Far Out on the Left Coast: British Columbia's Sense of Isolation and Belonging

The following article is an editorial written by The Canadian Encyclopedia staff. Editorials are not usually updated.

On September 3, 1962, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker arrived at Rogers Pass to preside at the official opening of the Trans-Canada Highway. This section of pavement through British Columbia's Selkirk Mountains was the final stretch of the highway to be built. Its completion marked a major engineering triumph; it was, and still is, the longest national highway in the world.

Then prime minister John Diefenbaker tamps down the last patch of asphalt at the official opening of the Trans Canada highway at Roger's Pass on 3 Sept 1962 (courtesy Library and Archives Canada).

Government dignitaries from across Canada made their way west to attend the opening. But the host premier, W.A.C. Bennett, boycotted the ceremony. Refusing to give public credit to the federal government for anything, he had held his own official opening at Revelstoke a month earlier where he had christened the new road "BC Highway No. 1." No mention of Canada whatsoever.

Diefenbaker later called this snub "one of the most peculiar, self-centred actions that I've ever known." But Bennett was merely expressing the ambivalence that has characterized relations between British Columbia and the rest of the country. The tension between isolation and belonging, between margin and centre, has always marked life in the Left Coast province.

As political scientist David Elkins once put it: "The province is isolated from Canada - and many people are proud of that - but steadfastly attached to Canada, and they are proud of that too."

This attitude goes back to the earliest days of the province.

When British Columbia agreed to join the Canadian confederation in 1871, it did so with the understanding that within 10 years Canada would build a transcontinental railway linking the Pacific Coast to the East. When delays threaten to derail the project, the provincial public was outraged and Amor de Cosmos, then a member of the federal parliament from Victoria, introduced a resolution in the House of Commons calling for BC to secede from the union.

A March 1980 photo shows then-premier Bill Bennett in the legislature. Bennett and his father, the legendary premier W.A.C. Bennett, were never close to federal governments (courtesy Vancouver Sun).

The railway was built, of course, inaugurating a process of integration with the rest of the country. But a sense of separateness persisted. Not long after the Ontario-born writer Charles Mair moved to the Okanagan Valley in 1892 he wrote to a friend: "These people know nothing of Canada. In fact they deride everything Canadian . . . . It will be a very rich Province, but it must be Canadianized."

When the British poet Rupert Brooke arrived in Vancouver at the completion of a cross-Canada tour in 1913, he too was struck by the unique identity of British Columbia. "It's a queer place," he wrote home to his mother, "rather different from the rest of Canada."

And our best-known political journalist, Bruce Hutchison, once wrote: "Crossing the Rockies, you are in a new country, as if you had crossed a national frontier. Everyone feels it, even the stranger."


British Columbians have always had grievances against the rest of Canada that have served to keep us at arm's length. (What province hasn't?) This strong sense of neglect is embodied in the old saying that Vancouver is 4023 kilometres from Ottawa, but Ottawa is 40 233 km from Vancouver. Whether the issue was rail construction, freight rates, immigration, forest policy or lighthouses, British Columbians believe that we are misunderstood - or worse, ignored - by Canadians to the east. No wonder that in the year 2000 political scientist Philip Resnick titled his book on this subject, The Politics of Resentment.

Granted, our resentment of the East may sometimes seem like teenage petulance. (You like her best!) But more often than not, it is rooted in the belief that BC does not have the ear of Ottawa on matters that matter.

For one thing, we are under-represented in Parliament. Our population and our economic power are not reflected in the number of BC seats in the House of Commons. The only BC-born politician to lead a national political party was Kim Campbell, and the disastrous end to her brief tenure as prime minister serves to emphasize the point, not to refute it. When we do have a resolute voice in Ottawa - the indomitable Pat Carney comes to mind - he or she tends to be dismissed as a noisy regionalist who lacks "the vision thing."

What makes this sense of political impotence particularly galling is that we are convinced that we live in paradise. "If there is still an Eden in the world, it would be British Columbia," Tsleil-Waututh elder Leonard George once wrote, expressing a view widely held by his fellow British Columbians.

