Canada Through Time

The self-governing Dominion of Canada—comprised of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia—was established on July 1, 1867. But is this date the real beginning of Canada as a country? At this point in the young country's life, Canada still maintained ties to the British crown. (This unique connection will be further discussed in Chapter 5,when you will read about Canada's government.)

The date that dominion status was achieved makes Canada a young country—less than two centuries old. But Canada has an extensive history leading up to July 1, 1867, one that weaves human existence into Canada's fabric thousands of years earlier. Early human activity is proven with evidence from the Yukon Territory's Bluefish Caves. Here, archaeologists have dated woolly mammoth bones, patterned with fractures indicative of butchering, at approximately 25,000 years old. To understand Canada today, we must begin thousands of years ago, then work through the country's tangled history to the present time.


Glacial sheets of ice once covered nearly all of Canada, with the exception of portions of the Yukon. These ice sheets ranged in thickness from several hundred yards to more than two miles! This glaciation of the Last Ice Age (Pleistocene Era) occurred until approximately 10,000 years ago. Because a huge volume of ocean water fell as snow over land and became frozen into glaciers, the level of the Bering Sea dropped to a level that exposed portions of continental shelves. The exposed shelves created a wide land “bridge” joining what is now eastern Siberia with the state of Alaska.

Similarities exist in burins (chisel-like tools) and microblades (sharp-edged flakes of stone embedded in bone) of both the Siberian peoples and the First Peoples of the unglaciated territory of the Yukon. This link offers support for the Bering Land Bridge theory—the belief that the first Americans arrived from Asia, by land. These linked tools were necessary items for processing woolly mammoths after a hunt.

Mammoths offered survival for these early people in a harsh, cold environment. Much of what is known about this period of time comes from archaeological research of human artifacts and remains. By researching tools and other remains of inhabited locations, ways of life begin to unfold. As the woolly mammoth population moved, so did these early Native ancestors.

Changes occurred as glaciers began to retreat (melt).

Water levels rose and the Bering Land Bridge became submerged. The climate of North America began to warm, bringing further adaptations to cultural patterns—skills, knowledge, and behaviors. As the woolly mammoth died off, these early humans adapted to changing environmental conditions. They began to hunt other large game and, eventually, whales and seals.

Some scientists doubt the theory of early migrations by way of an ice-free corridor. They believe that conditions on land were too cold and harsh; in fact, some doubt whether an ice-free route ever even existed between the towering glaciers that covered the region. They offer another theory to explain how the first humans could have reached the Americas: that early peoples could have traveled along an open and much warmer water route, following the coast from Asia to North America. There is some evidence provided by artifacts discovered along the Pacific shores of Canada and the United States that offers at least some support for this idea.

While the migratory route continues to be of scientific interest, it is of little importance to us. We know that Canada was settled tens of thousands of years ago. The earliest evidence of human presence in what is now Canada traces back only some 25,000 years. But some archaeologists believe that it may have been earlier, perhaps as long as 40,000 years ago.


When eventual European exploration occurred, Canada was already populated by diverse groups of native people. Each geographic region presented its own set of environmental conditions to which early settlers adapted their lifestyles. The Native People were hunters, gatherers, fishers, and, later, farmers. Some lived settled lifestyles while others were nomadic, moving with the seasons and food sources.

Although some people might incorrectly think of them as having been “primitive,” they had to possess a powerful knowledge of the land and its resources in order to survive. Of special note were the Huron. They lived along the southeastern corner of the Great Lake that now bears their name—Lake Huron. This location was a north–south trade crossroads. Here, linkages and networks of aboriginal North America crisscrossed. The Huron also dominated interior trade routes east to the Atlantic Ocean. An Iroquois-speaking population had a presence in the woodlands of this area as well. As European settlements spread westerly from the Atlantic Coast, native ways of life for all native peoples would be affected.


Inuit peoples (Eskimos) arrived in northern Canada perhaps 6,000 years ago. Approximately 1,000 years ago, a climatic warming occurred throughout the Arctic. The Thule, a whale-hunting people, took advantage of this development, traveling by umiak (a boat with a skin-covered frame and several seats for passengers and supplies) through partially thawed waters.Migrating whalers were equipped with sophisticated sea-hunting tools and techniques. Included were such items as detachable-head harpoons and multiple groupings of inflated sealskins used to slow harpooned whales. To the east and north, in Baffin Bay, waters were open and whale populations of the time were plentiful, encouraging exploration and the search for additional resources.

