Immigration and exploration have shaped Canada’s history, with archaeological evidence of people in the northwest some 26,000 years ago. Vikings settled briefly in Newfoundland 1,000 years ago, and Europeans established temporary settlements as they fished the rich Gulf of Saint Lawrence some 500 years ago. Reports of abundant natural resources from French and English explorers led to colonization and brought European conflicts to the New World, with alliances on either side with various aboriginal peoples. The fur trade pushed exploration westward, and by the late 1800s, completion of a transcontinental railroad enabled the Dominion of Canada to extend to the Pacific Ocean.
Prehistory to Present
Prehistoric and Native Peoples
Man is not indigenous to North America. According to recent archaeological findings, prehistoric tribes from the mountains of Mongolia and the steppes of Siberia came to the continent some 15,000 to 26,000 years ago by a land bridge that once existed over the Bering Strait. They gradually moved south across the whole continent and into South America. Their descendants are the native Indian and Inuit peoples of Canada today, and they can be divided into six groups.
The Northwest Coast tribes constituted a highly developed civilization, well known for its totem poles and other carved objects. Principal tribal groups are the Bella Coola, Coast Salish, Haida, Kwakiutl, Nootka (along the West Coast), Tlingit and Tsimshian (including the Gitxsan). Also known as the Plateau culture (named after the Columbian Plateau region), the Cordillera Indians eked out an existence in the British Columbia interior as hunters and fishermen. The Athapaskan, Salishan and Kutenai language families are indigenous to this native culture. The Plains Indians—the Assiniboine, Stoney, Blackfoot, Plains Cree, Plains Ojibwa and Sarcee tribes—were nomadic buffalo hunters who lived in teepees and wore decorative clothing made of animal skins. The Beothuk, Cree, Dene, Montagnais and other subarctic Indians lived a nomadic existence hunting caribou and other animals. The Algonquin and the Iroquoian peoples formed the Eastern Woodlands culture of bellicose farmers who lived in fortified villages, growing corn and squash. Nomadic inhabitants of the most northerly regions, the Inuit traditionally lived in ice houses in winter, and in tents and sod houses during the summer. Using their highly developed navigational skills, they hunted seals and whales off the coast, and caribou and waterfowl in the interior.
Long after the migrations of Asiatic peoples from the west, Europeans arrived on the shores of present-day Canada and proceeded to conquer the land and impose their own civilization. The Norse explored the coast of Labrador in the 10C and are believed to have founded the earliest known European settlement in North America around AD 1000. Basque and English fishermen knew of the rich resources of the Grand Banks as early as the 15C.
However, the first permanent settlements began in the 17C. Within seven years of each other (1603-10), Frenchman Samuel de Champlain and Englishmen Henry Hudson (who, in 1610, discovered the huge waterway that bears his name) and John Guy claimed the riches of the continent for their respective kings. Their claims led to nearly two centuries of war among the empires of France and England and the indigenous peoples for hegemony. The rivalry in North America revolved mainly around the lucrative fur trade. In 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht secured a temporary peace that lasted until the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), in which France, Spain, Austria and Russia opposed Britain and Prussia. Before their final defeat by the British on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, the French not only established enduring settlements in the St. Lawrence Valley, but also explored half the continent, founding an empire known as New France,which, at its greatest extent, stretched from Hudson Bay to New Orleans (Louisiana) and from Newfoundland nearly to the Rockies. This empire thrived on the fur trade. However, England’s Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), founded in 1670, gained control of all the lands draining into the great bay and exercised a monopoly over that area, challenged only by Scottish merchants who established themselves in Montreal after the British conquest of France and formed the North West Company in 1783.
In 1763, when the fall of New France was confirmed by the Treaty of Paris, the population of the future confederation of Canada was overwhelmingly French. A few settlements in Newfoundland and Halifax in Nova Scotia were the only English-speaking exceptions. This imbalance was not to endure. The aftermath of the American Revolution brought thousands of Loyalists to the remaining British colonies (Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Lower Canada, later named Quebec) and led to the creation of two more colonies—New Brunswick and Upper Canada (later Ontario).
Lower Canada and Upper Canada were reunited by the British Parliament’s Act of Union in 1841. This law was prompted by a report by then-governor general Lord Durham, based upon his investigation of the 1837 rebellions in which Americans had participated. In addition to recommending union, the report proposed responsible government, a system of majority-party rule in the assembly (the British government did not formally implement this system until 1847), partly in the hope of reducing American influence.
Threats and incursions by Americans during the War of 1812, the Rebellions of 1837, the American Civil War and the Fenian Raids of 1866-70 convinced the British government that more settlers were needed if their colonies were to survive. The policy of offering free land to potential settlers played a significant role in the development of Canada during the 19C and early 20C.
