Canada’s first inhabitants were most likely hunter-nomads who, in hungry pursuit of caribou, elk and bison, crossed over from Asia on the land bridge that once linked Siberia and Alaska. As the earth warmed and the glaciers retreated, these immigrants began to trickle all across the Americas.
About 4500 years ago, a second major wave of migration from Siberia brought the ancestors of the Inuit to Canada. The new arrivals took one look at the North, sized it up as a tasty icebox filled with fish-and-seal dinners, and decided to hang around. These early Inuit were members of the Dorset Culture, named after Cape Dorset on Baffin Island, where its remains were first unearthed. Around AD 1000 a separate Inuit culture, the whale-hunting Thule of northern Alaska, began making its way east through the Canadian Arctic. As these people spread, they overtook the Dorset Culture. The Thule are the direct ancestors of the modern Inuit.
When the first Europeans arrived in Canada in the late 15th century, Aboriginal peoples had spread into five major geographic locations.
On the mild Pacific coast, the Haida, Nootka and other tribes lived in independent villages where they built cedar-plank houses and carved elaborate totem poles and canoes.
To the east, the Plains First Nations, which included the Sioux and the Blackfoot, occupied the prairies from Lake Winnipeg to the Rocky Mountain foothills. Primarily buffalo hunters, they cunningly killed their prey by driving them over cliffs, such as at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in southern Alberta. The buffalo provided sustenance and the hides were used for tipis and clothes.
Present-day southern Ontario and the area along the St Lawrence River were home to the Iroquoian-speaking peoples, who were divided into the Five Nations, the Huron, the Erie and the Neutral confederacies. Although often at war with each other, they were a sophisticated lot who lived in large farming communities, built sturdy longhouses and traded with other tribes.
In the chilly boreal forest stretching across northern Canada, the Northeast Woodlands peoples endured a much harsher life. These tribes include the Algonquin and Mi’kmaq in the Maritimes, the Innu in Québec and Labrador, and the Cree and Ojibwe in northern Ontario and Manitoba. The extinct Beothuk of Newfoundland also belonged to this group. Living in small nomadic bands, the various tribes hunted caribou, moose, hare and other animals, which they caught using snares and traps.
Survival was even more of a challenge for arctic tribes such as the Inuit and Dene. They migrated seasonally, hunting whales and big-game, and traveling by canoe or dogsled. They spent winters in igloos or simple wooden structures, and basically just tried to stay warm.
Viking celebrity Leif Eriksson was the first European to reach Canada’s shores. In fact, he and his tribe of Scandinavian seafarers were the first Europeans in all of North America. Around AD 1000 they poked around the eastern shores of Canada, establishing winter settlements and way stations for repairing ships and restocking supplies, such as at L’Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland. The local tribes didn’t exactly roll out the welcome mat for these intruders, who eventually tired of the hostilities and went home. There would be no more visits from the outside for another 300 to 400 years.
The action heated up again in the late 15th century. In 1492, backed by the Spanish crown, Christopher Columbus went searching for a western sea route to Asia and instead stumbled upon some small islands in the Bahamas. Other European monarchs, excited by his ‘discovery, ’ quickly sponsored expeditions of their own. In 1497, Giovanni Caboto, better known as John Cabot, sailed under a British flag as far west as Newfoundland and Cape Breton.
Cabot didn’t find a passage to China, but he did find cod, a much-coveted commodity in Europe at the time. In short order, hundreds of boats were shuttling between Europe and the fertile new fishing grounds. Basques whalers from northern Spain soon followed. Several were based at Red Bay in Labrador, which became the biggest whaling port in the world during the 16th century.
King François I of France looked over the fence at his neighbors, stroked his beard, then snapped his fingers and ordered Jacques Cartier to appear before him. By this time, the hunt was on not only for the Northwest Passage but also for gold, given the findings by Spanish conquistadors among the Aztec and Inca civilizations. François hoped for similar riches in the frosty North.
Upon arrival in Labrador, Cartier found only ‘stones and horrible rugged rocks, ’ as he wrote in his journal in 1534. He dutifully kept exploring and soon went ashore on Québec’s Gaspé Peninsula to claim the land for France. The local Iroquois thought he was a good neighbor at first, until he kidnapped two of the chief’s sons and took them back to Europe. To his credit, Cartier returned them a year later when sailing up the St Lawrence River to Stadacona (present-day Québec City) and Hochelaga (today’s Montréal). Here he got wind of a land called Saguenay that was full of gold and silver. The rumor prompted Cartier’s third voyage, in 1541, but alas, the mythical riches remained elusive.
King François I got bored with his distant colony, since it wasn’t producing the bling. But his interest perked back up a few decades later when felt hats became all the rage. Everyone who was anyone was wearing a furry hat and, as the fashion mavens knew, there was no finer chapeau than one made from beaver pelts. With beavers pretty much extinct in the Old World, the demand for a fresh supply was strong.
In 1588, the French crown granted the first trading monopoly in Canada, only to have other merchants promptly challenge the claim. And so the race for control of the fur trade was officially on. The economic value of this enterprise and, by extension, its role in shaping Canadian history, cannot be underestimated. It was the main reason behind the country’s European settlement, at the root of the struggle for dominance between the French and the British, and the source of strife and division between Aboriginal groups. All because of a silly hat!
In order to gain control of the distant lands, the first order of business was to put European bodies on the ground. In the summer of 1604, a group of French pioneers established a tentative foothold on Île Ste-Croix (a tiny islet in the river on the present US border with Maine). They moved to Port Royal (today’s Annapolis Royal) in Nova Scotia the following spring. Exposed and difficult to defend, neither site made a good base for controlling the inland fur trade. As the would-be colonists moved up the St Lawrence River, they finally came upon a spot their leader, Samuel de Champlain, considered prime real estate – where today’s Québec City stands. It was 1608 and ‘New France’ had become a reality.
The French enjoyed their plush fur monopoly for several decades, but in 1670 the British mounted a formidable challenge. They caught a lucky break when a pair of disillusioned French explorers, Radisson and Des Groseilliers, confided that the best fur country actually lay to the north and west of Lake Superior, which was easily accessible via Hudson Bay. King Charles II quickly formed the Hudson’s Bay Company and granted it a trade monopoly over all the lands whose rivers and streams drained into the bay. This vast territory, called Rupert’s Land, encompassed about 40% of present-day Canada, including Labrador, western Québec, northwestern Ontario, Manitoba, most of Saskatchewan and Alberta, and part of the Northwest Territories.
The English infuriated the French with such moves, and so the French kept right on galling the English by settling further inland. Both countries had claims to the land, but each wanted regional dominance. They skirmished back and forth in hostilities that mirrored those in Europe, where wars raged throughout the first half of the 18th century.
Things came to a head with the Treaty of Utrecht, which ended Queen Anne’s War (1701–13) overseas. Under its provisions, the French had to officially recognize British claims to Hudson Bay and Newfoundland, and give up all of Nova Scotia (then called Acadia) except for Cape Breton Island.
The conflict simmered for a few decades, then ramped up to a new level in 1754 when the two countries battled each other in the French and Indian Wars (also known as the Seven Years’ War). The tide soon turned in the Brit’s favor with the capture of the Louisbourg fortress, giving them control of a strategically important entrance to the St Lawrence River.
In 1759 they besieged Québec, scaling the cliffs in a surprise attack and quickly defeating the stunned French; it was one of Canada’s bloodiest and most famous battles, and left both commanding generals dead. At the Treaty of Paris (1763), France handed Canada over to Britain.
Managing the newly acquired territory presented quite a challenge for the British. First, they had to quell uprisings by the Aboriginal tribes, such as the attack on Detroit by Ottawa Chief Pontiac. So the British government issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which prevented colonists from settling west of the Appalachian Mountains and regulated purchases of aboriginal land. Though well-intentioned, the proclamation was largely ignored.
The French Canadians caused the next headache. Tensions rose when the new rulers imposed British law that heavily restricted the rights of Roman Catholics (the religion of the French), including the rights to vote and hold office. The British hoped their discriminatory policy would launch a mass exodus and make it easier to anglicize the remaining settlers. The plan didn’t work – the French just crossed their arms and dug in their heels further.
As if the tribes and French weren’t problems enough, the American colonies started making revolutionary rumbles to the south. The British governor, Guy Carleton, wisely reasoned that winning the French settlers’ political allegiance was more valuable than turning them into tea drinkers. This led to the passage of the Québec Act of 1774. The Act confirmed French Canadians’ right to their religion, allowed them to assume political office and restored the use of French civil law. Indeed, during the American Revolution (1775–83) most French Canadians refused to take up arms for the American cause, although not many willingly defended the British either.
After the Revolution, the English-speaking population exploded when some 50,000 settlers from the newly independent America migrated northward. Called United Empire Loyalists due to their presumed allegiance to Britain, many settlers were motivated more by cheap land than by actual love of king and crown. The majority ended up in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, while a smaller group settled along the northern shore of Lake Ontario and in the Ottawa River Valley (forming the nucleus of what became Ontario). About 8000 people moved to Québec, creating the first sizeable anglophone community in the French-speaking bastion.
Partly in order to accommodate the interests of Loyalist settlers, the British government passed the Constitutional Act of 1791, which divided the colony into Upper Canada (today’s southern Ontario) and Lower Canada (now southern Québec). Lower Canada retained French civil laws, but both provinces were governed by the British criminal code.
The British crown installed a governor to direct each colony. The governor in turn appointed the members of his ‘cabinet, ’ then called the Executive Council. The legislative branch consisted of an appointed Legislative Council and an elected Assembly, which ostensibly represented the interests of the colonists. In reality, though, the Assembly held very little power, since the governor could veto its decisions. Not surprisingly, this was a recipe for friction and resentment. This was especially the case in Lower Canada, where an English governor and an English-dominated Council held sway over a French-dominated Assembly.
Rampant cronyism made matters even worse. Members of the conservative British merchant elite dominated the Executive and Legislative Councils and showed little interest in French-Canadian matters. Called the Family Compact in Upper Canada and the Château Clique in Lower Canada, their ranks included brewer John Molson and university founder James McGill. The groups’ influence grew especially strong after the War of 1812, an ultimately futile attempt by the USA to take over its northern neighbor.
In 1837, frustration over these entrenched elites reached boiling point. Parti Canadien leader Louis-Joseph Papineau and his Upper Canadian counterpart, Reform Party leader William Lyon Mackenzie, launched open rebellions against the government. Although both uprisings were quickly crushed, the incident signaled to the British that the status quo wasn’t going to cut it any longer.
The British dispatched John Lambton, the Earl of Durham, to investigate the rebellions’ causes. He correctly identified ethnic tensions as the root of the problem, calling the French and British ‘two nations warring in the bosom of a single state.’ He then earned the nickname ‘Radical Jack’ by asserting that French culture and society were inferior and obstacles to expansion and greatness – only assimilation of British laws, language and institutions would quash French nationalism and bring long-lasting peace to the colonies. These ideas were adopted into the Union Act of 1840.
Upper and Lower Canada soon merged into the Province of Canada and became governed by a single legislature, the new Parliament of Canada. Each ex-colony had the same number of representatives, which wasn’t exactly fair to Lower Canada (ie Québec), where the population was much larger. On the plus side, the new system brought responsible government that restricted the governor’s powers and eliminated nepotism.
While most British Canadians welcomed the new system, the French were less than thrilled. If anything, the union’s underlying objective of destroying French culture, language and identity made Francophones cling together even more tenaciously. The provisions of the Act left deep wounds that still haven’t fully healed today.
