Let’s rename Canada’s Pacific province!

Here’s the lowdown on why we Cordillerans take exception to our province’s current name and think we’ve got a better one.

“British Columbia”: A double misnomer

First, we’re not British, although a lot of us do have some British ancestry. Second, we’re not Columbian, although some of us do live on or near the Columbia River. Our beautiful province bears the ill-sounding and unbefitting name it does merely on account of a couple of quirky and ephemeral accidents of history, which if you bear with us we shall recount in some slight detail.

Why is our province called Columbia?

Columbia is a literary name for the lands of the Western Hemisphere–that is, North, Central, and South America and the adjacent islands–based on the fanciful idea that these lands were discovered by Christopher Columbus during his famous voyages of 1492-1504. Today, of course, the Eurocentric presumption that underwrites such notions is painfully clear, and in any case it is well established that the Norseman Leif Ericson beat Columbus to the punch by about 500 years. More significantly, the first migrant bands of Asian hunter-gatherers did so at least 12,000 years earlier still.

Columbus himself did not believe he had discovered anything other than a new route to East Asia, then known as the Indies, for which he mistook the Caribbean and South American lands on which he touched shore. Thus, not only did he never lay eyes on North America, where the province that bears his name happens to be situated, but he willfully denied that any such place could exist, remaining adamant to his dying day that no major landmass interrupted the ocean stretching from Portugal to Japan.

Our story now fast-forwards to 1821, the year of the first corporate mega-merger in North America, when the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) absorbed the North West Company and thereby gained a monopoly of the fur trade in the lands falling under its jurisdiction by contract with the Crown. The Columbia District (or Columbia Department) was the name the company then bestowed on a vast stretch of territory running from Fort St. James, near the geographic center of today’s province, to the northern border of California. It was so dubbed after the Columbia River, the major fur-trading route in the district, along which the principal HBC trading post, Fort Vancouver, was located (at the site of what is today Vancouver, Washington). The United States, which disputed the British claim, preferred to call it the Oregon Country.

In 1846, the Treaty of Washington established the 49th parallel as the southern limit of British North America and thus “effectively destroyed the geographical logic of the HBC’s Columbia Department, since the lower Columbia River,” henceforth belonging to the United States, “was the core and lifeline of the system” (

Why is our province called British?

It is, after all, four times the size of the British Isles and located on the other side of the world. Britain claimed colonial title to its territory for a grand total of thirteen years, from August 2nd, 1858, to July 20th, 1871, or approximately 0.1 percent of the time that the land has been subject to human habitation. As we shall see momentarily, the colony was more notional than real, and the presumptuousness of the British claim is difficult to exaggerate, considering that there were no more than a few hundred Brits living in it at the time of its foundation. They were vastly outnumbered by the thousands of Californians drawn north in the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush of 1858, who in turn were outnumbered by the tens of thousands of Aboriginal inhabitants of the land, though the British made no effort to include the First Nations in their censuses.

Indeed, they had no means of doing so, since for practical purposes the writ of the British administration ran no further than southern Vancouver Island, bits of the Lower Mainland along the Fraser and Thompson rivers, and the odd fur-trading post in the interior. The rest of the land making up today’s province, perhaps 95 percent of it, continued to be inhabited and effectively governed by its indigenous peoples.

It is true that the Aboriginal population declined precipitously during the brief colonial interlude, largely on account of the terrible smallpox epidemic of 1862-63, while the non-Aboriginal population swelled with immigration from the United States, Canada, Britain, China, and elsewhere. Nonetheless, as of 1870, the year before British Columbia joined Confederation as a province and its colonial status was thereby dissolved, Aboriginals still outnumbered non-Aboriginals by well over two to one (
Barman, 2008, p. 120), most of them living beyond the purview of British authority. Thus, it’s a safe bet that the great majority of inhabitants of the supposed Colony of British Columbia never learned of its existence and would have been bemused or indignant if they had.

It’s all Queen Vicky’s fault

It was Queen Victoria who came up with the name British Columbia. When the alarming influx of Americans during the gold rush of 1858 persuaded the Brits that it was time to lay formal claim to the mainland (Vancouver Island had been designated a colony nine years earlier), her majesty learned that the name Columbia, after the HBC’s Columbia Department, had been proposed for the new colony by its British administrators, themselves largely veterans of the fur-trading company.

A better-informed monarch might have dismissed the suggestion as quaint, nostalgic, and ill-conceived, since, as we have seen, the economically important reaches of the river whose name the department bore had already fallen out of British hands, while the explorer whose name the river bore had been geographically challenged and more than a little pig-headed. Unhappily, no such considerations weighed upon the royal mind. What did trouble Victoria somewhat, however, was her recollection that a moniker very like Columbia had already been applied to a country somewhere in South America, and so she decided to tack on the adjective “British” to forestall any confusion. Needless to say, the queen never visited the place, nor indeed ever ventured much farther from her palaces than her favorite holiday destination, the European Riviera.

“British Columbia”: A thorn in the side of arts and letters

These, however, are mere historical quibbles. The real problem with Brit•ish Co•lum•bi•a is that it’s such a godawful mouthful, it puts our poets and songwriters at a serious disadvantage. Imagine the pickle poor Gordon Lightfoot would have got himself into if, instead of being “Alberta Bound,” he had set his sights just a tad further west. Put one foot across the continental divide, and all of a sudden he’s got three extra syllables to cram into his song every time he mentions the name of his target province. He mentions it six times, too, in each of the two choruses and five more times in the verses, so you do the math. Not only that, but the vowel sounds that get accented every time a person tries to sing Brit•ish Co•lum•bi•a are particularly short and ugly ones: ih and uh. Take our word for it, the result would be a song not worth singing, not even by Lightfoot, not even in the shower.

“Cordillera”: As fitting a name as a geographer could bestow

For all these reasons and others too obscure to mention, we hope you will agree that it’s time for a change. However, the thought did occur to us that it’s easy to tear down and a lot more difficult to build up, so we racked our brains for going on five minutes and came up with the perfect name for our beloved province. That name, of course, is Cordillera (pronounced core•dill•AIR•uh—please note that of the three accepted English pronunciations this is the only one to enjoy the official endorsement of the CNBNC, core•dill•YAIR•uh being overly faithful to the Spanish original, while core•DILL•er•uh is not nearly faithful enough, not to say unmelodious and just plain silly).

Those of you who are familiar with our landscapes and remember your physical geography will already grasp what a bang-on name that is, semantically speaking. According to the
New Oxford American Dictionary, a cordillera is “a system or group of parallel mountain ranges together with the intervening plateaus and other features.” Wondering what the “other features” might be? The American Heritage Science Dictionary notes that they “include valleys, basins, rivers, lakes, and plains.”

Put these ideas together, and we defy you to come up with a name that sums up our magnificent province even half as well. Indeed, with the exception of the flattish Peace River country in the northeast (which we’re hoping we can persuade Alberta to swap us the eastern slope of the Rockies for), all of it falls within what Canadian geographers call our country’s “
Pacific cordillera.”

“Cordillera”: As lovely a name as a poet could desire

Once again, though, the real clincher, the quality that makes Cordillera such an obvious, such an inevitable choice, is that it just sounds so sweet! Four syllables, with the minor and major accents falling on the first and third syllables, respectively, and as luck would have it on two of the widest, openest vowel sounds the English language has to offer. If you’re a poet or a songwriter, a singer or an orator, it doesn’t get any better than that. You don’t have to take our word for it, either. Just have a listen to the theme song of the Cordillera Campaign. Like what you hear? Then, sign the petition!

Tags: Cordillera Campaign, Cordillerans for a Non-British Non-Columbia, CNBNC, Cordillera, British Columbia, Canada, Aboriginals, First Nations, colonization, colonialism, immigration, history, geography, place names