In contrast to this mountainous core are the coastal lowlands, which form an almost encircling belt. They are most pronounced in the north and east where the Nahwitti and Nanaimo lowlands form part of a coastal trough stretching from southeastern Alaska to the Puget Depression in Washington state.
Vancouver Island has numerous freshwater lakes, the largest being Nimpkish, Cowichan, Buttle, Sproat, Great Central and Campbell. There are no dominant river systems on the Island, although numerous rivers open up to the coast through broad valleys and terminate in extensive delta and estuary complexes. These include the Nimpkish, Campbell, Somass, Salmon, Gold, Nanaimo, Nitnat and Cowichan rivers. Many of the Island's numerous other rivers and creeks are characterized by steep and narrow valleys, reflecting the rugged topography, particularly on the west coast.
The climate of Vancouver Island is damp but mild, with precipitation ranging over 3 m in the western flanks of the mountains to less than 0.8 m in the southeastern Nanaimo Lowland. Much of the precipitation is received in the winter and returns to the Pacific through a series of rapid-flowing, deeply incised, relatively short rivers such as the Nanaimo and Campbell.
Although the archaeological record is still incomplete, it is clear that native people have occupied Vancouver Island for several thousand years. A tribal village society evolved with an economy based on fishing, collecting and hunting. The abundant marine and forest resources along the coasts supported a culture rich in oral tradition and artistic expression. Two main linguistic families, Salishan and Wakashan, developed and continue to exist.
Traditionally, villages comprised stoutly constructed cedar longhouses and were usually situated in sheltered coves or a short distance upriver from the ocean. During the hunting season bands migrated through well-defined territories. In the early 19th century the native population was about 15 000. Owing to disease, it declined to about 5600 in 1881, remained around 5000 until the 1950s, but increased to more than 7000 by the 1970s. The number is now double of what it was the 19th century, or 5% of the Island's population. (See also DITIDAHT, NUU-CHAH-NULTH, PACHEENAHT, AHOUSAHT, CHICKLISET, EHATTESAHT, HESQUIAHT, MOWACHAHT, MUCHALAHT, NUTCHATLAHT, OPETCHESAHT, SHESHAHT, TLA-O-QUI-AHT, TOQUAHT, UCHUCKLESAHT, UCLUELET [TRIBE]).COOK and George VANCOUVER's circumnavigation and hydrographic survey of Vancouver Island (1792-94) provided the basis for increased British penetration. The diversity of PLACE NAMES with which the Island and its surrounding islands and waters abound are a permanent record of this exploratory period.
Settlement and Development
In 1843 the HUDSON'S BAY COMPANY sent James DOUGLAS to Vancouver Island to select a site for a fort, and a small settlement at the southern tip developed around FORT VICTORIA. The Treaty of Washington (1846; see OREGON TREATY) established the Island as British territory; it was made a British crown colony in 1849. Vancouver Island united with the mainland BC colony in 1866, and the united colony entered the Dominion of Canada as the province of British Columbia in 1871.
The European population grew slowly until the late 1850s, when the discovery of gold on the mainland (see FRASER RIVER GOLD RUSH; CARIBOO GOLD RUSH) and coal on the Island led to a significant increase. Some of those disappointed in the gold fields turned to farming and coal mining and joined a growing trickle of settlers carving out homesteads on the narrow eastern lowlands.
Besides VICTORIA, early settlement centered on the DUNCAN area of the Cowichan River valley and the COURTENAY-Comox region, both attractive and fertile valleys. Although the forest was an obstacle to the pioneer farmer, its vast size and the high quality of its trees stimulated the growth of lumber mills at points accessible to tidewater, such as PORT ALBERNI (1861) and Chemainus (1862). The Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway (1886) provided the basis for expanding the Island's lumber and mining industries. By 1900 the population had grown to around 51 000, with nearly 90% concentrated in the Victoria-NANAIMO region.
After 1900 the pace of development increased rapidly as immigration continued and the mining and lumbering industries developed. Nanaimo expanded and new coal mines were opened at CUMBERLAND, LADYSMITH and Union Bay. Population growth slowed between 1921 and 1941, as little suitable land for agricultural development remained; the exhaustion of the best coal deposits left further development to the expansion of the forest industry. The potential for tourism was also becoming apparent as transportation facilities improved and as the attraction of the Island as a retirement area grew.
The evolution of Vancouver Island's economy has been strongly tied to its rich endowment of natural resources. This endowment has helped create a solid economic base leading to the development of healthy communities and a well-developed social and economic infrastructure throughout all areas of the Island.
As with any resource-dependent economy, Vancouver Island has suffered the effects of "boom or bust" economic cycles. Since the 1980s, however, the Island has experienced change that extends beyond the cyclical swings of the international economy. Indeed, many industries such as the forest industry have made permanent structural changes in order to remain competitive in the global marketplace. At the same time, many new industries and businesses have been attracted to Vancouver Island by its outstanding "quality of life" features. Examples include high-technology firms, recreation and tourism and small manufacturing.
Communities on Vancouver Island also show a remarkable degree of variation. In the northern and western areas of the Island, they rely heavily on the forest sector as a source of income. During recent years, with low world prices for forest products, particularly pulp, and downsizing of the industry, these communities have experienced considerable hardship. This has resulted in higher levels of unemployment and social assistance and, in some cases, population declines as people have chosen to move away.
