Canadian History

Canadian History

Canada is a vast country that forms the larger part of the continent of North America. Its history has been shaped by various people—those who originally lived there and those who ventured there, traded and built colonies, towns, and cities.

Alexz Johnson


The vast forests and lakes at the far north of North America were once home to many different peoples. Along the eastern coast lived the Micmac, a nomadic people who lived by fishing in summer and by hunting in winter. The Iroquois lived further to the west, in the forests, where they practised agriculture, growing corn, pumpkins, and tobacco. They were great rivals of the Huron, who lived around the Great Lakes. On the western coast, the Kwakiutl developed a complex culture, famous for its beautiful totem poles.


According to Icelandic sagas, or stories, Leif Ericson sailed to the North Atlantic coast in about ad 1000. He did not settle the area and left shortly afterwards. Five hundred years later European settlers were first attracted to the region by the abundant fish they found in the north Atlantic Ocean. England established its first colony in North America in 1583, on an island that had the name of Newfoundland. The French were also taking an interest. The thick fur of the animals that lived in the northern forests were very valuable in Europe. French explorers travelled inland in the hope of making useful trade contacts. Jacques Cartier, a French navigator, sailed along the St Lawrence River, and in 1608 the French founded the city of Quebec on the site of a Native American village that Cartier had visited. The French had a rival for control of trade in the region—the British Hudson’s Bay Company was founded in 1670 to develop the fur trade around Hudson Bay.


Britain and France were suspicious of each other’s ambitions in North America. Between 1689 and 1763 they fought four wars. In 1713 the British took control of the French colony of Acadia, which was located on the Gulf of St Lawrence. The colony was given the name Nova Scotia (New Scotland). Later, around 10,000 Acadians were dispersed to other parts of North America because the British were worried that they would take sides with the French. The French surrender in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) meant that Britain became the dominant colonial power in North America. However, it also meant that a large group of Catholics, with their own language and traditions, had become British subjects. The people of Quebec (called the Québécois) have always been very proud of their unique culture, and their relationship with Canadians of British descent has not always been easy.


This vast new country was not easy for the British to govern. During the American War of Independence about 50,000 Americans loyal to Britain left the United States to settle in Canada. The new settlers were called United Empire Loyalists, and they strengthened the British character of Canada. In 1791, Canada was divided into two parts—Lower Canada was mainly Catholic and French-speaking, and Upper Canada was mainly Protestant and English-speaking. Many Canadians, in both parts of the country, wanted what they called “responsible government” (more independence). Some even went to war (in 1837) to try to achieve this. A settlement was reached in 1867 when the Dominion of Canada was created. This gave Canadians the power to elect their own governments.


The Dominion of Canada occupied a relatively small part of the country we now know as Canada. To the west and the north, there were huge areas of land still to be explored. John Alexander Macdonald, the first prime minister of the Dominion of Canada, had a vision of uniting the new country and extending it west to the Pacific Ocean. A great railway was planned, stretching from Montreal in the east to British Columbia (which became part of Canada in 1871) in the west. After the railway was completed in 1885, it opened up the prairies of the west to settlers, many of whom came from Eastern Europe. The railway also encouraged the development of new towns such as Vancouver, Calgary, and Winnipeg.


Canadians fought in both World War I and World War II on the side of Britain and France against Germany. During World War I about 60,000 Canadian troops were killed fighting on the Western Front. In the years that followed Canada established itself as a significant international power. After World War II, Canada also developed as an industrial power. Its main trading partner was the United States, loosening the country’s ties to the British Empire. In 1982, Canada became free of its last ties to Britain, though the British monarch remains Canada’s head of state.