British Columbia’s economy has always relied on resource-based activities. The first indigenous people hunted the region’s abundant wildlife and fished in its trout- and salmon-filled rivers. Then Europeans arrived on the scene, reaping a bounty by cutting down forests for timber and slaughtering the wildlife for its fur. Luckily, the province is blessed with a wealth of natural resources. In addition to timber and wildlife, British Columbia holds rich reserves of minerals, petroleum, natural gas, and coal, and water for hydroelectric power is plentiful.
Almost two-thirds of British Columbia—some 60 million hectares (148 million acres)—is forested, primarily in coniferous softwood (fir, hemlock, spruce, and pine). These forests provide about half the country’s marketable wood and about 25 percent of the North American inventory. On Vancouver Island, the hemlock species is dominant. Douglas fir, balsam, and western red cedar are other valuable commercial trees in the region. The provincial government owns 94 percent of the forestland, private companies own 5 percent, and the national government owns the remaining 1 percent. Private companies log much of the provincially owned forest under license from the government. Around 75 million cubic meters of lumber are harvested annually, directly employing 85,000 workers. The forestry industry generates $10 billion annually in exports, more than all other industries combined.
Tourism has rapidly ascended in economic importance; it’s now the second-largest industry and the province’s largest employer (more than 200,000 are directly employed in the industry). Vancouver and Victoria are the province’s two major destinations, with Whistler one of North America’s most visited ski resorts.
The tourism segment continues to grow, as more and more people become aware of outstanding scenery; numerous national, provincial, historic, and regional parks; and the bountiful outdoor recreation activities available year-round. Tourism BC promotes British Columbia to the world; latest figures record 26 million annual “visitor nights” (the number of visitors multiplied by the number of nights they stayed within British Columbia). Official visitor numbers are broken down to show that four million visitors were Canadians from outside British Columbia, four million were from the United States, while one million visitors originated from outside North America (Japan, Great Britain, and Germany provided most of these).
British Columbia is a mineral-rich province, and historically mining has been an important part of the economy. Since the first Cariboo gold rush in the late 1850s, the face of the industry has changed dramatically. Until the mid-1900s, most mining was underground, but today open-pit mining is the preferred method of mineral extraction. The province is home to 26 major mines and three mineral processing plants that produce $3.6 billion worth of exports. Coal is the most valuable sector of the mining industry, accounting for $800 million of exports (most to Japan and other Asian markets). Other mining is for metals (such as copper, gold, zinc, silver, molybdenum, and lead), industrial minerals (sulfur, asbestos, limestone, gypsum, and others), and structural materials (sand, gravel, dimension stone, and cement). In northeastern British Columbia, drilling for petroleum and natural gas also helps fuel the economy.
Cultivated land is sparse in mountainous British Columbia—only 4 percent of the province is arable, with just 25 percent of this land regarded as prime for agriculture. Nevertheless, agriculture is an important part of the provincial economy; 19,000 farms growing 200 different crops contribute $1.4 billion annually. The most valuable sector of the industry is dairy farming, which is worth $260 million (that works out to an output of 510 million liters/134.5 million gallons of milk a year). The best land for dairy cattle is found in the lower Fraser Valley and on southern Vancouver Island. Poultry farms, vegetables, bulbs, and ornamental shrubs are also found mostly in the Fraser River Valley and the southern end of Vancouver Island.
Commercial fishing, one of British Columbia’s principal industries, is worth $1 billion annually and comes almost entirely from species that inhabit tidal waters around Vancouver Island. The province has 6,000 registered fishing boats and 600 fish farms. The industry concentrates on salmon (60 percent of total fishing revenues come from six species of salmon), with boats harvesting the five species indigenous to the Pacific Ocean and the aquaculture industry revolving around Atlantic salmon, which is more suited to farming. Other species harvested include herring, halibut, cod, sole, and shellfish, such as crabs. Canned and fresh fish are exported to markets all over the world—the province is considered the most productive fishing region in Canada. Japan is the largest export market, followed by Europe and the United States.
The film industry is the fastest-growing sector of the provincial economic pie; its value has quadrupled since 1997 to be worth $1.4 billion annually and to directly employ 35,000 locals. The province is ideal both as a location for shooting and as a production center (Vancouver ranks third behind only Los Angeles and New York as a production center, with 70 post-production facilities). Since the late 1970s, more and more Hollywood production companies have discovered the beauty of Vancouver, its studio facilities, on-site production crews, and support services, as well as more recently a favorable exchange rate. The industry is overseen by the BC Film Commission (604/660-2732, www.bcfilmcommission.com).
Shipping and Maritime Commerce
The province boasts year-round ports, deep-sea international shipping lanes, log-towing vessels, specialized freight and passenger steamers, and all the requisite marine facilities. The United States and Japan are British Columbia’s main export and import trading partners.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition