Alberta

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Alberta

Alberta (ălbûr´tə), province (2001 pop. 2,974,807), 255,285 sq mi (661,188 sq km), including 6,485 sq mi (16,796 sq km) of water surface, W Canada.

Land and People

Alberta is bounded on the E by Saskatchewan, on the N by the Northwest Territories, on the W by British Columbia, and on the S by Montana. Westernmost of the Prairie Provinces, it lies on a high plateau that rises in the west through the Rocky Mts. to the Continental Divide at the British Columbia border. The foothills of the Rockies and the mountains themselves, with three noted national parks—Jasper, Banff, and Waterton Lakes (the Canadian section of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park)—are famed for their beauty.

Although Alberta is known as a Prairie Province, only about one quarter of its area is actually treeless—chiefly the undulating prairie of S Alberta. Central Alberta has parklike, partly wooded country, and in the north are vast tracts of virgin timberland. Endowed with many lakes, streams, and rivers, the province is drained by the Peace, the Athabasca, the north and south branches of the Saskatchewan, the Red Deer, the St. Mary, the Milk, and many other rivers.

Visitors are impressed by the grand scale of Alberta's landscape—its rolling wheat fields, huge granaries, sprawling cattle ranches, and vast oil refineries. Annual festivals include the Indian Days Celebration at Banff, which attracts thousands of native peoples from a wide area, and the famous Calgary Exhibition and Stampede. Other attractions include Elk Island National Park and the huge Wood Buffalo National Park (shared with the Northwest Territories), home to wood bison, whooping cranes, and other rare species.

The population is concentrated in S and central Alberta; except for farm centers in the fertile wheat-growing valley of the Peace, the north is sparsely settled. Edmonton is the capital and second largest city. The largest city is Calgary; other important cities are Lethbridge, Red Deer, Medicine Hat, St. Albert, and Fort McMurray.

Economy and Higher Education

Agriculture, Alberta's economic mainstay before World War II, remains important. Grain, especially wheat, is the dominant crop; rapeseed (for cooking oil) is also important. In the south, large irrigation developments, such as those around Lethbridge, have enabled the growing of a variety of crops, including sugar beets and potatoes. The province is noted as well for the quality of its livestock. Meatpacking, flour milling, dairying, and food processing are important industries.

Since the 1960s, however, Alberta's major industry has been the exploitation of vast petroleum, natural gas, and other mineral resources. Its coal beds contain about one half of Canada's reserves, while the province leads the country in the production of oil; it is believed to have among the richest oil deposits in the world, notably in the famous tar sands of the Athabasca River, and consistently provides over 80% of Canada's crude petroleum output. Its natural-gas production and reserves are also among the world's greatest. Crude oil and gas pipelines radiate from Alberta to points in E and W Canada and in the United States.

Construction and service industries long prospered or slumped in response to fluctuations in the petroleum market, the high times reflected in such developments as the huge West Edmonton Mall. In the 1990s, however, Alberta's economy diversified. Calgary now trails only Toronto as a Canadian corporate headquarters center; telecommunications, banking, and other industries are major actors in the province. Tourism remains important, and other industries include food and beverage production, lumbering, printing and publishing, and the manufacture of iron, steel, and clay products.

Institutions of higher education include Athabasca Univ.; the Univ. of Alberta, at Edmonton; the Univ. of Calgary; and the Univ. of Lethbridge.

History and Politics

Alberta was originally part of the vast territory granted to the Hudson's Bay Company by King Charles II in 1670, and its early history was dominated by the fur trade. The first European known to have reached (1754) present-day Alberta was Anthony Hendon of the Hudson's Bay Company. There was also much exploration of the region by the Montreal-based North West Company, which merged with the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821. Traders arrived from the upper Great Lakes before Sir Alexander Mackenzie crossed (1793) the region on his way to the Pacific. In 1794 a Hudson's Bay Company fort was built at the site of present-day Edmonton. Destroyed by natives in 1807, it was rebuilt 12 years later and for 50 years thereafter served traders and missionaries within a wide radius.

The area remained under the control of the Hudson's Bay Company until 1870 when it was sold to the newly created confederation of Canada. In 1874 the Northwest Mounted Police established Fort Macleod in S Alberta, and the following year they built a log fort on the site of present-day Calgary. An act of 1882 created four administrative divisions from the Northwest Territories, and one was named Alberta in honor of Queen Victoria's daughter, Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, whose husband was then governor-general of Canada.

The Canadian Pacific Railway came through in the mid-1880s, opening up the area to ranchers and homesteaders, but settlement was slow. In 1891 there were only 14,500 nonnative settlers in the present province. To populate the vast, fertile land, the Canadian government advertised for immigrants, offering many free acres as inducement. Over the next five years immigrants poured in owing to the government's vigorous immigration policy, dwindling available arable land in the U.S. West, the introduction of a new strain of fast-maturing hard spring wheat, and the easing of the 22-year-long depression endured by North America. Edmonton boomed as a supply base during the 1898 Klondike gold rush, and its growth continued during the early 1900s as immigrants began settling surrounding farmlands.

Alberta became a province in 1905. The discovery (1914) of oil at Turner Valley, near Calgary, presaged a new era for the mineral-rich province, but it was not until 1947, when the Leduc fields near Edmonton were opened, that the basic change in Alberta's economy began. By then agriculture had suffered extensively: The 1929 crash—followed by droughts, early frosts, grasshopper plagues, and dust storms—had triggered substantial emigration from the area. In 2013 heavy June rains led to extensive damaging flooding, the worst in provincial history, in Calgary and other areas in S Alberta.

Politically, Albertans in that period turned to the Social Credit party, with its mixture of religious fundamentalism and radical monetary theory. In 1935, William Aberhart became premier of the first Social Credit government. Social Credit administrations were elected for years after Aberhart's death in 1943, but their attempts to reform banking and money control were declared unconstitutional by the courts. The Progressive Conservatives gained control of the provincial government in 1971 with Peter Lougheed as premier (1971–85). Ralph Steinhauer, a Cree, was lieutenant governor (1974–79) of Alberta; he was the first Canadian of indigenous descent to hold such a high executive post. The Progressive Conservatives have continued to control the provincial government, with Lougheed being succeeded by Donald Getty (1985–92), Ralph Klein (1993–2006), Ed Stelmach (2006–11), Alison Redford (2011–14), and Dave Hancock (2014–).

Alberta sends 6 senators and 26 representatives to the national parliament.

Bibliography

See C. B. Macpherson, Democracy in Alberta (2d ed. 1962); R. Kroetsch, Alberta (1968); J. G. MacGregor, A History of Alberta (1981); B. M. Barr and P. J. Smith, ed., Geographical Dimensions of Settlement and Livelihood in Alberta (1983); W. Pasnak, Alberta: Blue Skies and Golden Opportunities (1988).

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