Thus the united province was built on slippery ground. The decade or so following unification was marked by political instability as one government replaced another in fairly rapid succession. Meanwhile, the USA had grown into a self-confident economic powerhouse, while British North America was still a loose patchwork of independent colonies. The American Civil War (1861–65) and the USA’s purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 raised fears of annexation. It became clear that only a less volatile political system would stave off these challenges, and the movement toward federal union gained momentum.
In 1864, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island (PEI), served as the birthing room for modern Canada. At the town’s Province House, the ‘Fathers of Confederation’ – a group of representatives from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, Ontario and Québec – got together and hammered out the framework for a new nation. It took two more meetings before Parliament passed the British North America Act in 1867. And so began the modern, self-governing state of Canada, originally known as the Dominion of Canada. The day the act became official, July 1, is celebrated as Canada’s national holiday; it was called Dominion Day until it was renamed Canada Day in 1982.
Task one on the infant dominion’s to-do list was to bring the remaining land and colonies into the confederation. Under its first prime minister, John A Macdonald, the government acquired vast Rupert’s Land in 1869 for the paltry sum of £300, 000 (about $11.5 million in today’s money) from the Hudson’s Bay Company. Now called the Northwest Territories (NWT), the land was only sparsely populated, mostly by Plains First Nations and several thousand Métis (may-tee), a racial blend of Cree, Ojibwe or Saulteaux and French-Canadian or Scottish fur traders, who spoke French as their main language. Their biggest settlement was the Red River Colony around Fort Garry (today’s Winnipeg).
The Canadian government immediately clashed with the Métis people over land-use rights, causing the latter to form a provisional government led by the charismatic Louis Riel. He sent the Ottawa-appointed governor packing and, in November 1869, seized control of Upper Fort Garry, thereby forcing Ottawa to the negotiating table. However, with his delegation already en route, Riel impulsively and for no good reason executed a Canadian prisoner he was holding at the fort. Although the murder caused widespread uproar in Canada, the government was so keen to bring the west into the fold it agreed to most of Riel’s demands, including special language and religious protections for the Métis. As a result, the then-pint-sized province of Manitoba was carved out of the NWT and entered the dominion in July 1870. Macdonald sent troops after Riel but he narrowly managed to escape to the USA. He was formally exiled for five years in 1875.
British Columbia (BC), created in 1866 by merging the colonies of New Caledonia and Vancouver Island, was the next frontier. The discovery of gold along the Fraser River in 1858 and in the Cariboo region in 1862 had brought an enormous influx of settlers to such goldmine boomtowns as Williams Lake and Barkerville. Once the gold mines petered out, though, BC was plunged into poverty. In 1871 it joined the dominion in exchange for the Canadian government assuming all its debt and promising to link it with the east within 10 years via a transcontinental railroad.
The construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway is one of the most impressive chapters in Canadian history. Macdonald rightly regarded the railroad as crucial in unifying the country, spurring immigration and stimulating business and manufacturing. It was a costly proposition, made even more challenging by the rough and rugged terrain the tracks had to traverse. To entice investors, the government offered major benefits, including vast land grants in western Canada. Workers drove the final spike into the track at Craigellachie, BC, on November 7, 1885.
To bring law and order to the ‘wild west, ’ the government created the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) in 1873, which later became the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Nicknamed ‘Mounties, ’ they still serve as Canada’s national police force today. Although they were effective, the NWMP couldn’t prevent trouble from brewing on the prairies, where the Plains First Nations had been forced to sign various treaties relegating them to reserves. It wasn’t long before these groups began to challenge their status.
Meanwhile, many Métis had moved to Saskatchewan and settled around Batoche. As in Manitoba, they quickly clashed with government surveyors over land issues. In 1884, after their repeated appeals to Ottawa had been ignored, they coaxed Louis Riel out of exile to represent their cause. Rebuffed, Riel responded the only way he knew: by forming a provisional government and leading the Métis in revolt. Riel had the backing of the Cree, but times had changed: with the railroad nearly complete, government troops arrived within days. Riel surrendered in May and was hanged for treason later that year.
