The history of Canada

A summary of Canadian history

The history of Canada

An overview of Canadian history unravels how it has become the young, bilingual and multicultural nation that we see today. 

Aboriginal Canadians are First Nations Métis and Inuits who occupied Canada long before Europeans had even set foot in the country. These native Canadians lived off the land as indigenous groups of people - until the Europeans, or “new” Canadians, came to claim the land for themselves.

The first Europeans to arrive in Canada around 1,000AD - the Vikings - were short lived. Soon after Leif Eriksson landed and named the land “Vinland”, the vikings decided to abandon their new finding, most probably due to conflict with the natives.

Centuries later, in 1497, King Henry VII of England sent the Italian, John Cabot, on an expedition to Newfoundland - a journey that England would later use to claim Canada as their own. Cabot also discovered the great wealth of fish off the Canadian coastline. Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before the main rival for Canadian colonisation appeared - a rivalry which lasted many years and one that has shaped the multicultural, bilingual Canada we know today.

Frenchman, Jacques Cartier sailed towards the St. Lawrence River during the 1530s - claiming the territory as French. In fact, the very first permanent settlers from Europe were French, establishing themselves in the St. Lawrence valley which they referred to as New France.

Like almost every expedition and colonisation - the indigenous people suffered. During the early 17th century, French missionaries attempted to convert the natives to Christianity. Furthermore, European diseases, such as smallpox, killed many natives who did not have resistance to these foreign diseases.  

Meanwhile, the English/French rivalry raged on in the struggle for Canadian colonisation. Eventually, after the Seven Years War, in 1763, the Treaty of Paris handed New France to Britain. France was merely left with two islands: St. Pierre and Miquelon, although years later the British Crown was persuaded into extending the French territory to Quebec in 1774. Along with this Quebec Act, the French were granted more freedom, they were permitted to use their own civil laws and the Roman Catholic Church was given special entitlements. This gave way for French culture and traditions to blossom in Quebec.

During the American War of Independence, Canada stayed loyal to Britain rather than fighting alongside the 13 American colonies. After the war, a new boundary was created between the United States and Canada whereby the Great Lakes were used to draw up this boarder. During this time the Canadian population was most certainly booming, provinces had to accommodate thousands of immigrants who soon began to protest for greater rights. Due to the demands from the new Canadians the Crown passed the Constitutional Act 1791, dividing Quebec into Lower Canada and Upper Canada, being mostly French and English respectively.

A century on and another wave of immigrants came to Canada. The cheap land in Upper Canada and the discovery of gold in British Columbia was sufficient to draw the attention of many Europeans and Americans. People from all over the world came to Canada to “get rich”; even today many people continue to immigrate to Canada.

The term “Canada” was first used when Lower and Upper Canada were formed, however they later united to form the province Canada. Nevertheless, the official birth of Canada was in 1867 after Britain passed the British North American Act whereby Canada had the liberty to govern itself and became the first Dominion of the British Empire.

During the early 1900s although Canada was in possession of its own government - their powers were still constrained. Not only was Canada restricted from signing its own treaties but it did not its have representatives in international meetings nor foreign embassies. Soon after the First World War, Canada's situation transformed and in 1931 the Statute of Westminster granted Canada the right to be an independent nation.

The Canada Act in 1982 finally severed Canada’s last remaining ties with the British parliament. Before this Act was passed, certain amendments to Canada’s constitution had to be approved by the UK government. Despite the Canada Act, Queen Elizabeth II is still Head of State and Queen of Canada, this role is separate to her role as British monarch.

Further reading

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