British Columbia is Canada's westernmost province and is one of North America's most mountainous regions, with 60% of the province lying above 3,000 ft (1000 m) above sea level. BC is distinctive for its variety of landscape, from desert to rainforest, from high mountain plateau to saltwater marshes. British Columbia's 947,800 square kilometres are bordered by the Pacific Ocean, the province of Alberta, the Yukon Territory and several U.S. states, including Alaska. British Columbia is known as Canada's gateway to the Pacific and Asia. Often categorized as part of Canada's "West", the province is actually a distinct geographical and cultural region.
See provincial map.
The Aboriginal peoples here lived well off the local natural resources, and developed one of the richest cultures north of Mexico. The coastal inhabitants created large and permanent wood sculptures and were famous for their skill in whaling. In 1774 the Spaniards visited what is now British Columbia, accounting for many Spanish-sounding names in the area. The British established the first permanent colony in 1843. Gold was discovered in the lower Fraser Valley in 1857 and thousands of people came to seek instant wealth. British Columbia joined the Confederation of Canada in 1871 after a rail link was promised between the Pacific coast and the rest of the country.
The economy is based on the province's great natural resources, principally the coniferous forests that cover 56 percent of its total area. These are converted into lumber, newsprint, pulp and paper products, shingles and shakes, and make about half the total softwood production of Canada.
Tourism is the next most important industry, with about 15 million people visiting British Columbia each year. The Rocky Mountains remain the biggest attraction, and have over 5 million hectares of designated parkland. Coastal B.C. is also popular, with its beaches, hiking trails, wildlife reserves, and whale-watching. A growth area is the Queen Charlotte Islands, an offshore chain of islands, with large tracts recently been set aside as parkland. The area contains untouched wilderness, unique plant species, and an abandoned Haida village now designated a UNESCO world heritage site.
Mining is the province's third most important economic sector. Key outputs include metals (Copper, gold and zinc), minerals (sulphur, asbestos) and fuels (coal, petroleum and natural gas).
Agriculture and fishing are also important sectors. Salmon fishing is big on the coastal and inland waterways. British Columbia's dairy cattle are among Canada's most productive. The hot, dry Okanagan Valley is famous for tree fruits and grapes and its wine industry. The cool, wet lower Fraser Valley grows rich crops of berries and vegetables.
B.C.'s manufacturing sector is still largely resource-based, but is diversifying into high-tech and computer-based industries, including telecommunications, aerospace and sub-sea. British Columbia exports to the United States, Japan, the European Union and the Pacific Rim countries in rough equal proportion.