By contrast, communities on the southern and eastern portions of Vancouver Island are highly diversified and are experiencing vigorous population increases, which in turn is fuelling economic growth. The population of the Island was 495 000 in 1981 and 663 000 in 2001, an increase of 34%. Much of the growth occurred in the Capital and Nanaimo regional districts. Most of the population on the Island lives in urban areas (nearly 80%). In many instances this growth represents its own problems, such as traffic congestion, soaring property and housing prices and urban and rural sprawl. These and other problems challenge the Island's otherwise attractive quality of life and have lead to much discussion and conflict, including the debate surrounding the Vancouver Island Land Use Plan prepared by BC's Commission on Resources and Environment (1994).
Author ALAN F.J. ARTIBISE
Daniel Wright Clayton, Islands of Truth: The Imperial Fashioning of Vancouver Island (2000); C.N. Forward, ed, Vancouver Island: Land of Contrasts (1979); M.A. Ormsby, British Columbia: A History (1958).
Links to Other Sites
Pacific Rim National Park Reserve of Canada
This illustrated Parks Canada website describes the ecology, geography, and history of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve of Canada
Researching Clayoquot Sound
Check out the latest ecological studies in the beautiful Clayoquot Sound region. From the University of Victoria.
A well-illustrated online guide to natural geological processes related to plate tectonics, earthquakes, and related events. From Natural Resources Canada.
The Colonial Despatches
View digitized copies of correspondence (dated 1846 - 1859) between the British Colonial Office and the "colonies" of Vancouver Island and British Columbia. Search or browse this site for references to specific individuals, communities, companies, or industries in the province. Also includes digitized images of maps of various locations. From the website for the University of Victoria.
Fort Rodd Hill & Fisgard Lighthouse
This illustrated Parks Canada website shines a light on the history of the Fisgard lighthouse and Fort Rodd Hill in Victoria.
Gulf Islands National Park Reserve of Canada
This illustrated Parks Canada website describes the ecology, geography, and history of Gulf Islands National Park Reserve of Canada.
The Edge of the World: BC's Early Years
Watch a series of short films about the events, people, and places that shaped British Columbia's early history. Features a wealth of archival photographs. From knowledge.ca.
See maps and statistical data for regions and communities throughout British Columbia. A Government of British Columbia website.
An overview of the major issues and events leading up to British Columbia's entry into Confederation. Includes biographies of prominent personalities, old photos and related archival material. From Library and Archives Canada.
GSC Pacific - Sidney
The website for the Sidney Pacific Geoscience Centre. Offers an overview of local research inititatives. From Natural Resources Canada.
The website for NEPTUNE Canada, a massive undersea research project focusing on seabed structure and activity, the deep sea ecosystem, and ocean climate change. Check out the online multimedia depicting their undersea observatory in action and much more. From the University of Victoria.
East Vancouver Island & Gulf Islands Ecosystems
A BC Government website about conservation programs for “Sensitive Ecosystems” found in the east Vancouver Island and Gulf Islands region.
Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team
An informative website about the natural history of the Garry oak ecosystems in British Columbia. From the Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team.
The official website for BC Ferries. Ferry schedules, information about the ferry fleet, travel guides, promotional videos, and more.
Strathcona Provincial Park
This nicely illustrated website traces the dynamic geological history of British Columbia’s first provincial park. Learn about rocks in the park, fossils, plate tectonics, volcanoes, glaciers, and more. From the BC Geological Survey.
Graveyard of the Pacific - The Shipwrecks of Vancouver Island
This Virtual Museum website features stories about shipwrecks along the coast of Vancouver Island.
Archaeological Society of British Columbia
The Archaeological Society of British Columbia focuses on identifying and protecting archaeological sites and material in B.C. Also offers lectures and publications for the spread of knowledge about archaeology. Check out the links to the websites for the Nanaimo and Victoria branches.
A Journey to a New Land
A multimedia website about the arrival of early humans in the Americas. Features activities that help students learn about archaeological research techiques and discoveries. From the SFU Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and the Virtual Museum of Canada.
British Columbia Historical Federation
The website for the British Columbia Historical Federation, an umbrella organization for provincial historical societies. View full issues of "British Columbia History" and "British Columbia Historical News." Note: some large PDF files.
Historic Photos of Canada
The "Historic Photos of Canada" website offers hundreds of high resolution images of Canada’s first 50 years of nationhood, as seen through the lenses of the world’s earliest cameras.
Race Rocks Ecological Reserve
An extensive website devoted to the Race Rocks Ecological Reserve. Offers detailed information about local First Nations history and present day environmental conservation programs.Produced by Pearson College and partner organizations.
An information page about the status of the Race Rocks area located on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. From Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Race Rocks Ecological Reserve
A visitors guide to the Race Rocks Ecological Reserve. A Government of British Columbia website.
Tofino Botanical Gardens Foundation
The website for Tofino Botanical Gardens, featuring gardens, forest, and shoreline that explore the relationship between culture and nature in Tofino, BC.
A CBC News story about the adoption of the name Salish Sea for the inland waters that stretch from Olympia north to Canada's Desolation Sound.
A Birder’s Site Guide for the Somass Estuary, Vancouver Island
A tour guide to Somass Estuary, a major winter feeding sites for waterfowl migrating and wintering along the west coast of Vancouver Island. From the website "Vancouver Island Nature Tours."
Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks
View a map and photos of the Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks, regions which integrate human activities with environmental stewardship programs.
Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre
The nicely illustrated website for Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, a teaching and research facility on Vancouver Island's west coast. Offers details about educational programs for schools and the general public.