Canada has a rich and proud history—a history full of plenty of setbacks and even more successes. In the following article we will discuss the various periods in Canada’s history and provide some pertinent information regarding the developments that helped shape this great nation into what it is today.
A Mammoth from Canada’s prehistory, SourceAccording to archaeologists, there is evidence that the first natives in North America, of which Canada makes up more than 40 percent, first arrived some 40,000 years BCE (before the Common Era) by crossing a land bridge which had formed between Asia and Alaska during the latest Ice Age. In the United States, these people are often referred to as “Indians” or “Native Americans,” while in Canada they are usually known as “Aboriginal People,” “Native People” or “People of the First Nations.” Because this period of pre-history literally involves thousands of years, below we have created a time-line, beginning 9000 BCE, that will help you see some of the major developments at a glance.
9000-8000 BCE: During this millennium, the Huron people, originally known as the Wendat, settled into Southern Ontario along the Eramosa River near what is now Guelph. They were concentrated between Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay. Most of the land was still covered in glaciers and the Wendat hunted caribou to survive.
7000 BCE: Aboriginal tribes began settling the west coast of Canada and various cultures built themselves around the rich salmon fishing in the region. The Nuu’chah’nulth, or Nootka people of Vancouver Island began whaling.
6000 BCE: Various cultures were built around the vast store of buffalo by the Plains Indians in central Canada. These groups hunted buffalo by herding them off of cliffs. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, near Lethbridge, Alberta, is the most famous hunting grounds in this region of the country and was in use for 5,000 years.
5000 BCE: The oldest ceremonial burial site was discovered at L’Anse Amour on the coast of Labrador containing the remains of a 12-year-old boy. The child was buried face down in a very elaborate manner; red ochre had been sprinkled on the back of his head and in a circle around the body. Also found in the tomb were a decorative caribou antler pestle, a bone pendant, bird bones, a harpoon head, a bone whistle, and a walrus tusk. It is unknown what standing the boy had in the community to have been buried in such a way.
2000 BCE: The Inuit people arrived in what is now Canada by small boats, long after the land bridge had disappeared and settled in the Arctic regions.
800 BCE: As the glaciers receded and the weather warmed, the Huron people became farmers rather than hunters, cultivating corn which will not grow wild.
500 BCE-1000 AD: Natives had settled across most of Canada. Hundreds of tribes had developed, each with its own culture, customs, legends, and character. Some of the most well-known were the Huron, Inuit, Blackfoot, Cree and Iroquois.
Canada: The First Settlers and Fight for Control
The earliest contact with what is now Canada is thought to have been made by the Vikings in an expedition led by Bjarni Herjólfsson, who was blown off course en route from Iceland to Greenland around 985 AD. However, there are no records of this discovery save for Icelandic sagas; vague word-of-mouth accounts handed down over the generations.
The first European contact noted in Canadian history was made by the Italian explorer John Cabot sailing under the patronage of King Henry VII of England. In 1497, in a quest to find a trade route to the Orient, Cabot ended up somewhere on the eastern Canadian coast and claimed it for the King. This voyage, and one subsequent in 1498, gave England a claim by right of discovery to an indefinite amount of area of eastern North America; in fact, its later claims to Newfoundland, Cape Breton and neighboring regions were based partly on Cabot’s exploits.
In the early 16 century, a Frenchman named Jacques Cartier also sailed on two expeditions to Canada, sailing into the St. Lawrence River in August of 1535.
On August 5, 1583, Humphrey Gilbert, armed with legal claim papers from Queen Elizabeth I, formally took possession of Newfoundland in St. John’s harbor on behalf of England. But the French also started to make claims on Canadian territories. While their first attempts at settlement failed, in 1604 the fur trade monopoly was granted to Pierre Dugua Sieur de Monts of France, who led his first colonization expedition to an island located near the mouth of the St. Croix River. Among his lieutenants was a geographer named Samuel de Champlain, under whom the St. Croix settlement was moved to Port Royal (today’s Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia).
It was France’s most successful colony and the settlement came to be known as Acadia. However, the cancellation of de Guast’s fur monopoly in 1607 brought the Port Royal settlement to a temporary end. Undiscouraged, Champlain was able to persuade de Guast to allow him to take some colonists and settle on the St. Lawrence, where in 1608 he would found France’s first permanent colony in Canada at Quebec. It became the capital of New France.
While the English colonies were growing rapidly along the Atlantic coast, French fur traders and explorers were slowly extending ownership deep into the heart of North America. After settling the area around what is now the Hudson Bay in the early 17 century, the English would later go on to capture Quebec in 1629, although the region was later returned to the French in 1632 during a brief time of peace between the two nations.
Peace between France and England did not last long, however. The Seven Years War (1756-1763) in Europe pitted England against France in a bloody fight for control over North America and Canada particularly. In 1758, the British captured the French fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, and in 1759, the English General Wolfe captured the city of Quebec (Wolfe’s victory at Quebec ensured that Canada would become British rather than French). In 1763, the French were forced to surrender all their territories in Canada to Britain by the Treaty of Paris.
Canada: The Early Days of British Rule
A depiction of the Conference at Quebec in 1864After France was forced to give up its claim on North America, England, which had now added to their other Atlantic colonies, was faced with two pressing problems. There were now over 50,000 new French-speaking subjects in what had formerly been New France. Additionally, there were large tracts of wilderness in the Great Lakes area where the small garrisons of the British were gravely outnumbered by the native Indians.
Led by an intelligent and treacherous Ottawa chieftain named Pontiac, the Indians suddenly rose against their new English masters and began to overthrow these forts one by one; massacring the English soldiers that inhabited them, until fresh troops were rushed in and the uprising was finally subdued.
To avoid further conflict with the French, the English Parliament enacted the Quebec Act of 1774, allowing the French Canadians to practice their own religion—Roman Catholicism—and to keep French civil law alongside British criminal law. By 1775, Canada had a population of about 90,000.
During the American Civil War (1775-1783), the loyalty of what was once New France was tested. Within a year of the passing of the Quebec Act, the rebelling American colonies sent two armies north to capture the province. Sir Guy Carleton, the British governor of Canada, narrowly escaped capture when one of these armies, under Richard Montgomery, took Montreal.
Carleton reached Quebec in time to organize its small garrison against the forces of Benedict Arnold. Arnold began a siege of the fortress, in which he was soon joined by Montgomery. In the midwinter fighting that followed, Montgomery was killed and Arnold wounded. When spring came, the attacking forces retreated. During the rest of the American Revolutionary War, there was no further fighting on Canadian soil.
After the American Revolution, thousands of British Loyalists from the newly-established United States of America, fled to Canada to begin their lives anew in Nova Scotia and in the unsettled lands above the St. Lawrence rapids and north of Lake Ontario. This massive wave of new settlers, known in Canada as the United Empire Loyalists, marked the first major wave of immigration by English-speaking settlers since the days of New France. Their arrival meant that both the Atlantic province of Nova Scotia and the inland colony of Quebec would need to be reorganized.
Initially, the unsettled forests to the west of the Bay of Fundy, once part of French Acadia, had been included in Nova Scotia. In 1784, however, this area was established as a separate colony known as New Brunswick. Cape Breton Island was simultaneously separated from Nova Scotia (a division that was ended in 1820). In all, some 35,000 Loyalist immigrants are believed to have settled in the Maritimes.
Meanwhile, the settlement of the more inaccessible lands north and west of Lake Ontario and along the north shore of the upper St. Lawrence proceeded somewhat more slowly, with only roughly 5,000 Loyalists settling in this area.
Canada: The 19 Century
During the American War of 1812 the Americans invaded Canada but the Canadians were able to turn them back. However, the successful defense of their newly formed country had not prevented the Canadians from seeing the cracks in their own form of government. There were many citizens, particularly the wealthy businessman and landowners, who believed that the colonists had sufficient powers of self-government through their elected assemblies. Others were upset, that the real power did not lie in the hands of the people through their elected representatives, but with the governor who was responsible only to the government in Britain.
One of the loudest accusers of the government’s administration, especially when it came to land grants, was William Lyon Mackenzie, who eventually became Mayor of Toronto in 1834. In 1837, he led an unsuccessful uprising, during which he was killed. At about the same time, in Lower Canada, the French Canadians of Lower Canada also rebelled under the leadership of Louis Joseph Papineau; this revolt, too, was quickly put down.