Thule villages were located along northern coastal areas of Arctic Canada. Other natural resources, such as seal and caribou, sustained the Thule where whales were not plentiful or available; near Igloolik, on a small island west of Baffin Island, walrus offered a diversified hunting option. The Thule used bones from these animals as building materials, and their skins as roofs—creating what must have been a warm, smoky atmosphere in efficient dwellings. Within a period of a few hundred years, the Thule culture had spread throughout Arctic Canada. Subsequent climatic cooling, which began around 1200 A.D., may have begun the decline of the Thule way of life. Described as direct ancestors of the modernInuit (meaning “the people” in the Inuktitut language), it is  believed that the Thule people and their way of life became the Inuit culture of recent centuries. Inuit legends narrate the Thule migration and Arctic occupation, thus extending the history of the Thule culture. Culturally, there was a sharp division between the traditional Inuit (Eskimo) and First Nations (Indian) ways of life.


During the period of the Thule movement east across Arctic Canada, a Viking settlement was being established in Newfoundland. This site, L'Anse aux Meadows, is the earliest known European settlement in North America. Excavations have unearthed the remains of timber and sod buildings, along with iron and bronze artifacts, which have been dated to 1000 A.D. According to Norse sagas (oral history), the Norse settlers fought against a native group the Vikings called “Scraelings” (it is not known which native population they represented). When relations between the Vikings and Scraelings turned hostile, the Vikings realized they were far outnumbered. They decided to abandon their settlement and return to Greenland, from which they initially had come. Nearly 500 years would pass before European exploration would once again continue in earnest.


The year was 1497. Italian navigator Giovanni Caboto was under orders from King Henry VII of England. Known in English as John Cabot, he was determined to find a new trade route (for the British Empire) to the Orient.What he rediscovered instead were the eastern shores of Canada, specifically Newfoundland and Labrador. He also discovered in the waters quantities of cod so thick that Cabot's ship was slowed! When western Europeans learned of this resource, a thriving fishing industry followed on what became known as Newfoundland's Grand Banks. This was but the first of many instances in which Canada's rich natural resources had an important impact on history.

The British weren't the only Europeans actively searching for the Northwest Passage. The much-sought-after passage, if found, would offer a shorter trade route from Europe to the vast wealth and valuable trade items of the Orient. Portuguese, Spanish, and French explorers were active in the quest as well. Though native populations in Canada were already established upon European arrival, explorers still claimed these lands in the New World as “theirs.”

Soon, it would be the French who ventured into the waters surrounding Atlantic Canada. In a 1534 voyage, Frenchman Jacques Cartier located the inviting eastern water highway reaching into Canada's interior. The St. Lawrence River promised blessings along its upstream route to the Great Lakes of inner Canada.With successive voyages in 1535 and shortly thereafter, Cartier established settlements that became present-day Quebec City and Montreal. He had hoped to discover precious metals in the area to bring him wealth, but it was not to happen. Reports of luxurious furs worn by the native people, however, were welcome words to the ears of fashionable European hat makers. It was with this resource that elegant hats were designed from the velvety fur of the beaver.

The French began sweeping through other portions of Canada. The rivers were inviting roads to parties of fur traders. By traveling these rivers, voyageurs (men hired by French fur companies) could transport supplies and goods to far-reaching posts throughout Canada and to the south. The French established trapping routes, with knowledge gained from the native populations, to obtain rich resources of fur. They established trading posts where furs could be collected. Furs were also obtained through trade with the native peoples. Small settlements were soon established to organize trade across much of the fur-supporting environment of North America. Furs from these smaller settlements would be gathered and transported by canoe to major settlements such as Montreal and Quebec City before being shipped to Europe.


A new century brought French navigator Samuel de Champlain to the St. Lawrence region of eastern Canada. From 1604 through 1609, Champlain undertook efforts to establish colonies to build New France. Champlain founded the first permanent French settlement, Quebec City, in 1608. Champlain had three efforts in mind for colonization. First, he still wished to discover the elusive Northwest Passage. (An explorer named Jean Nicollet would still be searching for the Northwest Passage in 1634. His search instead added Lake Michigan to European maps.) Additionally, Champlain had hopes for converting the Native populations from their traditional ways to the ways of Roman Catholicism. Champlain hoped that passing on the strong Catholic influence would be accomplished by missionary work with the Native People. However, the Native People already had their own strong beliefs and did not always welcome the efforts of the missionaries. As a third effort, Champlain wanted to further develop fur trade with the native populations.