Canada rang in the 20th century on a high note. Industrialization was in full swing, prospectors had discovered gold in the Yukon, and Canadian resources – from wheat to lumber – were increasingly in demand. In addition, the new railroad opened the floodgates to immigration.
Between 1885 and 1914 about 4.5 million people arrived in Canada. This included large groups of Americans and Eastern Europeans, especially Ukrainians, who went to work cultivating the prairies. Optimism reigned: a buoyant Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier said ‘The 19th century was the century of the United States. I think we can claim that it is Canada that shall fill the 20th century.’ It was only natural that this new-found self-confidence would put the country on track to autonomy from Britain. The issue took on even greater urgency when WWI broke out in 1914.
Canada – as a member of the British Empire – found itself automatically drawn into the conflict. In the war’s first years, more than 300,000 volunteers went off to European battlefields. As the war dragged on and thousands of soldiers returned in coffins, recruitment ground to a halt. The government, intent on replenishing its depleted forces, introduced the draft in 1917. It proved to be a very unpopular move, to say the least, especially among French Canadians. Animosity toward Ottawa was already at an all-time high since the government had recently abolished bilingual schools in Manitoba and restricted the use of French in Ontario’s schools. The conscription issue fanned the flames of nationalism even more. Thousands of Québecois took to the streets in protest, and the issue left Canada divided and Canadians distrustful of their government.
By the time the guns of WWI fell silent in 1918, most Canadians were fed up with sending their sons and husbands to fight in distant wars for Britain. Under the government of William Lyon Mackenzie King, an eccentric fellow who communicated with spirits and worshipped his dead mother, Canada began asserting its independence. Mackenzie King made it clear that Britain could no longer automatically draw upon the Canadian military, started signing treaties without British approval, and sent a Canadian ambassador to Washington. This forcefulness led to the Statute of Westminster, passed by the British Parliament in 1931. The statute formalized the independence of Canada and other Commonwealth nations, although Britain retained the right to pass amendments to those countries’ constitutions.
Oddly, that right remained on the books for another half century. It was removed only with the 1982 Canada Act, which Queen Elizabeth II signed into law on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on April 17. Today, Canada is a constitutional monarchy with a parliament consisting of an appointed upper house, or Senate, and an elected lower house, the House of Commons. The British monarch remains Canada’s head of state, although this is predominantly a ceremonial role and does not diminish the country’s sovereignty. Within Canada, the appointed governor general is the monarch’s representative.
The period after WWII brought another wave of economic expansion and immigration, especially from Europe.
Newfoundland finally joined Canada in 1949. Joey Smallwood, the politician who persuaded the island to sign up, claimed it would bring economic prosperity. Once he became Newfoundland’s premier, he helped this prosperity along by forcing a resettlement program upon citizens. People living in small, isolated fishing communities (aka outports) were strongly ‘encouraged’ to pack it up and move inland where the government could deliver schools, health care and other services more economically. One method for ‘encouraging’ villagers was to cut ferry services to their communities, thus making them inaccessible since there were no roads.
The only province truly left behind during the 1950s boom years was Québec. For a quarter century, it remained in the grip of ultra-conservative Maurice Duplessis and his Union Nationale party, with support from the Catholic Church and various business interests. Only after Duplessis’ death did the province finally start getting up to speed during the ‘Quiet Revolution’ of the 1960s. Advances included expanding the public sector, investing in public education and nationalizing the provincial hydroelectric companies. Still, progress wasn’t swift enough for radical nationalists who claimed independence was the only way to ensure Francophone rights. Québec has spent the ensuing years flirting with separatism.
In 1960, Canada’s Aboriginal peoples were finally granted Canadian citizenship. In 1985, Canada became the first country in the world to pass a national multicultural act and establish a federal department of multiculturalism. Today 40% of Canadians claim their origins are in places other than Britain or France.
The new millennium has been kind to Canada. The loonie took off around 2003, thanks to the oil, diamonds and other natural resources fueling the economy. Tolerance marches onward, with medical marijuana and gay marriage both legalized recently. Expect the country to continue getting all glammed up before the world spotlight shines on it for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.