Fear of American takeover encouraged the small groups of British colonists to unite for common defence. Their actions helped to propel the British Parliament into ratifying the British North America Act of 1867, which provided for Canadian Confederation. The resulting new political entity, initially composed of four founding provinces—Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia—adopted a parliamentary system of government and separation of federal and provincial powers. Even as confederation was negotiated, chief proponents John A. Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier envisaged a dominion stretching from coast to coast. Between the eastern provinces and the small colony of British Columbia on the West Coast lay the immense, empty domain of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Pressured by the British government, the company finally agreed to relinquish its lands to the new Confederation for a cash settlement and rights to its posts and some land. As the new Dominion of Canada took possession, the Métis rebellion in the Red River Valley led to the creation of the fifth province, Manitoba, in 1870. Meanwhile, British Columbia began negotiations to become the sixth province, prompted by fear of an American takeover, and Prince Edward Island joined its sister Maritime provinces in Confederation in 1873. The Yukon Territory was created in 1898 and entered Confederation in the same year.
“Canada has been created because there has existed within the hearts of its people a determination to build for themselves an enduring home.”
A.R.M. Lower, Colony to Nation, 1946
The Transcontinental Railway
To encourage British Columbia to join Confederation in 1871, the province was promised a transcontinental rail link. After a few false starts, construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway finally got under way in 1881. It was an immense and difficult project, the western mountain ranges alone posing a formidable barrier. Building the line over the steep grades of Kicking Horse Pass, for example, was one of the great achievements of railroad engineering. Rogers Pass and Fraser Canyon were only slightly lesser obstacles.
Serious problems beset the laying of track in the Canadian Shield country north of Lake Superior, where, at one moment, tonnes of granite had to be blasted out and, at the next, track lines would sink into the muskeg. In the Prairies, however, all records for tracklaying were broken: in one day, a total of 10km/6mi were laid, a record never surpassed by manual labour. This progress was achieved under the dynamic management of American-born William Van Horne, who later became president of the Canadian Pacific Railway Co. In only four years, the line was completed.
The 20th Century
Canada’s purchase of land controlled by the HBC opened the way for settlement of the West; the building of the transcontinental rail line provided the means. Thousands of immigrants poured into the region, necessitating the creation of two new provinces in 1905: Saskatchewan and Alberta. By 1912 the remaining parts of the Northwest Territories south of the 60th parallel had been redistributed to Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec.
Canada played a substantial role in both world wars, and finally achieved complete control of its external affairs in 1931 by the Statute of Westminster, a British law that clarified Canada’s parliamentary powers. After World War II Canada’s tenth province was added when the citizens of Newfoundland voted to join Confederation in 1949. In the postwar years Canada found itself becoming a major industrial country, with an influx of immigrants who provided the skills and labour vital to economic growth.
The 1960s saw the beginnings of Quebec’s separatist movement, resulting from cumulative grievances of French Canadians. The federal government accelerated efforts to accommodate Quebeckers’ demands, including broader educational funding and official recognition of the French language. In 1969 institutional bilingualism was established at the federal level by the Official Languages Act. Separatists were defeated at the provincial polls in 1973, but were victorious in 1976. In 1980 the Quebec electorate rejected a move toward independence, but the controversy continued.
In 1982 the British North American Act (1867) was renamed the Constitution Act, which repatriated the constitution from London. Quebec refused to sign the constitution, mainly because the agreement did not provide for transfer of legislative powers between federal and provincial governments. In 1987 the Meech Lake Accord called for special status for Quebec. Federal and provincial ratification was not forthcoming by 1990, however. In 1992 a national referendum that would have granted special constitutional status to Quebec was defeated, but the movement toward independence gained support within Quebec. Secession from Canada was narrowly defeated in the fall of 1995 by voters in the province by a margin of just over 1 percent. In 1998 Canada’s Supreme Court declared that, under constitutional law, Quebec has no legal right of unilateral secession.
Canada’s native population continues to press for autonomy and land settlements. A goal of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), representing some 500,000 of the country’s nearly one-million-strong native population, is constitutionally guaranteed rights of self-government. The defeated 1992 referendum included a provision for self-governing powers for natives. In a plebiscite earlier that year, however, Northwest Territories voters approved proposed boundaries of a new territory to be formed in the eastern part of the region. A large majority (84.7 percent) of the region’s voters ratified terms of the Land Claim Agreement in November as the final step in dividing the Northwest Territories. After a seven-year transitional period, the self-administered Inuit homeland called Nunavut became Canada’s third territory, in April 1999.
The New Millennium
Many of the same issues of the past century face Canadians as the new millennium begins. The Nisga’a Treaty signed in April 2000 is considered by some Canadians to be a contentious model for self-governance for other native peoples. In addition to providing law-making powers for British Columbia’s Nisga’a over their lands, assets, language and culture, the treaty includes cash payments and control over natural resources. Critics fear that overall costs of treaties based on this model will be too high and that clear definitions of territory claimed by other First Nations groups will be difficult to achieve.
In June 2000 Canada’s political landscape changed with the emergence of the Canadian Alliance Party. An initiative of the western-based Reform Party, this new entity challenged the domain of the Progressive Conservatives, one of the country’s two founding political parties. The parties agreed to merge in 2003, forming the new Conservative Party of Canada. Despite their hopes this move would unite the right, the new party was unable to unseat the governing Liberals in the 2004 general election. However, political scandals and party discord weakened the Liberals, and the January 2006 election resulted in a minority Conservative government.
