British Columbia joined Confederation on 20 July 1871, becoming Canada's sixth province in the wake of a 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 8,000 years. On the coast, several First Nations emerged, including the Tagish, Tsimshian, Haida, Tlingit, Kwakiutl and Nootka, while inland lived the Carrier, Interior Salish and 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 Aboriginal 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 a common 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 US western territories.

Amid these debates, Aboriginal 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. He also cut the size of existing Aboriginal reserves.

Confederation Movement

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 1868 to unite the colony with Canada and bring responsible government to BC. The movement grew in popularity. However, its 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.

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, and his replacement by Anthony Musgrave, who 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 in 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.