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Vancouver Island

Golfers Watching Whales in Victoria

Golfers Watching Whales in Victoria

Vancouver Island is situated in the Pacific Ocean on Canada’s Southern West Coast. It is separated from mainland British Columbia by the Strait of Georgia and Queen Charlotte Strait, and from Washington State by the Juan De Fuca Strait. The island was initially named Quadra’s and Vancouver’s Island in commemoration of negotiations conducted on Nootka Sound by Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra and Captain George Vancouver in 1792, to find a solution to the Nootka Crisis. The island is one of several North American locations named after Captain George Vancouver.

The island is 460 kilometres (290 miles) in length and 80 kilometres (50 miles) in width at its widest point. The Beaufort Mountain Range, which is home to one of Canada’s largest ski bases, bisects the island north to south. Vancouver Island is Canada’s eleventh largest island and is the second most populous after the Island of Montreal. It has a population of more than 759,000 with nearly half living in Victoria.

Vancouver Island’s largest city is Victoria with a population of more than 344,000. Victoria is the capital city of British Columbia. Other notable cities and towns include Campbell River, Courtenay, Duncan, Nanaimo, Parksville, and Port Alberni. The beauty and serenity of this region draws a multitude of artists and artisans. Art galleries and shops selling locally produced arts and crafts are found throughout Vancouver Island.

The island’s economy is largely dominated by the tourist and forestry industries. Many logging operations are in second growth tree farms that are harvested every 30 years. Logging operations involving old-growth forests such as those found on Clayoquot Sound are controversial.

Biking, canoe touring, hiking, scuba diving, sea kayaking and sport fishing are popular activities in the region. Bikes, boats, canoes and sea kayaks can be rented throughout the island.

British Settlement

The Oregon Treaty was signed in 1846 by the United Kingdom and the United States to settle Oregon Territory borders. The Treaty awarded all of Vancouver Island to the United Kingdom, including the portion of the island that dips below the 49th parallel. In 1849, the Colony of Vancouver Island was established.

Richard Blanshard, an English barrister, was the first governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island from its foundation in 1849 to his resignation in 1851. James Douglas, Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay post, assumed the role of governor in 1851.

Fort Camosack, a Hudson’s Bay Company post, was the first British settlement on the island in 1843. It was later renamed Fort Victoria. Fort Victoria was an important base during the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush in 1858 and was incorporated as Victoria in 1862 when it became the capital of the colony of Vancouver Island. Victoria retained its status as the capital when the island was amalgamated with the mainland in 1866. The United Kingdom established a British naval base, large shipyard and naval hospital at Esquimalt in 1865, which was eventually taken over by the Canadian military.

Following the Cariboo Gold Rush of 1861-1862, the economic situation of the colony declined and pressure grew for amalgamation of the colony with the mainland colony of British Columbia, which had been established in 1858. The colony’s third and last governor, Sir Arthur Kennedy oversaw the union of the two colonies in 1866. The flag of Vancouver Island was authorized in 1865.


Vancouver Island’s climate is the mildest in Canada, with winter temperatures above 0°C (32°F) on most days. In summer, the warmest days are usually 28 to 33°C (82.4 to 91.4°F). Precipitation is heaviest in the autumn and winter. Snow is rare at low altitudes and is common on the island’s mountaintops in winter. Henderson Lake on the West Coast is the wettest place in North America, receiving up to 6,650 millimetres (261.8 inches) of rain per year.


The Vancouver Island Region has one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems. Its beaches, lakes, marshes, meadows, mountains, oceans, rainforests and rivers create diverse habitats for countless wildlife species. Much of the island is protected parkland and has many areas with old-growth cedar and fir forests, and rare groves of Garry oak. It also has some of the tallest Douglas fir recorded.

The region is world renown for its birding, whale watching, and salmon, steelhead and trout fishing. The island supports most of Canada’s Roosevelt Elk, and has two species, the Vancouver Island Marmot and Vancouver Island Wolf, that are unique to the island. The island also has black bears and the most concentrated population of cougars in North America.

After near-total extirpation by fur traders in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, sea otters off the coast of Vancouver Island were protected by international treaty in 1911. Despite protection, the remnant population of sea otters died out when the last sea otter was taken near Kyuquot in 1929. From 1969 to 1972, 89 sea otters were shipped from Alaska to the West Coast of Vancouver Island. In recent years, the sea otter population has grown to more than 3,000, and their range has expanded from Cape Scott in the north to Barkley Sound to the south.

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Indigenous Peoples

For thousands of years, Vancouver Island has been the homeland of many main indigenous peoples, including the Kwakwaka’wakw, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Coast Salish.


Today, approximately 5,500 Kwakwaka’wakw live on northern Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia. Their indigenous language, part of the Wakashan family, is Kwak’wala. The name Kwakwaka’wakw means “speakers of Kwak’wala.” The language is now spoken by less than five per cent of their population. Seventeen separate tribes now make up the Kwakwaka’wakw. Many Kwakwaka’wakw groups are now extinct.

Kwak’wala is a northern Wakashan language, a grouping shared with Haisla, Heiltsuk and Oowekyala. Kwakwaka’wakw centres of population on Vancouver Island include communities such as Alert Bay, Fort Rupert and Quatsino. In 1885, the federal government of Canada banned the Kwakwaka’wakw tradition of the potlatch. The tradition of the potlatch was revived in recent decades.


The Nuu-chah-nulth traditional home is on the west coast of Vancouver Island. They were among the first Pacific peoples to come into contact with Europeans when the Americans, British and Spanish attempted to control the Pacific Northwest and the trade in otter pelts. Nootka Sound was a focus of the European’s rivalries, which resulted in the Nootka Crisis.

The Nuu-chah-nulth speak a southern Wakashan language, and are related to the Makah of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. In pre-contact and early post-contact times, the number of nations was greater, but smallpox and other consequences of contact resulted in the disappearance of some groups, and the absorption of others into neighbouring groups.

Coast Salish

The Coast Salish, the largest of the southern groups, are a loose grouping of many tribes with numerous distinct cultures and languages. On Vancouver Island, Coast Salish peoples territory extends from the northern limit of the Gulf of Georgia on the inside of Vancouver Island to most of southern Vancouver Island. Distinct nations within the Coast Salish peoples include the Chemainus, the Comox, the Cowichan, the Esquimalt, the Saanich, the Songhees, and the Snuneymuxw.

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