The westernmost of Canada's three Prairie Provinces, Alberta lies between the 49th and 60th parallels, at virtually the same latitude as the United Kingdom. Alberta is 1217 km from north to south and between 293 and 650 km in width from west to east. Nearly equal in size to the state of Texas, the province covers an area of some 661 185 km2.
Roughly half of the southwestern section of the province is dominated by mountains and foothills - striking reminders of the glaciers that, over millions of years, formed, moved and receded in the area. Peaks of the Rocky Mountains located in Alberta range from 2130 to 3747 m in elevation.
The foothills, which form a gentle link between mountain and prairie landscapes, feature heavily forested areas and grasslands used for grazing cattle. Beneath their surface, the foothills contain some of the province's richest deposits of sour gas and coal.
The remainder of the province - approximately 90 percent of the land area - forms part of the interior plain of North America. The plains include the forested areas that dominate the northern part of the province and the vast stretches of northern muskeg that overlay much of Alberta's oil and gas deposits and oil sands.
Alberta has what is known as a continental climate. It is characterized by vivid seasonal contrasts in which long, cold winters are balanced by mild to hot summers and an unusually high number of sunny days, no matter what the season. Although cold air covers the whole province in winter, it is frequently replaced in the southwest by a mild wind, the "chinook," funneling through the mountains from the Pacific Ocean.
The Aboriginal people, whose ancestors are thought to have crossed the Bering Sea from Asia thousands of years ago, were the first people to live in what is now Alberta. The Blackfoot, Blood, Piegan, Cree, Gros Ventre, Sarcee, Kootenay, Beaver and Slavey Indians, speaking a variety of Athapaskan and Algonkian languages, were the sole inhabitants of what was then a vast wilderness territory.
The early Albertans, particularly the woodland tribes of the central and northern regions, became valuable partners of the European fur traders who arrived in the 18th century. The first European explorer to reach what is now Alberta was Anthony Henday, in 1754.
Peter Pond, of the North West Company, established the first fur-trading post in the area in 1778. The Hudson's Bay Company gradually extended its control throughout a huge expanse of northern North America known as Rupert's Land and the North West Territory, including the region occupied by present-day Alberta. From that time, the region was fought over by the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company, each of which built competing fur-trading posts. The rivalry ended only in 1821, when the two companies merged.
Expeditions led by Henry Youle Hind and John Palliser found parts of the region to have exceptionally good land for farming, especially the fertile belt north of the Palliser Triangle, a particularly arid zone. As a result of these findings, the British decided not to renew the license of the Hudson's Bay Company and, in 1870, the North West Territory was acquired by the Dominion of Canada and administered from the newly formed province of Manitoba.
Beginning with the arrival of the railway in 1883, the population started to grow quickly. Other factors that helped swell the population were the discovery of new strains of wheat particularly suited to the climate of the Canadian Prairies, the lack of new farmland in the United States, and the end of an economic depression throughout North America.
On September 1, 1905, Alberta, named for Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, fourth daughter of Queen Victoria, became a province of Canada with Edmonton as its capital city. The province of Alberta was created by joining the District of Alberta with parts of the districts of Athabasca, Assiniboia and Saskatchewan.
Tracing the roots of Alberta's 2.7 million people is an exercise that begins with the province's Aboriginals and leads to virtually every corner of the globe. The province's Aboriginal people formed the bulk of the area's population until the 1880s, when they were outnumbered by the influx of Europeans. In 1881, there were barely more than 1000 non-Aboriginal people in the area that was to become the province of Alberta.
Ten years later, 17 500 people occupied the territory. Immigrants from many countries came in response to the Canadian government's aggressive efforts, between the 1890s and the 1920s, to promote immigration and encourage agricultural development. By the end of the immigration push in 1921, there were 584 454 Albertans.
After World War II, the pattern changed. From the 1960s on, immigrants have come from all over the world, including the Pacific Rim, Asia and the Caribbean. Today, roughly 44 percent of Albertans are of British descent; other large ethnic groups are the German, Ukrainian, French, Scandinavian and Dutch. In 1991, close to 150 000 people were of Indigenous or Métis origin.
Smaller numbers of people, tracing their heritage to virtually every country in the world, make up the remaining 24 percent of the population. English is the language of the vast majority of Albertans, and most religious faiths are represented.
With two-thirds of the population under the age of 40, the province has one of the youngest populations in the industrialized world. This is, in part, due to the high level of international and interprovincial migration to Alberta over the past 25 years. Approximately 80 percent of Albertans live in urban areas, and more than half live in the two main cities of Edmonton, the province's capital, and Calgary.
Alberta has one of the world's most productive agricultural economies, producing about 20 percent of the value of Canada's annual output. Approximately 22 million hectares of cultivated and uncultivated land are used as pasture and forage for livestock. While wheat remains the primary crop, the production of new crops continues to expand as the industry diversifies. The province maintains the largest livestock population in Canada.
Long known as Canada's "energy province," Alberta has more than 80 percent of the country's reserves of conventional crude oil, over 90 percent of its natural gas, and all of its bitumen and oil-sands reserves. The oil and natural gas sector has responded successfully to the challenges of unstable energy prices in the 1980s by significantly reducing production and operating costs.
Over one-half of the province of Alberta, or approximately 350 000 km2, is covered by forests. Of the total forest area, 216 000 km2 are classified as commercially productive forest land and contain both hardwood and softwood species. Food and beverage processing remains the largest manufacturing industry in Alberta in terms of both sales and employment. Petrochemicals and plastics, forest products, metals and machinery and refineries have become major success stories in contributing to Alberta's diversification efforts over the last several years. An increasing range of industrial products - including aerospace and transportation equipment, as well as industrial and specialty chemicals - is also being manufactured in Alberta.
The service sector accounts for more than 60 per cent of Alberta's gross domestic product. More than two- thirds of Alberta's employment is found in such industries as business and financial services, transportation, retail trade, health and education services and tourism. The province offers a multitude of attractions to visitors, and particularly prides itself on the magnificent Rocky Mountains, especially the celebrated Jasper and Banff national parks.