. In addition, the American purchase of Alaska in 1867 brought fears that the United States would attempt to link its western territories by annexing British Columbia. Such fears were made worse by a small but vocal annexation movement on Vancouver Island.

In March of 1867, De Cosmos and other reformers convinced Governor Seymour to send a telegram to the Colonial Office asking for a provision in the British North America Act that would allow for the eventual entry of British Columbia into Confederation. Seymour delayed any action, despite a growing clamour for union in the colony. For its part, the Colonial Office said it was interested in uniting British Columbia with Canada, but cited a major stumbling block: the thousands of kilometres of HBC-owned land separating British Columbia from Canada. That land, known as the North-Western Territory and Rupert's Land, would have to be acquired before Canada could stretch from sea to sea.

The Yale Conference, September 1868

In May of 1868 De Cosmos helped to found the Confederation League. It was, according to historian George Woodcock, "the first body resembling a political party ever created in British Columbia." The league had two major goals: union with Canada, and the introduction of responsible government institutions within the colony. Throughout the summer, the league staged a series of public speeches to foster support for union. That September, the league held a conference at Yale, attended by 26 delegates. They passed a number of motions supporting Confederation and the establishment of responsible government.

The conference succeeded in uniting those who were pro-Confederation, but it also attracted criticism: advertisements attacking the conference were placed in the Daily Colonist. Despite growing support for Confederation, many appointed officials within the assembly continued to oppose union, partly because they wanted assurances that they would be given pensions or new jobs if their unelected positions within the assembly disappeared.

Changing Circumstances, 1869

By 1869, some of the obstacles blocking British Columbia's entry into Confederation began to fall away. In July 1868, the Canadian government had passed the Rupert's Land Act to purchase Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory from the HBC. With this purchase Canada controlled territory all the way to the Pacific Ocean. While there was support in British Columbia for organizations like the Confederation League, there were still impediments to a union with Canada. The annexation movement, active in 1867, gained renewed attention in 1869 and the level of interest was enough to alarm union supporters. Furthermore, the colony had to contend with a worsening recession.

In 1869 the journalist Henry E. Seelye wrote a letter to Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, indicating the urgency of the situation. He believed the first step had to be the recall of Governor Seymour, who was against union. Seymour died before any action could be taken, and was replaced by union supporter Anthony Musgrave.

The Great Confederation Debates, 1870

In March 1870, the British Columbia legislature began "The Great Confederation Debates." There were several strong anti-Confederation voices within the assembly, including John Sebastian Helmcken, but the issue of whether or not to seek union with Canada was essentially already decided. Governor Musgrave had mollified opposition by the unelected members of the assembly with assurances that they would receive pensions or new positions after Confederation.

The debates focussed on creating the terms to be used for negotiating a union with Canada, and specifically on the issue of responsible government within the colony. Perhaps the most controversial of the terms passed during the Confederation debates was Clause 15, which stated that British Columbia would continue without responsible government institutions even after union with Canada. Reformers tried to amend the clause, arguing that Confederation without responsible government was unthinkable; however, the clause passed despite such objections.

The Confederation debates went on for nearly a month, finally finishing on April 6, 1870. In all, more than 16 clauses and resolutions were adopted. When the legislature voted to send delegates to Ottawa, the motion passed with only one dissenting vote.

Confederation Negotiations, June 1870

In the spring of 1870, British Columbia sent a delegation of three men to negotiate union with Canada; they were Helmcken, J. W. Trutch, and R. W. W. Carrall. Governor Musgrave had selected all three delegates, without the input of the Legislative Council. The choices disappointed longtime pro-Confederation activists like De Cosmos and Robson. The British Colonist, which was edited by Robson, sent Henry E. Seelye to cover the event and to lobby for responsible government. His stories provide an interesting perspective on the trip to Ottawa and the negotiations that took place there.

Negotiations began at Ottawa on June 7, 1870. The delegates found their Canadian counterparts accommodating, and willing to grant major concessions. At first, the Canadians even seemed ready to allow the passage of Clause 15; however, after meeting with Seelye, the Canadians insisted that the colony would have to have responsible institutions if it entered Confederation. Also, there was disagreement over the means of calculating the proposed per capita subsidy. The final agreement included provisions for responsible government, pensions for the unelected officials who would lose their positions after union, assumption of the colonial debt, and an allotment of three senators and six members of Parliament. Perhaps most important was the agreement to construct a permanent rail link to the West Coast. These terms were put before the electorate in November 1870. Legislation had recently been amended to allow the elected officials to outnumber those who were appointed, and pro-Confederation members were elected in each of the ridings. The new assembly passed all the terms of union without change in 1871.

The generosity of these terms was met with surprise and even disbelief in British Columbia, but without contest. Such was not the case in Ottawa. In the spring of 1871, Trutch returned to Ottawa to ensure the legislation's intact passage. He discovered that the opposition, and many government members from Ontario, saw the terms as entirely too generous. Trutch worked successfully to convince concerned government members that the conditions of the deal were both reasonable and necessary. The terms were passed in both the House of Commons and the Senate without amendment, and received the Royal Assent on May 16, 1871.

Confederation, July 1871

British Columbia entered Confederation on July 20, 1871. Some colonists viewed it with a sense of reluctance and loss. Senior officials lamented the demise of the colony's old political institutions, and the fact that the province would take orders from Ottawa. On the other hand, there were many who viewed Confederation as a new beginning, and a way out of the economic depression. On July 20, crowds gathered in Victoria to watch the Confederation festivities. Roman candles were burned, and bells rang through the city at midnight. At the port of Esquimalt, a 21-gun salute was fired by the flagship Zealous.


In the years after Confederation, both Robson and De Cosmos became premiers of British Columbia in turn. In fact, De Cosmos held the office concurrently with a seat in the House of Commons. Trutch became the province's first lieutenant-governor.

The issue of the railway became a major problem in relations between British Columbia and the federal government. Although Canada had promised to begin the railway within two years and finish it within ten, the project had barely even begun by 1878. Ironically, De Cosmos  --  who had fought so hard for Confederation  --  rose in the House of Commons in May 1878 and announced that if the railway project did not move along more quickly, British Columbia would seek annexation to the United States. The growing demand for action led to the creation of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. Under the direction of that company, work pressed ahead. The last spike in the line was finally driven in on November 7, 1885, almost five years behind schedule.



  • Anstey, Arthur ; Sutherland, Neil.  --  British Columbia : a short history.  --  Toronto : W. J. Gage, 1957.  --  55 p.
  • A history of British Columbia : selected readings.  --  Ed. Patricia E. Roy.  --  Toronto : Copp Clark Pittman Ltd., 1989.  --  357 p.
  • Ormsby, Margaret.  --  British Columbia : a history.  --  [Rev. ed.]  --  [Toronto] : Macmillan of Canada, 1971.  --  566 p.
  • Shelton, George.  --  British Columbia and Confederation.  --  Victoria, B.C. : Morriss Printing Co. Ltd., 1967.  --  250 p.
  • Woodcock, George.  --  British Columbia : a history of the province.  --  1st paperback ed.  --  Vancouver : Douglas & McIntyre, 1994.  --  288 p.
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