May History: A brief look at British Columbia as a colony and its path to Confederation.

In 1871, British Columbia official joined Canada and became it the sixth province to do so. British Columbia at the time was in massive debt and was entering confederation on the terms that Canada would absorb its debt and build a railway stemming from Montreal to the Pacific coast. British Columbia was formerly known as the territory of New Caledonia. It was part of the Hudson’s Bay Company as a fur-trading district and comprised of north-central portions of present-day British Columbia. While it was not an official British Colony, it was part of the British Empire’s claim to North America, with Fort St. James as its ‘capital’. The rest of British Columbia at the time was known as the Columbia Department or Oregon Country by Americans.

The colony of British Columbia out west was founded in 1858 with James Douglas who was also the governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island became the first Governor of the newly formed colony of British Columbia. Douglas who is viewed as “The Father of British Columbia” remained as the governor for both colonies until retiring in 1864. This was a result of the Fraser River Gold Rush where approximately 30,000 people rushed to the Fraser River in search of gold. The greatest worry for Britain during the rush was that of a possible influx of Americans into the territory would allow the United States to annex the land for themselves. By the end of the gold rush around 1860, the colony of British Columbia was hit with a huge recession and was massively in debt. Arrival of the newcomers had driven the real state prices to new astronomical levels, as the Hudson’s Bay Company took advantage and sold town depending on location. New businesses and branches from American firms were established with financing coming from San Francisco. However, such actions were dangerous as, wave after wave of Americans filing into the Fraser Valley posed a threat to British sovereignty. However, with the founding of a new colony, British Columbia could be said to not be a place that could thrive because there was nothing to support. The only source of income came from the mines, which in turn would eventually have their resources depleted leaving nothing but rubble and empty rock in its place. By then, the colony would only be on a downward spiral and become nothing but a ghost town. Amidst the numbers of people leaving increasing and those coming in lowering, both Vancouver Island and British Columbia were facing major economic problems.


At a certain point in the mid-1800s, British Columbia had a debate over the fate of their future. In 1867, there were three possible choices for the British colony. Those choices were to either continue being a part of the British Empire as a colony, be annexed by the United States or to confederate with the newly formed federation called the Dominion of Canada. The gold rush saw major economic problems for both Vancouver Island and British Columbia, as both colonies were nearly bankrupt. In response, Britain promoted for the unionization of the two colonies, which would allow them to reduce their administrative costs. The British sought for its colonies to be run independently without the reliance on Britain’s support. However, the problem of American annexation was one that loomed over the colony especially with the purchase of Alaska up north. While British Columbia desired to remain a British colony, there was little choice as the possibility of annexation by the United States was a high probability.

In 1868, Amor De Cosmos, a politician and newspaper publisher, led the movement for British Columbia to join Confederation.  The Confederation League was formed by Cosmos in May of 1869 with the intent to unite the colony with the Dominion of Canada and bring responsible government to BC. It was a popular move as the public sought to remain British in some form rather than being annexed entirely by its Southern neighbour. Later that year, a conference at Yale was held in September and would be dubbed the Yale Conference. It saw a meeting of delegates from across the colony to discuss the future of the little colony moving forward. In total 26 delegates passed 37 resolutions outlining the terms for possible confederation with the Dominion of Canada. Many agreed upon the requirement for Canada to take on the colony’s debt, that the province would have responsible government, and the requirement of a road of the railway being built to British Columbia to link the west with the east. Alongside these resolutions were various controlling rights over immigration, land, and First Nations affairs to name a few. Albeit the Confederation League certainly did not go unopposed. There were a group of unelected members of BC’s government that greatly opposed the Confederation League. They were in fear of the possibility of losing their jobs and pensions if British Columbia were to join confederation. Governor Frederick Seymour was opposed to the thought of Confederation citing that union would do little help to the colony. However, with the Hudson’s Bay Company and Bank of British Columbia’s intent on union, Seymour’s opposition would do little to change the outcome.

The purchase of Rupert’s Land and North-Western Territory from the Hudson’s Bay Company in July of 1870 would essentially seal the deal for British Columbia to join the Dominion of Canada. It gave control of Canada over a vast majority of land beyond the Great Lakes towards British Columbia, clearing the way for the construction of a railway. If successful, the railway would allow the country easy access from coast to coast. With Canada’s agreement on debt, the construction of a railway, British Columbia became the sixth province on Canada on July 20, 1871. The Federal government was intent on BC having responsible government. British Columbia was to have representation in Ottawa with three senators and six members of Parliament. The staggering events which would lead to the relatively quick development of new colonies was surprising, as they had seemingly risen overnight. While the colony was hastily built, it eventually stood up by itself avoiding annexation and becoming part of Canada.

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