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A Narrative History

Modern historians believe that Indigenous arrived from Asia 30,000 years ago by way of a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska. Some of them settled in Canada, while others chose to continue to the south. When the European explorers arrived, Canada was populated by a diverse range of Indigenous peoples who, depending on the environment, lived nomadic or settled lifestyles, were hunters, fishermen, or farmers.


First contact between the Indigenous peoples and Europeans probably occurred about 1000 years ago when Icelandic Norsemen settled for a brief time on the island of Newfoundland. But it would be another 600 years before European exploration began in earnest. Please see Indigenous Peoples in Canada for more about Canada's Indigenous groups.

First Colonial Outposts

Seeking a new route to the rich markets of the Orient, French and English explorers plied the waters of North America. They constructed a number of posts -- the French mostly along the St. Lawrence River, the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River; the English around Hudson Bay and along the Atlantic coast. Although explorers such as Cabot, Cartier and Champlain never found a route to China and India, they found something just as valuable -- rich fishing grounds and teeming populations of beaver, fox and bear, all of which were valued for their furs.

Permanent French and English settlement began in the early 1600s and increased throughout the century. With settlement came economic activity, but the colonies of New France and New England remained economically dependent on the fur trade and politically and militarily dependent on their mother countries.

Inevitably, North America became the focal point for the bitter rivalry between England and France. After the fall of Quebec City in 1759, the Treaty of Paris assigned all French territory east of the Mississippi to Britain, except for the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, off the island of Newfoundland.

Now under British rule, the 65,000 French-speaking inhabitants of Canada had a single aim -- to retain their traditions, language and culture. Britain passed the Quebec Act (1774), which granted official recognition to French civil laws and guaranteed religious and linguistic freedoms.

Large numbers of English-speaking colonists, called Loyalists because they wished to remain faithful to the British Empire, sought refuge in Canada after the United States of America won its independence in 1776. They settled mainly in the colonies of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and along the Great Lakes.

The increase in population led to the creation in 1791 of Upper Canada (now Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec). Both were granted their own representative governing institutions. Rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada in 1837 and 1838 prompted the British to join the two colonies, forming the united Province of Canada. In 1848 the joint colony was granted responsible government except in matters of foreign affairs. Canada gained a further measure of autonomy but remained part of the British Empire.

A Country Is Born

Britain's North American colonies - Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland -- grew and prospered independently. But with the emergence of a more powerful United States after the American Civil War, some politicians felt a union of the British colonies was the only way to fend off eventual annexation. On July 1, 1867, Canada East, Canada West, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick joined together under the terms of the British North America Act to become the Dominion of Canada.

The government of the new country was based on the British parliamentary system, with a governor general (the Crown's representative) and a Parliament consisting of the House of Commons and the Senate. Parliament received the power to legislate over matters of national interest (such as taxes and national defence), while the provinces were given legislative powers over matters of "particular" interest (such as property, civil rights and education).

Westward Expansion

Soon after Confederation, Canada expanded into the northwest. Rupert's Land - an area extending south and west for thousands of kilometres from Hudson Bay -- was purchased by Canada from the Hudson's Bay Company, which had been granted the vast territory by King Charles of England in 1670.

Westward expansion did not happen without stress. In 1869, Louis Riel led an uprising of the Métis in an attempt to defend their ancestral rights to the land. A compromise was reached in 1870 and a new province, Manitoba, was carved from Rupert's Land.

British Columbia, already a Crown colony since 1858, decided to join the Dominion in 1871 on the promise of a rail link with the rest of the country; Prince Edward Island followed suit in 1873. In 1898, the northern territory of Yukon was officially established to ensure Canadian jurisdiction over that area during the Klondike gold rush. In 1905, two new provinces were carved from Rupert's Land: Alberta and Saskatchewan; the residual land became the Northwest Territories. Newfoundland preferred to remain a British colony until 1949, when it became Canada's 10th province.

The creation of new provinces coincided with an increase of immigration to Canada, particularly to the west. Immigration peaked in 1913 with 400,000 coming to Canada. During the prewar period, Canada profited from the prosperous world economy and established itself as an industrial as well as an agricultural power.

A Nation Matures

Canada's substantial role in the First World War won it representation distinct from Britain in the League of Nations after the war. Its independent voice became more and more pronounced, and in 1931 Canada's constitutional autonomy from Britain was confirmed with the passing of the Statute of Westminster.

In Canada as elsewhere, the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 brought hardship. As many as one out of every four workers was without a job and the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba were laid waste by drought. Ironically, it was the need to supply the Allied armies during the Second World War that boosted Canada out of the Depression. The country emerged from the war as the fourth-largest industrialized power.

Since World War II, Canada's economy has continued to expand. This growth, combined with government social programs such as family allowances, old-age security, universal medicare and unemployment insurance has given Canadians a high standard of living and desirable quality of life.

Noticeable changes have occurred in Canada's immigration trends. Before World War II, most immigrants came from the British Isles or eastern Europe. Since 1945, increasing numbers of southern Europeans, Asians, South Americans and people from the Caribbean islands have enriched Canada's multicultural mosaic.

On the international scene, as the nation has developed and matured, so has its reputation and influence. Canada has participated in the United Nations since its inception and is the only nation to have taken part in all of the UN's major peacekeeping operations. It is also a member of the Commonwealth, la Francophonie, the Group of Seven industrialized nations, NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and NORAD (North American Aerospace Defence) defence pacts.

A New Federation in the Making

The last quarter of a century has seen Canadians grapple once more with fundamental questions of national identity. Discontent among many French-speaking Quebeckers led to a referendum in that province in 1980 on whether Quebec should become more politically autonomous from Canada, but a majority voted to maintain the status quo.

In 1982, the process toward major constitutional reform culminated in the signing of the Constitution Act. Under this Act, the British North America Act of 1867 and its various amendments became the Constitution Acts, 1867-1975. The Constitution, its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and its general amending formula are redefining the functions and powers of the federal and provincial governments and further establishing the rights of individuals and ethnocultural groups.

Two major efforts were made to reform the constitutional system: the 1987 Meech Lake Accord - which was not implemented since it did not obtain the legislative consent of all provinces - and the 1991 Charlottetown Accord. The Charlottetown Accord would have reformed the Senate and made major changes in the Constitution. It was decisively rejected by Canadians in a national referendum held on October 26, 1992.

Established by two historically opposed peoples; enriched by various cultures, languages and religions as well as the Indigenous peoples; and marked by ageography itself highly diversified, Canada could not help but be a land of compromise. Unity in diversity could be Canada's motto. The spirit of moderation and tolerance characterizes the Canadian federation and assures its survival.

Copyright Craig I.W. Marlatt