The expanse of Champlain's dream of a fur-trading empire would come true beyond his imagination! French explorers, trappers, and traders journeyed west across the Canadian prairies, paddled north to Hudson Bay, and ventured south to the Gulf of Mexico. The legacy of these French trappers continues today in the hundreds of French place names that dot the linguistic landscape across much of the United States and Canada.

The success of Champlain's efforts depended greatly on establishing positive relationships with native peoples already living there. Champlain did this by exploring much of the provinces known today as Quebec and Ontario on foot and by canoe. Often, native guides, sharing their impressive knowledge of the land, accompanied him. Strong trading partnerships were formed with natives. The Huron, a powerful nation of hunters, farmers, and traders, were included in these ties.

Not to be forgotten, the British were sending Henry Hudson across the Atlantic Ocean. He located a bay that is named for him, Hudson Bay, in 1610. The European powers of France and Britain were both coveting the domination of global trade. Both empires treasured “newly discovered” lands. France claimed central Canada, including much of present-day Ontario. The British, in Hudson Bay, also lay claim to much of the same land. It was inevitable that, in time, the conflicts of these interests would escalate.


Harsh landscapes and challenging climates made life difficult for people who settled in New France in the early years. Few people wanted to move there from France because of the hardships. In fact, the population of New France by the 1660s—after a half-century of occupation—was estimated to be only about 3,000 people.

Samuel de Champlain and those Europeans who arrived soon after confirmed the importance of settling along the St. Lawrence River Valley. The lake and river systems made westward exploration comfortable for thousands of miles—the rough Appalachian terrain to the east was daunting to early explorers. Additionally, the country was rich with fur for trade—risky, but it did sustain New France for many years. The concentrated search for furs also took the French into the Great Lakes region and south along the Mississippi River into land that would later become part of the United States.

Jesuit missionaries sought to convert the Huron and other native populations to Roman Catholicism, the religion of the French, just as Champlain had hoped. The French believed that by establishing Roman Catholicism among the native populations their relationships with the Huron and their trading partners would be unified and further strengthened. Establishing peace among the native nations themselves was also an important endeavor pursued by the missionaries. The Huron homelands were the hub of the inland fur trade; however, the Iroquois sought to take control of this lucrative trade.As French relations with the Huron tightened, the Iroquois became increasingly hostile toward both parties. Rivalries escalated in tribal trading as well as in European trading.


British settlers had hoped to establish themselves on the northern fringes of New France. In the 1660s, they received help from two French traders, Sieur des Groseilliers and Pierre-Esprit Radisson. Upset by the high costs of transporting furs to Quebec and the heavy tax on furs, these two became “traitors” when they fled to New England (a developing British colonial region in the northeastern United States), then gradually made their way to England to rally support from London merchants. They urged Britain to provide support to establish fur trading posts in the Hudson Bay area. Upon seeing a shipload of furs from the region, the King of England agreed. His approval led to the formation of the Hudson's Bay Company in 1670. The Company assumed power over all land in the Hudson Bay drainage basin—well over 1,000,000 square miles (2,590,000 square kilometers) of land representing approximately one-third of present-day Canada. The land became known as Rupert's Land, named after the head of the Hudson's Bay Company.

Now, with fur traders on the bay, fisherman on the Atlantic Coast, and explorers still searching for the Northwest Passage, the British were nosing around the north and south of New France. Caught between the Iroquois to the south and the Hudson's Bay Company to the north, New France pushed into the interior. Since the sixteenth century, France and England had been competing to develop colonies in this New World. It would not be long until the competition led to intensified conflict and war.


In 1749, the governor of New France declared an advance into the Ohio River Valley, land that had not yet been claimed by New France. Its possession would confine British colonists and their fur trade to the area east of the Allegheny Mountains. Almost immediately, this threatened the British colonies' expansion, fur trade, and opportunities for settlement. By 1753, feelings of dissent escalated to action. A British colonists' expedition, under the leadership of George Washington, traveled to the forks of the Ohio River.

