History of Canada

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History of Canada
Military history
Economic history
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Canada is a nation of 32 million inhabitants, occupying almost all of the northern half of the North American continent, and being the second largest country in the world. Canada has evolved in four hundred years from a group of European colonies into a federation of ten provinces and three territories, having been granted its sovereignty peacefully from its last colonial possessor, the United Kingdom.


Pre-colonial period

Present-day Canada has been inhabited by its First Nations and their ancestors (first Paleo-Indians, then Archaic Indians) for ten millennia. Inuit arrived after AD 500 and settled in Canada's northernmost region. Canada is believed to have been first visited by Europeans around 1000, when the Vikings briefly settled at L'Anse aux Meadows. Basque fishermen from southern Europe, who began fishing the Grand Banks, maintained seasonal fishing outposts on what became the island of Newfoundland as early as the 15th century. In the 16th and 17th centuries English and French colonists established settlements in eastern Canada largely to support fishing or fur trade. French settlement began with Samuel de Champlain and Pierre Dugua, Sieur de Monts, first in Acadia in 1604, then Qubec in 1608.

Early colonial period: The rise and fall of "New France" (Nouvelle-France) 1604-1763

Over the next 150 years, Canada and Acadia continued to expand from the heartland of the St Lawrence River into the upper country (pays d'en haut) of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi Valley of North America. Their expansion was opposed by the Wyandot (Hurons), the Iroquois, and more significantly the British who waged a series of wars (see French and Indian Wars) which cost France first Acadia, then Canada. Under British rule, Acadians were expelled in 1755. France was defeated at Louisburg in 1758 and at the decisive Battle of the Plains of Abraham at Quebec City in 1759. By the Treaty of Paris in 1763, France kept its Caribbean island colonies but lost almost all of its North American colonies to Britain and Spain. Of its northern possessions, all that was retained were the tiny fishing outposts of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon.

British imperial control 1763-1849: New colonies, U.S. relations

British North America (B.N.A.) was reduced with the American Revolution to the colonies of Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec. To accommodate the many British Loyalists who were persecuted and expelled from the United States during and after the revolution, Britain created in 1784 the province of New Brunswick and, in 1791, divided Quebec into two provinces: Lower Canada and Upper Canada.

British colonies were drawn into the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States, one of the effects of which was the first rise of a sense of nationalism amongst the British North American population. Subsequent disputes that arose between B.N.A. and the U.S. over trade, fishing, and boundaries were settled peaceably despite, or as some argue because of, American threats of war (see Rush-Bagot Treaty, Treaty of 1818, Webster-Ashburton Treaty, Oregon Treaty).

The Rebellions of 1837-38

In 1837, rebellions against the British colonial government took place in both Upper and Lower Canada. In Upper Canada, a band of Reformers under the leadership of William Lyon Mackenzie took up arms in a disorganized and ultimately unsuccessful series of small-scale skirmishes around Toronto, London, and Hamilton. In one incident, a small band of about 200 men fled to Navy Island in the Niagara River where they declared the establishment of the Republic of Canada on 13 December, 1837. Their short-lived rebellion was crushed however by British forces on 13 January, 1838. Two of the leaders were executed and others were transported (to Van Diemen's Land).

In 1837-1838, a more substantial rebellion occurred against British rule, known as the Patriotes Rebellion or Lower Canada Rebellion. French Canadian Patriotes, with some American backing, fought several skirmishes against the British. The towns of Chambly and Sorel were taken by the rebels, and Quebec City was isolated from the rest of the colony. At least 13,000 men were prepared to go to war as a declaration of independence was read at Napierville to a crowd of several thousand in 1838.

The Patriotes, however were defeated after battles at Camp Baker (Sainte-Martine), Lacolle, Odelltown, and Beauharnois. Hundreds were arrested, and several villages were burnt in reprisal. Two leaders were hanged, and 57 men, together with 83 Americans and colonials who had participated in the Upper Canadian Rebellion, were transported to Australia. In 1844 however, the Canadien Patriotes were pardoned, and those with enough money for their passage were allowed to return. Thirty-eight did so.

Western B.N.A., American trade

Once the U.S. agreed to the 49th parallel north as the border separating it from western British North America, the British government created the Pacific coast colonies of British Columbia in 1848 and Vancouver Island in 1849. By 1854, most border questions were settled, and the Governor General of British North America, James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin, signed a significant trade agreement with the United States on behalf of the colonies. This agreement endured for ten years until the American government abrogated it in 1865.

By the mid 1850s, politicians in the Province of Canada began to contemplate western expansion. They questioned the Hudson Bay Company's tenure of Rupert's Land and the Arctic territories, and launched a series of exploring expeditions to familiarize themselves and the Canadian population with the geography and climate of the region (see Simon James Dawson, George Gladman).

The Confederation movement and the Dominion of Canada 1840-1867

Agitation for union or confederation of the colonies within B.N.A. grew in the first half of the nineteenth century. After the rebellions of 1837-8, the colonies of Lower and Upper Canada were united in one government, the Province of Canada, with the Act of Union (1840), in a failed attempt to assimilate the French Canadians. Support for an even greater confederation was strengthened by events such as the Battle of Ridgeway, an invasion into Ontario by some 1500 U.S.-based Irish Fenian nationalists, an attack repulsed largely by local militia.

