The discovery of gold along the Fraser River in 1858 led to western Canada’s first population explosion. At the time only Vancouver Island was part of the British Empire. Realizing that enormous wealth could be buried on the mainland, and with U.S. miners arriving in Victoria by the shipload, the British government quickly responded by creating a mainland colony. At first it was named New Caledonia, but because there was a French territory of the same name, Queen Victoria was asked to change the name, which she did, using “Columbia,” which appeared on local maps, and adding “British,” just to make sure the United States knew who owned the territory.
The Dominion of Canada
By 1867, some of the eastern provinces were tiring of British rule, and a movement was abuzz to push for Canadian independence. The British government, wary of losing Canada as it had lost the United States, passed legislation establishing the Dominion of Canada, which British Columbia was invited to join in 1871. It joined, with one important condition: that it be connected to the rest of the country by railway.
At that time, the North-West Territories—comprising all of western Canada except British Columbia—was a foreign land to those in eastern Canada: Life was primitive and lawless, and no post had more than a couple dozen residents. But in an effort to solidify the dominion, the government bought the North-West Territories back from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1869.
This region had been divided into districts. One of these, the Yukon, was separated in 1898, the same year the greatest gold rush the world had ever seen was playing out near Dawson City. Thus it was only sensible to declare that boomtown the capital of the Yukon (it was changed to Whitehorse in 1953). Two other districts, Alberta and Saskatchewan, were admitted as provinces of the Canadian Confederation in 1905.
The Coming of the Railway
Scorned in the east as being unnecessary and uneconomical, the rail line reached Winnipeg in 1879, and Calgary then Banff in 1883, before the final spike was driven on November 7, 1885. The completion of a transcontinental railway did more than fulfill a government promise, it changed the face of the west. A northern route through Edmonton to Prince Rupert was completed by the Grand Trunk Railway in 1914, roads were built, industries—including logging, mining, farming, fishing, and tourism—started to develop, and settlers began pouring in to surveyed land offered at $10 per quarter section (160 acres). Vancouver, at the terminus of the railway, also got a huge boost, as overnight it became a transportation hub for the entire Pacific Rim.
Alberta’s Black Gold
Fifty years after the Klondike gold rush, Alberta had a gold rush of its own, except it wasn’t shiny nuggets that created the excitement, it was black gold—oil. When Leduc Oil Well No. 1, south of Edmonton, began belching black rings of smoke in February 1947, Alberta had hit the jackpot and a new economy for all of Canada had begun. Capitalists poured billions of dollars into Alberta as every valley, hill, and flat was surveyed, and soon farmers’ fields throughout the province were littered with beam pumps bobbing up and down. By 1954, eight major fields had been proven to contain eight billion barrels of recoverable crude oil. Calgary became the financial and administrative headquarters of the industry, while Edmonton—at the center of many of the fields—became the technological, service, and supply center. In less than a decade, the province’s population doubled to more than one million.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition