For thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans to western Canada, several distinct indigenous peoples had lived off the land’s abundant natural resources. With the coming of Europeans, however, the native groups were overrun and reduced in numbers.
As natives signed treaties, giving up traditional lands and settling on reserves (known as “reservations” in the United States), their lifestyles changed forever. They were no longer free to settle where they chose, they no longer hunted or fought, and their medicine men could do nothing to stop the spread of diseases brought by Europeans. The first Indian Act, drafted in 1876, attempted to prepare natives for “European” society, but it only ended up isolating them further.
Natives who are registered as members of a band are known as “status” Indians; that is, they have the right to use designated reserve lands and have access to federal funding. Originally, the Indian Act sought to assimilate natives by removing their “status” when they were considered ready to assimilate, such as when they earned a university degree, or in the case of native women, when they married a nonnative man. The Indian Act has been rewritten many times, including as recently as 1985, when many antiquated sections were repealed. The most important recent change was that natives didn’t have to surrender their status to become a Canadian citizen and, therefore, vote and own property. As a direct result of these changes, many natives who had lost their status, or in fact never had it, have been reclaiming it over the last 30 years. Therefore, the population of status Indians has grown considerably in recent years. Today, 130,000 status Indians live in British Columbia and 85,000 in Alberta.
In the Northwest Territories, roughly half the population is of native descent. The Dene and Métis peoples are along the Mackenzie River Basin and the Inuit live above the treeline and along the Arctic coast.
When British Columbia joined the confederation to become a Canadian province in 1871, its population was only 36,000, and 27,000 of the residents were natives. A decade later, a Dominion census in 1881 recorded only 18,072 nonnatives in what would later become the province of Alberta. Calgary’s nonnative population was recorded at just 75. With the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885, Europeans came in droves—drawn first by game and arable land, then by mining, and later by the oil-and-gas boom of Alberta. People of many diverse cultures moved west, forming a melting pot of traditions. As early as 1921, 30 different languages were noted in Alberta alone, in addition to the many distinct languages of the natives.
Today 4.2 million people live in British Columbia and 3.2 million in Alberta. The two territories barely register a blip on the population meter, with 38,000 residents in the Northwest Territories and 31,000 in the Yukon. British Columbia holds 12 percent of Canada’s total population, while Alberta has a little over 10 percent. Alberta is Canada’s fastest growing province, with an annual population growth of 3 percent, double the national average. British Columbia is Canada’s second fastest growing province. Around 60 percent of total population growth is attributed to westward migration across the country. Retirees make up a large percentage of these new arrivals, as do young professionals, to a lesser extent.
In British Columbia, the population is concentrated in the southwest, namely in Vancouver, on the south end of Vancouver Island, and in the Okanagan Valley. These three areas make up less than 1 percent of the province, but contain 80 percent of the population. Alberta’s population is also concentrated in the cities; Calgary and Edmonton hold well over half the province’s total population.
Around 40 percent of western Canadians are of British origin, followed by 30 percent of other European lineage, mostly French and German. To really get the British feeling, just spend some time in Victoria—a city that has retained its original English customs and traditions from days gone by. While the native peoples of western Canada have in many ways adopted the technology and the lifestyle of Europeans and their descendents, they still remain a distinct group, contributing to, and enriching the culture of, the province. Asians have made up a significant percentage of the population since the mid-1800s, when they arrived to work on the railway and then in search of gold.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition