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Who is reputedly the first European to set foot in British Columbia, Canada?

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During the last glacial period which ended about 20,000 years ago, ice covered all land areas and extended into the oceans onto the middle and outer continental shelf. "As of 2008, genetic findings suggest that a single population of modern humans migrated from southern Siberia toward the land mass known as the Bering Land Bridge as early as 30,000 years ago, and crossed over to the Americas by 16,500 years ago. Archaeological evidence shows that by 15,000 years ago, humans had made it south of the Canadian ice sheets." Multiple migrations took place across this land bridge and the Americas from other feasible routes, including possibly by boat across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Over the years, Indigenous peoples have dispersed across both North and South America. When European explorers and settlers first arrived in British Columbia, Canada, during the mid-18th century, the province was home to about 80,000 Indigenous peoples. The Pacific coast was dominated by Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka), Kwakiutl, Bella Coola, Tsimshian, and Haida peoples. According to the 2016 census by Statistics Canada, over 1.6 million people in Canada identified as Indigenous – which include First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples – making up 4.9 per cent of Canada's population. Today, there are 200,000 Indigenous people in British Columbia with 198 distinct First Nations and more than 30 different First Nation languages spoken in the province.

It was in March 1778 that Captain James Cook, Royal Navy (7 November 1728 – 14 February 1779), became the first known European to set foot on what is now the province of British Columbia. Cook was considered at that time to be Britain's foremost explorer, navigator and cartographer. After two historic voyages to the South Pacific, Cook was cruising the waters of the Pacific Northwest on his third and final voyage. With his two ships, Resolution and Discovery, he was searching for the Western exit to the legendary Northwest Passage. He sailed east across the Pacific and anchored at Vancouver Island’s Nootka Sound on 29 March 1778 where he remained on site for a month, repairing their ships and trading with First Nations people. With him on the voyage were Mr. William Bligh as Master of the Resolution and Midshipman George Vancouver. While it is known that Spanish sailors had travelled these waters in 1774-1775, it was Cook that delineated the true shape of the northwest coastline. Although his search for a route through the Arctic failed, his three voyages to the Pacific Ocean proved to be extraordinary: he achieved the first recorded European contact with the eastern coastline of Australia and the Hawaiian Islands, and the first recorded circumnavigation of New Zealand. Cook had previously served two decades earlier in North America during the Conquest of Canada (1758-63) when he took part in the amphibious assault that captured the Fortress of Louisbourg in 1758 and was responsible for mapping the entrance of the Saint Lawrence River in preparation for the siege of Québec and the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759. Cook also produced the first large-scale and accurate maps of Newfoundland coasts in the 1760s.

Shown in the photograph is a bronze and granite sculpture of Captain Cook commissioned by the Victoria Environmental Enhancement Foundation and was unveiled in Victoria, on 12 July 1976 by the Honourable William Bennett, premier of the province of British Columbia. On Canada Day, 1 July 2021, Captain Cook's statue was torn down and thrown into the water in Victoria’s Inner Harbour by First Nations activists, 'Nuu Chah Nulth youth and friends.' Divers retrieved the broken statue the following day. This was a reaction to the intense grief felt by the Indigenous community of the ongoing discovery of unmarked graves of Indigenous children found at sites of former residential schools in British Columbia. There had been other vandalism in Canada in June and July of 2021, targeting rural Christian churches and statues in cities and area where former residential schools existed. Hundreds of statues of people seen as symbols of colonialism and oppression of Black, Indigenous and other people of colour have been toppled, defaced or removed across Canada and the United States since 2020.

On this day, 29 March 2022, we mark the 244th anniversary since Captain Cook first set foot in British Columbia and honour and recognize the important contribution and legacy of the Indigenous people established on the Pacific coast of Canada over thousands of years.

André M. Levesque

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