Arts, Culture & History
British Columbia is lucky to be called home by people with all types of beliefs, backgrounds and creative bends. And no matter how interesting the landscape, BC's character comes from its people. The ideals British Columbians believe in, the objects they create, and the traditions they carry on all add up to an unlikely and intriguing whole, to a province that's sparkling with culture.
Come to BC for any kind of experience and you'll find it, because the paradoxical province is both youthful and ancient, modern and traditional, lively and calm. The arts burst forth from every nook and cranny, and range from timeless disciplines to eccentric displays.
A constant blending of cultures and openness to experiences underlines everything people do in British Columbia. It makes for deeply unique communities, wildly original art, and unpredictable nights on the town.
Browse what to see and do:
British Columbia will find a way to deeply delight anyone who appreciates the arts. From the institutions that nurture home-grown talent, to the myriad venues and public art galleries that showcase the arts, BC has got a creative landscape to rival its natural one.
If you're inspired by the visual arts, Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) is a must-see. The VAG boasts a permanent collection of over 10,000 pieces, including the largest collection of work by local historical celebrity, Emily Carr. Inspiring Vancouverites since 1931, the art gallery is an excellent venue for taking in exhibits from Picasso to Warhol, or for sitting in on artist talks and family programs. As well, Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art houses a display of contemporary aboriginal artwork that will make your jaw drop. Exquisite carvings, paintings, jewelery and then some infuse tradition and history with modern sensibilities. Look for work by the late Bill Reid in the Vancouver Airport and on the Canadian twenty-dollar bill, where his jade sculpture, "The Spirit of Haida Gwaii," is prominently displayed.
Not far from downtown Vancouver is Granville Island, where Emily Carr's namesake school of art and design sits in a funky marketplace setting. The cozy surrounding area is dense with small commercial art galleries and artist studios for the curious, creative traveller. Farther away, dozens of talented artists and artisans hide throughout the gulf islands, producing and selling exquisite pottery and blown-glass sculptures, among other work, directly from their home studios.
Perhaps it's the performing arts that pleases you. Whether you love the swell of a symphony in a heritage cathedral or the rolling rhythm of African drums on the street corner, BC is full of master musicians. If you love a profound theatrical production or a ridiculous evening of improv, we have venues and performers who specialize in bringing you exactly those things and everything in between. If you're visiting Victoria, consider a short drive to Chemainus, where the town theatre is known across the Island. Or, plan a trip to Vancouver or Victoria during late summer and catch the Fringe Festival, which covers eccentric performing arts at their best and edgiest. No matter what time of year you're in BC, our arts scene will be bursting at the seams.
Look into what the galleries, theatres, museums and concert halls are showcasing, or just stroll the streets and admire our murals, support our buskers, and keep your ears open for music that pours out of windows onto the sidewalks.
Festivals & Events
People in British Columbia love festivals, and the province hosts a calendar's worth of celebrations that are worth getting caught up in.
Free events abound in BC, and you won't want to miss them. If you're in Vancouver over the summer, keep your eyes and ears open for news about the Celebration of Light, an international fireworks competition which brings the entire city to a festive halt. Look for free outdoor performances in major harbours and city centers, and take note of big crowds, because they could be a sign of something fun around the bend. Outdoor film showings, dance lessons in city squares, and world-class sandcastle competitions are just a few of BC's summer freebies.
Not all events are free, of course, but don't be afraid to treat yourself, because the experiences some offer can be worth more than the ticket price. Tour buses roll into various corners of BC for lively outdoor concerts and music festivals set against idyllic backdrops. From folk to electronic music, these are generally weekend affairs which involve camping, dancing, and laying in the grass.
If this isn't your style, a few more ideas are: take in a live performance during the local Fringe Theatre Festival, watch a local submission during one of our many film festivals, or listen to music over dinner during Jazz Fest.
If you're a wine lover, look for entire festivals devoted to wine. If you're a beer drinker, there are festivals for that, too. Hobbyists, professionals, and curious folk of all kinds can find an event to suit their fancy. Whether you love pumpkins, poetry, or classic cars, pick up a newspaper and take a peek, because the list is vast, and in BC no season is exempt.
View upcoming events and festivals in British Columbia.
The word culture can hardly be mentioned in BC without the word "multicultural" close behind. The people of this province come from everywhere and they bring with them the concepts and conventions of the entire world. So much diversity deepens our communities and adds to our experiences. Not to mention the locals are spoiled in the culinary department because ethnic and fusion cuisine abounds.