While most Canadians think of BC, when they think of it at all, as a rain-sodden outpost of civilization, we who are privileged to live here insist that the tourist slogan "Super, Natural BC" is much nearer the mark. As part of this year's 150th birthday celebrations, the government is smugly advertising BC as "the best place on earth." As the humorist Eric Nicol aptly observed, "British Columbians like to think of their province as a large body of land entirely surrounded by envy."

So if residents of British Columbia, and visitors as well, think of the province as a distinct place, part of Canada for sure, but its own realm as well, what is the nature of its distinctiveness? If, as historian Jean Barman has written, "British Columbia is not so much a place as a state of mind," what is it that constitutes the provincial state of mind?

For some, BC's distinctiveness begins with eccentricity. True enough, the province has always embraced its fair share of iconoclasts and nonconformists. Supposedly the country tilts leftwards and everyone who isn't tied down elsewhere tumbles to the west until they come to rest here. Every time this tired cliché threatens to run out of gas, BC acquires a premier who lives in a castle or strikers take to the streets threatening to bring down the system, and once again Canadians get to shake their heads about those goofballs in Lotus Land.


There are, however, more significant reasons to proclaim BC's unique identity. The landscape is dramatic, often spectacular. Not to ignore the fact that 20 per cent of the province lies east of the Rockies in the Peace River district, most of BC is either in the mountains or in the shadow of mountains. "The mountains are always visible and the sea is always near," observed the poet Robin Skelton.

This has had important socio-economic ramifications. It is a difficult province in which to provide basic government services; the regions tend to be isolated one from the other, and development has concentrated in the southwest corner, the so-called Lower Mainland. Plus, the mountains form a barrier, both physical and psychological, that tends to moderate east-west influences and intensify north-south ones.

At contact, coastal British Columbia had the highest density of first nations people of any place in Canada. For a variety of reasons the indigenous population and the cultures it supported went into decline, but they have rallied strongly. Today Aboriginal people account for about four per cent of the provincial population and their issues are near the top of the political agenda. The monumental sculptures of the coastal first nations have become icons not just of Aboriginal culture, but of British Columbia as a whole.

At the same time, a settler society that not so long ago was distinctly British in outlook has been transformed into the most multicultural province in Canada.

There was always an Asian influence in BC, even when the Anglo-American majority imposed racist laws on the Chinese, Japanese and South Asian minorities. But following the Second World War, immigration patterns shifted in favour of Asian countries so that by 1996 about 20 per cent of the population was of Asian origin and recent census figures show that this trend toward a multi-ethnic society has continued.

The change in population structure mirrors another characteristic of BC society: its growing orientation to the Pacific Rim. In many ways, the province faces westward to the Pacific, not eastward to the rest of Canada. This has been the case since the earliest fur traders marketed their sea otter pelts in China. Much more recently, trade with Asian countries has grown by leaps and bounds. About 40 per cent of provincial exports go to Asia, compared to 10 per cent for the country as a whole.


The economy is yet another source of our uniqueness. At least historically, BC has depended on its natural resources to produce its wealth. Fishing, mining and especially the forest industry have generated the jobs and the incomes. The economy's dependence on the resource sector has declined in favour of the service sector and the new "information industries," of course, but our natural resources still account for the majority of exports to other countries.

Living in paradise imposes responsibilities which have also contributed to our uniqueness. First of all, a responsibility to protect. It is hardly a coincidence that the environmental movement took such firm root in the province with the creation of Greenpeace in 1970. Nor that David Suzuki, the dean of Canadian environmental activists, is a British Columbian.

Don't forget that the 1993 protests over logging in Clayoquot Sound resulted in the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. British Columbians take their responsibility to protect seriously.

And secondly, a responsibility to share. Political culture in BC has been marked by a strong sense of social justice. Our history is filled with experiments in communal living, from the Finnish utopian community at Sointula to the backwoods hippie communes of the Sixties and Seventies. More conventionally, the resource-based economy produced a radicalized labour movement with a commitment to equality that has provided a legacy of struggle and accomplishment.

"British Columbia is not simply a replica of other places," wrote the historian Robin Fisher, "it is unique and special." How does this uniqueness express itself? I have tried to suggest some answers. But perhaps the province's 150th birthday will provide an excuse for everyone to think more deeply about this question and to suggest new ways of defining difference, new ways of being British Columbian.