Sovereignist politicians in Quebec have vowed to try yet again for a mandate to separate the province from Canada. The issue shows no sign of disappearing.
Multiculturalism is nothing new to Canada, a nation of great ethnic and racial diversity. It remains to be seen, however, if the current socio-political upheaval and continuing introspection will fracture national unity or restore it.
20,000-15,000BC — Estimated earliest human crossings of the land bridge across the Bering Strait from Mongolia to present-day Alaska.
c. AD 1000 — Norse reach Newfoundland.
1492 — Christopher Columbus lands on San Salvador.
1497 — John Cabot explores east coast of Canada.
1534 — Jacques Cartier claims Canada for France.
1565 — St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest city in the US, is founded by Spaniards.
1583 — Sir Humphrey Gilbert claims Newfoundland for England.
1605 — Samuel de Champlain establishes Port Royal.
1610 — Henry Hudson enters Hudson Bay.
1620 — Pilgrims found Plymouth, Massachusetts.
1670 — Hudson’s Bay Company is formed.
1713 — Treaty of Utrecht is signed.
France cedes Acadia to Britain.
1722 — Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy is formed.
1730s-40s — La Vérendrye family explores Canadian West.
1755 — Acadian Deportation from Nova Scotia begins.
1756-63 — Seven Years’ War.
1759 — British defeat the French in Quebec City.
1763 — Treaty of Paris is signed. France cedes New France to Britain.
1775 — War of Independence begins in American colonies.
1778 — James Cook explores coast of British Columbia.
1783 — American colonies gain independence from Britain.
Loyalists migrate to Canada.
1791 — Constitutional Act creates Upper Canada (Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec).
1793 — Alexander Mackenzie crosses British Columbia to the West Coast.
1812-14 — War of 1812.
1837 — Rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada.
1841 — Act of Union creates the United Province of Canada.
1847 — Responsible government system is implemented in Canada.
1848 — California Gold Rush begins.
1858-61 — British Columbia’s gold rushes.
1861-65 — American Civil War.
1867 — British North America Act establishes Canadian Confederation.
1869-70 — Riel Rebellion occurs in Red River Valley.
1870 — Canadian Confederation buys Hudson’s Bay Company land; Manitoba is created.
1872 — Dominion Lands Act is passed.
1873 — North West Mounted Police established.
1881-85 — Canadian Pacific Railway is constructed.
1885 — Northwest Rebellion occurs. Canada’s first national park is created.
1896 — Gold is discovered in the Klondike.
1914-18 — World War I.
1931 — Statute of Westminster grants Canada control of external affairs.
1939-45 — World War II. Canada receives large numbers of European immigrants.
1942 — Alaska Highway is completed.
1959 — St. Lawrence Seaway is opened.
1962 — Trans-Canada Highway is completed.
1968 — Québécois Party is founded.
1982 — Constitution Act is passed. Quebec refuses to sign the new constitution.
1987 — Meech Lake Accord calls for special status for Quebec.
1990 — Manitoba and Newfoundland refuse to sign Meech Lake Accord. Quebec refuses to sign 1982 constitution. Oka, Quebec, is site of armed conflict between Mohawks and Canadian government over native land claims.
1992 — A national referendum to grant Quebec special status is defeated. Voters in Northwest Territories ratify land claim agreements, a key step to Nunavut’s establishment.
1993 — Negotiation of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) among Canada, Mexico and the US.
1994 — Approved by Canada, Mexico and the US, NAFTA takes effect Jan 1.
1995 — Quebecers vote by a narrow margin (50.6 percent to 49.4 percent) not to grant the provincial government the mandate to negotiate secession from the rest of Canada.
1996 — Canada’s last census of the century is conducted in May. The country’s population stands at 28.8 million.
1998 — Canada experiences its worst ice storm in the country’s history. Some 3.5 million people in Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick are without power.
1999 — Self-administration for the new territory of Nunavut officially begins. In business for 130 years, Eaton’s (a department store chain) files for bankruptcy.
The New Millennium
2000 — Newfoundland commemorates Norse landing 1,000 years earlier. Landmark federal treaty with British Columbia’s Nisga’a native people becomes law, granting them a form of self-governance.
2001 — A nationwide census confirms a population of 29.5 million in Canada. Federal and Quebec elections renew debate about Quebec sovereignty.
2002 — Canadian troops join international peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan.
2003 — Months of negotiations result in the merger of the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative Party, uniting Canada’s right under the banner of the Conservative Party of Canada.
2004 — After a tightly-fought election, the Liberal party forms the first minority government in 25 years.
2005 — Haitian-born broadcaster Michaëlle Jean becomes 27th Governor General.
2006 — A January election results in another minority government, this time formed by the new Conservative Party. The national census gathers information about 31.6 million Canadians—and reveals that more than 80 per cent live in urban areas.
2007 — In September, the Canadian dollar closed slightly above parity with the US dollar for the first time in 31 years.
2008 — Denmark to host Canada, Russia, the US and Norway to discuss their separate claims to the Arctic and its riches.