As well as our many First Nations cultures, BC's population is largely a combination of British, Asian, and European descendants and immigrants. After English, Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin) is the second most spoken language in BC followed next by Punjabi, German and French, adding to the 30 plus languages spoken by the region's aboriginal people. But don't be mistaken. This list of simultaneously spoken languages does not lead to confusion in the streets, just to richness and mystery that wouldn't be there otherwise.
The religion and spirituality represented in British Columbia is nearly as staggering as the amount of languages spoken. Different houses of worship and meditation appear throughout our cities, representing the architecture and design, and of course the beliefs, of different cultures from around the world. Buddhist, Sikh, and Hindu temples are among the many that decorate our skyline and enrich our communities. Unique ceremonies and celebrations take place throughout the year.
A few cultural highlights include the oldest Chinatown in Canada, which is in Victoria, as well as the largest, which is in Vancouver. Both contain alleyways full of intrigue, provide lingering tastes of the past and the orient, and are wonderful places to try and get lost.
Though British Columbia is home to such a vast collective of cultures, the people who are rooted the deepest in the Northwest soil are the First Nations communities of the area. Having lived here for many thousands of years, these people and their traditions are an integral part of the culture in BC and across Canada.
Approximately 200 First Nations groups exist in British Columbia today. During their own early days on the land, the First Nations settled in various parts of the province and acquired differing languages, dialects, and conventions, but common beliefs in nature, family, and ceremony exist among them all.
Long before the arrival of Europeans in western Canada, First Nations tribes hunted, fished, and gathered in BC, relying solely on natural resources for survival. From woven bark garments to dugout canoes and herbal medicines, their lifestyles were, and are, rooted in a respect for mother earth. Today, the First Nations people are sources of guidance and inspiration for anyone who hopes to interact more harmoniously with nature and to conserve the land on which they live.
Aboriginal clans are also known throughout North America for being masterful artists and storytellers. One of their most familiar forms of expression is the Totem Pole, thousands of which can be seen and admired throughout British Columbia. Totem Poles are usually carved from Western Red Cedar, which is the official tree of BC. They are painted and engraved to tell a story from the top down, and they speak a language in symbols that is as intricate as it is ancient. Totem Poles and other First Nations-influenced art can be seen throughout the cities and towns of BC, sometimes untouched in their original remote locations, and sometimes re-erected in city parks for higher visibility. Other aboriginal art in BC includes Jade sculpture, woven baskets, and hand-made jewellery.
The long evolution of British Columbia as we know it began in 1778, when European trader and explorer, James Cook, arrived on the western shore of Vancouver Island. Over the hundred years that followed, the opportunity for trade with the region's aboriginal people, the desire to expand the Hudson's Bay Company, and eventually, the wild rush for gold, populated the land with its early pioneers. It was in 1858 in Fort Langley that Queen Victoria of England renamed the vast region which was then New Caledonia. "The Colony of British Columbia" was on that day, November 19, officially born, and its first governor, James Douglas, officially inaugurated.
Throughout British Columbia today, details, artifacts, and architecture still exist to remind us of these early days and the years that followed. Besides the curated and well-maintained contents of our museums, the stories that still exist in our streets are a wonderful way to experience our province and its history. Historic sites like the one in Fort Langley itself offer interactive activities to take you back in time. Victoria's Chinatown is the oldest in the country and still possesses unique features and intrigue from days of yore, and not far from there, a saunter through the Empress Hotel provides a vivid portrait of British colonialism. Look for historic walking tours through the city you're in, and especially try to join in on a "Ghostly Walk" if you want to hear about the juiciest details.
A visit to British Columbia can give you a taste of any culture, but best of all it will give you a taste of this culture, which as a whole is unlike any other.
Articles of Interest:
- BC's Pioneer Experience: Enjoying the history and heritage of British Columbia
- Dancing Lions, Water Dragon: Chinese New Year in Vancouver and Victoia BC
- The Arts and Cultural Guide to British Columbia: Arts, cultural and historical experiences in BC
- An Expanse Enhanced: Just how big is British Columbia?
- Exploring British Columbia's Chinatowns: Discover the working Chinatowns of Vancouver and Victoria
- British Columbia’s Golden Past: Discover BC’s gold-paved path to prosperity
- Totem Poles of BC – A Monumental Presence: Discover First Nations art carvings of the Northwest Coast
- Exploring Visual Arts in BC: The multifaceted talents of artists in beautiful British Columbia
- A Taste of British Columbia: What defines BC cuisine?
- British Columbia – Inspiration and Education: There’s good reason students from around the world choose this beautiful Canadian province year after year...
- Defining Vancouver: Bursting with diversity and a youthful history, Vancouver is shaping an observable and attractive identity
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"I have found out that there ain't no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them" - Twain