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Canadian History

When Europeans explored Canada they found all regions occupied by native peoples they called Indians, because the first explorers thought they had reached the East Indies. The native people lived off the land, some by hunting and gathering, others by raising crops. The Huron-Wendat of the Great Lakes region, like the Iroquois, were farmers and hunters. The Cree and Dene of the Northwest were hunter-gatherers. The Sioux were nomadic, following the bison (buffalo) herd. The Inuit lived off Arctic wildlife. West Coast natives preserved fish by drying and smoking. Warfare was common among Aboriginal groups as they competed for land, resources and prestige.

The arrival of European traders, missionaries, soldiers, and colonists changed the native way of life forever. Large numbers of Aboriginals died of European diseases to which they lacked immunity. However, Aboriginals and Europeans formed strong economic, religious and military bonds in the first 200 years of coexistence which laid the foundations of Canada.

The Vikings from Iceland who colonized Greenland 1,000 years ago also reached Labrador and the island of Newfoundland. The remains of their settlement, l’Anse aux Meadows, are a World Heritage site. European exploration began in earnest in 1497 with the expedition of John Cabot, who was the first to draw a map of Canada’s east coast.

Between 1534 and 1542, Jacques Cartier made three voyages across the Atlantic, claiming the land for King Francis I of France. Cartier heard two captured guides speak the Iroquoian word kanata, meaning “village.” By the 1550s, the name of Canada began appearing on maps. In 1604, the first European settlement north of Florida was established by French explorers Pierre de Monts and Samuel de Champlain, first on St. Croix Island (in present-day Maine), then at Port-Royal, in Acadia (present-day Nova Scotia). In 1608 Champlain built a fortress at what is now Quebec City. The colonists struggled against a harsh climate. Champlain allied the colony with the Algonquin, Montagnais, and Huron, historic enemies of the Iroquois, a confederation of five (later six) First Nations who battled with the French settlements for a century. The French and the Iroquois made peace in 1701.

In 1670, King Charles II of England granted the Hudson’s Bay Company exclusive trading rights over the watershed draining into Hudson Bay. For the next 100 years the Company competed with Montreal-based traders. The skilled and courageous men who travelled by canoe were called voyageurs and coureurs des bois, and formed strong alliances with First Nations. English colonies along the Atlantic seaboard, dating from the early 1600s, eventually became richer and more populous than New France. In the 1700s France and Great Britain battled for control of North America. In 1759, the British defeated the French in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham at Quebec City — marking the end of France’s empire in America. The commanders of both armies, Brigadier James Wolfe and the Marquis de Montcalm, were killed leading their troops in battle.

In 1776, the thirteen British colonies to the south of Quebec declared independence and formed the United States. North America was again divided by war. More than 40,000 people loyal to the Crown, called “Loyalists,” fled the oppression of the American Revolution to settle in Nova Scotia and Quebec. Joseph Brant led thousands of Loyalist Mohawk Indians into Canada. The Loyalists came from Dutch, German, British, Scandinavian, Aboriginal and other origins and from Presbyterian, Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, Jewish, Quaker, and Catholic religious backgrounds. About 3,000 black Loyalists, freedmen and slaves, came north seeking a better life. In turn, in 1792, some black Nova Scotians, who were given poor land, moved on to establish Freetown, Sierra Leone (West Africa), a new British colony for freed slaves.

Believing it would be easy to conquer Canada, the United States launched an invasion in June 1812. The Americans were mistaken. Canadian volunteers and First Nations, including Shawnee led by Chief Tecumseh, supported British soldiers in Canada’s defence. In July, Major-General Sir Isaac Brock captured Detroit but was killed while defending against an American attack at Queenston Heights, near Niagara Falls, a battle the Americans lost. In 1813, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles de Salaberry and 460 soldiers, mostly French Canadiens, turned back 4,000 American invaders at Châteauguay, south of Montreal. In 1813 the Americans burned Government House and the Parliament Buildings in York (now Toronto). In retaliation in 1814, Major-General Robert Ross led an expedition from Nova Scotia that burned down the White House and other public buildings in Washington, D.C. Ross died in battle soon afterwards and was buried in Halifax with full military honors.

From 1864 to 1867, representatives of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the Province of Canada, with British support, worked together to establish a new country. These men are known as the Fathers of Confederation. They created two levels of government: federal and provincial. The old Province of Canada was split into two new provinces: Ontario and Quebec, which, together with New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, formed the new country called the Dominion of Canada. Each province would elect its own legislature and have control of such areas as education and health. The British Parliament passed the British North America Act in 1867. The Dominion of Canada was officially born on July 1, 1867.