British North American politicians held the Charlottetown Conference and Quebec Conference, 1864 to work out the details of a federal union. On July 1, 1867, with the passing of the British North America Act by the Parliament of the United Kingdom, three colonies of British North America (the Province of Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia) became a federation styled the Dominion of Canada. It consisted of four provinces, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.

Post-Confederation and the settlement of Western Canada

After 1867, other British North American colonies and territories joined or were incorporated into the Canadian confederation. By 1880, Canada included all of its present area, including the vast Arctic lands acquired from the Hudson's Bay Company, with the exception of Newfoundland and Labrador, which joined in 1949.

The settlement of western Canada was probably the most important accomplishment of post-confederation Canada, but it was not achieved without conflict. Between 1871 and 1877, seven treaties were signed with indigenous tribes in Northwestern Ontario and the Northwest Territories, including one with Sioux who had fled across the border from the United States cavalry. Louis Riel, a French Canadian Mtis, led rebellions in Manitoba 1869-70 and 1885, because of the treatment of native and Mtis peoples. These rebellions became known respectively as the Red River Rebellion and the North-West Rebellion. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police were created in 1873 to bring law and order in the west.

By far the most important factor that opened the west to settlement and linked east to west was the construction of the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway which had been promised to the colony of British Columbia in 1871. Once the CPR was opened to Vancouver in 1885, the city quickly grew to become one of Canada's largest cities.

Post-confederation history is largely a story of territorial consolidation and the working out of the relative powers of the federal and provincial governments. By 1931 with the Statute of Westminster, Canada received the status of equality with the United Kingdom within the British Empire. The patriation of the Constitution of Canada in 1982 broke the last legal link of subordination with the Parliament of the United Kingdom, although Canada chose to retain the shared monarchy as its state figure-head. Canada is thus a constitutional monarchy.

The Great War

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated, setting off a chain of events leading to World War I. By August 4, Britain had declared war on Germany and, as part of the Empire, Canada was automatically entered in the fray.

At first the war brought Canadians together. Canada was suffering from an economic downturn and the war effort helped to revitalize the economy. The unemployed gladly volunteered for the war, expecting it to be a quick and exciting adventure. However, the soldiers were poorly equipped and the war lasted for four years.

Important events with regard to Canadian history and World War I include: Second Battle of Ypres, Battle of Somme, Vimy Ridge, and Passchendaele.

The Parliament of Canada passed several important pieces of legislation during World War I: War Measures Act (1914), Income Tax (1917), Military Service Act (1917), Military Voters Act (1917), and the Wartime Elections Act (1917).

On November 11, 1918, Germany surrendered, and as of June 28, 1919, the Treaty of Versailles formally ended the war. At Borden's insistence, Canada signed the treaty, an important symbolic recognition of Canadian sovereignty.

More than 620,000 Canadians served in the war. Of these, more than 60,000 died and more than 155,000 were wounded.

See also: WWI Military History of Canada

World War II

The Second World War in Europe started on September 1, 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. The United Kingdom declared war on Germany on September 3. Canada declared war on Germany just over a week later on September 10.

Canada played a major role in supporting the United Kingdom before the entry of the United States in the war in December 1941. Young Canadians fought on many battlefronts around the world - the Battle of Britain, the Battle of Hong Kong, the Dieppe Raid, the Allied invasion of Italy, the Italian campaign, the Battle of Normandy and the liberation of the Netherlands. The Italian, Norman and Dutch campaigns were particularly difficult (Ortona, Battle of the Scheldt, Operation Market Garden), and the liberated Dutch nation has been deeply grateful to Canadians ever since. Canada emerged from the war a modern and strong industrial nation, and would play an important role in the shaping of post-war international institutions such as the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

During the war, Canada had a policy of not allowing refugees fleeing Nazi persecution and the Holocaust to immigrate. Enemy aliens, including German, Italian, and especially Japanese Canadians, were forced into internment camps out of fear that they might collaborate with their countries of origin. Nonetheless, many Canadians with origins in these countries served with distinction in the armed forces.

VE Day (Victory in Europe) occurred on May 7, 1945, when Germany officially surrendered.

See also: WWII Military History of Canada

The French language and the status of Quebec

In the late second half of the 20th century, many Quebecers sought greater sovereignty for Quebec, which has a French-speaking majority. This movement led the federal parliament on July 7, 1969, to make the French language equal to the English throughout the Canadian federal government. This started a process that led to Canada redefining itself as a bilingual and multicultural nation. In 1977, Quebec adopted the Charter of the French Language, which recognized French as the only official language.

Two referendums were held on independence for Quebec, in 1980 and 1995. In both cases the referendums were defeated, with first 60 per cent then 50.6 per cent of the vote opposed to independence. New Brunswick (with 35 per cent of the population francophone Acadians) became officially bilingual in 1969. Other provinces with significant French-speaking minorities such as Ontario, Manitoba, and Nova Scotia provide government services in French and guarantee French schools.


  • Blattberg, Charles. 2003. Shall We Dance? A Patriotic Politics for Canada. McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal and Kingston, 2003, (especially chapter 3, "Who We Were").
  • Morris, Alexander. 1880. The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West Territories: including the negotiations on which they were based, and other information relating thereto. Belfords, Clarke, and Co. Reprint: Prospero Books, Toronto, 2000.

See also

es:Historia de Canad fr:Histoire du Canada ja:カナダの歴史 pl:Historia Kanady pt:Histria do Canad zh: 加拿大歷史


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