Aboriginal peoples are thought to have arrived from Asia thousands of 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 Aboriginal
peoples who, depending on the environment, lived nomadic or settled lifestyles,
were hunters, fishers or farmers.
First contacts between the Aboriginal 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.
First Colonial Outposts
Seeking a new route to the rich markets of the Orient, French and British
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 British 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 fur.
Permanent French and British 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
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.
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 Law 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
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. 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 (Quebec),
Canada West (Ontario), 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 criminal law, trade
and commerce, and national defence), while the provinces were given
legislative powers over matters of "particular" interest (such as property and
civil rights, hospitals and education).
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 M้tis 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 pre-war period, Canada profited from the
prosperous world economy and established itself as an industrial as well as an
A Nation Matures
Canada's substantial role in World War I 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 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 World War II that
boosted Canada out of the Depression.
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
On the international scene, as the nation has developed and matured, so have its
reputation and influence. Canada has participated in the United Nations since its
inception and is the only nation to have taken part in almost all of the UN's
major peacekeeping operations. It is also a member of the Commonwealth, la
Francophonie, the Group of Seven industrialized nations, the OAS(Organization
of American States) and the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)
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 against that option.
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 Act, 1867-1982.
The Constitution, its Charter of Rights and Freedoms and its general amending
formula redefined the powers of governments, entrenched the equality of
women and men and protected the rights of individuals and ethnocultural
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, entrenched the
principle of Aboriginal self-government and made other major changes in the
Constitution. It was rejected by Canadians in a national referendum held on
October 26, 1992.
The Parliament of Canada has since passed a bill, on February 2, 1996,
guaranteeing Canada's 5 major regions that no constitutional change concerning
them would be made without their unanimous consent. As well, less than a
month after the Quebec sovereignty referendum of October 30, 1995,
Parliament passed a resolution recognizing Quebec as a distinct society within