The first four provinces formed the nucleus of the new nation. Within six years, Sir John A. Macdonald had negotiated the entry of three more provinces, using a combination of opportunism and promises. The Rupert's Land Act of 1868 ended the rule of Hudson's Bay Company over Rupert's Land and the North-western Territory. After negotiations, the province of Manitoba was created. The residents of British Columbia (and Canada) were worried that the Crown colony might be annexed by the United States. Since 1868, a group called the Confederation League had been agitating to join Confederation. In 1870, their efforts were fruitful and a delegation was sent to Ottawa. Negotiations were successful and, in 1871, British Columbia became a Province of Canada. Prince Edward Island had rejected Confederation in 1867 on the basis that they had little to gain - and their independence to lose. By 1873, though, the would-be province reconsidered.

Canada’s economy grew and became more industrialized during the economic boom of the 1890s and early 1900s. One million British and one million Americans immigrated to Canada at this time. Between 1897 and 1911, two million people immigrated to Canada. Many went west: about 30,000 farms were started per year in this period. More railways were built to help carry the load. Around the turn of the century, Canada's population in the west exploded. Saskatchewan and Alberta were born in 1905.

Most Canadians were proud to be part of the British Empire. Over 7,000 volunteered to fight in the South African War (1899-1902), popularly known as the Boer War, and over 260 died. In 1900, Canadians took part in the Battles of Paardeberg (“Horse Mountain”) and Lillefontein, victories that strengthened national pride in Canada. When Germany attacked Belgium and France in 1914 and Britain declared war, Ottawa formed the Canadian Expeditionary Force (later the Canadian Corps). More than 600,000 Canadians served in the war, most of them volunteers, out of a total population of 8 million.

After the First World War, the British Empire evolved into a free association of states known as the British Commonwealth of Nations. Canada remains a leading member of the Commonwealth to this day, together with other successor states of the Empire such as India, Australia, New Zealand, and several African and Caribbean countries. With the passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931, Canada ceased to be a colony of Britain: She was a proper country in her own right. In the next 50 years the balance of power between provinces and federal governments changed a little, but not much.

The Second World War began in 1939 when Adolf Hitler, the National Socialist (Nazi) dictator of Germany, invaded Poland and conquered much of Europe. Canada joined with its democratic allies in the fight to defeat tyranny by force of arms. More than one million Canadians and Newfoundlanders (Newfoundland was a separate British entity) served in the Second World War, out of a population of 11.5 million. This was a high proportion, and of these 44,000 were killed. The state of war and public opinion in B.C. led to the forcible relocation of Canadians of Japanese origin by the federal government and the sale of their property without compensation. This occurred even though the military and the RCMP told Ottawa that they posed little danger to Canada. The Government of Canada apologized in 1988 for wartime wrongs and compensated the victims.

Newfoundland experienced a great deal of change between World War I and its entry into Confederation. The finances of the colony were in a shambles by the early 1930s and reached such a severe state that it gave up responsible government for direct rule by Britain in 1934. In World War II, the colony prospered again. However, the United States built several large bases on the Island. The Canadian government was worried that the United States would annex Newfoundland. After the war, Newfoundlanders debated their future. British officials did not support a return to responsible government, as it was worried about costs. They probably favoured Newfoundland's entry into Confederation. In 1948, Newfoundlanders chose entry into Confederation over self-government.

By the end of the 1970s, a major movement in Canadian constitutional history was to patriate the Constitution home. There were also requests from Québec after the Quiet Revolution for a renewal of Confederation. With the Canada Act of 1982, Britain surrendered the power to make laws affecting Canada, including the Constitution. The Constitution Act of 1982 marked the first time a charter of rights had been included in any Canadian constitutional document. Because of this, courts were given a much greater say in government and can now disallow legislation on the basis of violations against the Charter of Rights.

In 1982, a movement began to separate the eastern Arctic area of the Northwest Territories into a new territory. This was based on the largely Inuit makeup of the population and the history of the region. These issues made deciding a boundary difficult, as the Dene-Métis in the Arctic also had land claims in the area. After several contentious rounds of negotiation, a boundary was finally agreed upon in 1991.

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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:25:43 ZULU