The gravity of troubles in Canada caused deep concern in Great Britain, where memories of the American Revolution were still fresh. At the request of Queen Victoria, who ascended to the throne in 1837, John George Lambton, earl of Durham, accepted appointment as governor in chief of British North America with special powers as lord high commissioner. Lambton arrived in Quebec in the spring of 1838, and though he ended his stay before the year was out, his Report on the Affairs of British North America is one of the most important documents in the history of the British Empire.
Durham recommended that Upper and Lower Canada be united under a single parliament, believing if the colonies were given as much freedom to govern themselves as the people of Great Britain, they would become more loyal instead of less so. He did not live to witness the action that was taken on his report, for within a year he became ill and died. In 1840, the Act of Union was passed, joining Upper and Lower Canada under a central government.
Canada eventually gained democratic government in 1867 when Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were federated as the Dominion of Canada. Canada then had a strong central government, which ruled from Ottawa, the new capital. The first prime minister of Canada was Sir John Macdonald.
Throughout the 19th century, the population of Canada grew rapidly, boosted by a massive wave of European immigration. Canada established its first democratic government in 1867, when Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were federated as the Dominion of Canada. Manitoba was made a province in 1870, and British Columbia joined the confederation in 1871. Alberta and Saskatchewan would later join in 1905.
The Canadian economy also expanded greatly during this time, aided by the spread of the country’s railway system. A transcontinental railroad, the Canadian Pacific, was completed in 1885, and vast areas of land were turned over to farming and manufacturing industries that quickly began to boom. Gold was discovered in the Klondike District of the Yukon in 1896, sparking a gold rush that would last for several years.
Canada: The 20 and 21 Century
A Canadian war tank, SourceIn the years before World War I, Canada faced one of its most pressing foreign policy issues as a naval competition increased between Germany and Britain. Great Britain naturally desired to receive military help from the colonies. The Canadian Prime Minister at the time, Wilfrid Laurier, found a compromise that satisfied neither the pro-British faction nor the French partisans. He founded the Canadian Navy in 1910 with the provision that in time of war it be placed under British command. This quickly led to accusations that Canadian soldiers would be drafted into the British Army if war came. As a result, Laurier was defeated in the next election of 1911.
The new Conservative government, headed by Robert Laird Borden, had the responsibility of rallying the nation to Britain’s side in World War I. Had Canadians remained as divided as they were at the end of Laurier’s term, this might have been a difficult thing to do. But Germany’s invasion of neutral Belgium in 1914 forged a unity of Canadian sentiment and a demand for participation in the conflict.
Before the war ended in 1918, more than 619,000 officers and men had enlisted, including some 22,000 who had served in the British Royal Air Force. More than 60,000 Canadians were killed in action or died of wounds, a terribly heavy toll in relation to the country’s population. Over 66 million shells were produced in Canadian factories. The gross national debt soared from 544 million dollars in 1914 to almost 2 ½ billion dollars in 1919, most of the money being raised in Canada itself through public war loans.
Following the war, in the 1920s, Canada saw several prosperous years, but like the rest of the world the country suffered greatly during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Exports of timber, fish and grain dropped off sharply, and by 1933 unemployment had soared to a whopping 23%. The government introduced relief works, but economic hardship continued throughout the decade.
With the early 1940s came the start of the Second World War. Within three months an entire division of the new Canadian Active Service Force had been transported to the United Kingdom. These Canadians saw service in almost every theater of war. The Royal Canadian Navy was increased from fewer than a dozen vessels to more than 400. It served primarily as an antisubmarine and convoy force in the North Atlantic. Some of its units were deployed from time to time as far away as the Mediterranean and the Pacific. Canada lost 45,000 soldiers during World War II.
Following the war, the population of Canada grew rapidly, from 16 million in 1951 to 18 million in 1961. People came from all over Southern and Eastern Europe, and, in the 1960s, also from, Southern Asia.
The 1950s and 1960s saw the Canadian economy boom and Canada became a very affluent society. However, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, a recession hit Canada and unemployment rose to 11%. There was another recession in the early 1990s, yet Canada quickly recovered.
In the early part of the 21 century, Canada’s economy rebounded nicely, but like the rest of the world, the country is just now beginning to shake off the effects of the global recession that began in 2008. In 2012, the unemployment rate in Canada stood at 8.1 percent, but today that number has shrunk to 6.9 percent—the lowest rate the country has seen since before the 2008 recession.