Known in America as the French and Indian War, the European-named Seven Years' War began in approximately 1754. The two sides seemed unbalanced at first, with British colonists numbering nearly 1,000,000 compared to 70,000 for New France. But several thousand Indian allies supported the French. This, in combination with more organized and bettertrained French troops, led to early French victories. It also offered a showcase for the strength and resolve of the yearningto-be-independent, future country of Canada. Nonetheless, in 1758, the British captured the thick-walled and heavily cannoned French fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island. In 1759, the British had another victory on the Plains of Abraham (named after the farmer who owned the land) in Quebec City. This famous battle ended French rule in Canada, and Quebec City fell to the British. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 officially surrendered French territory east of the Mississippi River to Great Britain.


The British victory reduced the threat from New France to the developing “American” colonies, thus lessening those colonies' dependence on Great Britain. The victory also allowed for continuation of the fur trade. Additionally, it presented the colonies with a large population of Frenchspeaking inhabitants in Quebec. Under British rule, Parliament proclaimed the Quebec Act of 1774, which essentially extended the boundaries of New France to the south and west. Thus, New France was now under British North American rule. The Act also recognized the in-place seigneurial system. Under this system, farmers rented land from a landlord (called a seigneur), rather than owning it.At this time, Canada retained the Roman Catholic Church and did not enforce the prominent Protestant religion of the British. Thus, the British permitted French traditions, and people were allowed to remain where they had settled. (To this day, a struggle continues over issues of Quebec's desire to be a sovereign, independent nation.)

The American Revolution (War of Independence) in 1776 also had a profound impact on Canada. Many colonists in the 13 U.S. colonies wanted to sever ties with England, but those who wished to remain associated with England were threatened with loss of homes, jobs, and even their lives. Many moved north to seek refuge in Canada. Because of their loyalty to the British Empire, they were called “United Empire Loyalists.” Nearly 40,000 Loyalists were welcomed in Canada. These ties to England would be influential to Canada's future political system and government.

The large influx of populations led to the creation of Upper Canada (now Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec), even though Ontario seems “lower” on a map. In actuality, the directional riddle is easily solved: The names come from the flowing direction of the St. Lawrence River. The river flows from the Great Lakes “down” to the Atlantic Ocean, so Upper Canada included the present-day province of Ontario.


British North American colonies continued to increase in population after the migration of the United Empire Loyalists. Settlers were arriving in large numbers from Ireland, Scotland, England, and Germany. In 1812, settlers from Scotland and Ireland also began to arrive in the Red River Valley near present-day Winnipeg, Manitoba, to farm the rich, fertile land.

Meanwhile, on the eastern coast, the British colonies had become involved with the United States in the War of 1812. The empire-broadening hopes of U.S. President George Washington were shattered when colonists joined British military forces to defeat the American army. As time went on, it became too expensive for the British to keep defending Canada. It was also increasingly difficult to govern Canada from a distance. Another change was on the horizon.

As in the past, “Canadians” were still pushing to the Pacific Ocean in search of water routes and territory. Simon Fraser, son of a Loyalist family who had earlier sought refuge in Canada, explored the waterway that would eventually be named in his honor. Alexander Mackenzie earned the distinction of exploring the extensive river system (including tributaries) now known as the Mackenzie River in his search for the Northwest Passage. Exploration and mapping were occurring across the continent. Differing views were being expressed about the opportune vision of the Dominion of Canada's future.

John A. Macdonald, who would become the first Prime Minister and later Sir John A. Macdonald, believed the future of Canada lay in joining as one expansive country from coast to coast to coast. After much debate among involved leaders, the land was finally joined together as the Dominion of Canada. This was accomplished under the British North America Act on July 1, 1867. Strikingly, no revolution or war was necessary at that time for Canada to gain her independent status.


In 1869, Canada purchased Rupert's Land from the Hudson's Bay Company, and greatly increased its size. The purchase was upsetting to the native people and the Metis (people of both French and native descent) who were living there. Of concern was the government failure to allow the Metis' land rights. As settlers began to move to this newly recognized area, the Metis felt threatened. They believed the arrival of settlers would drastically alter their way of life and property ownership. Louis Riel, a Metis leader, led a rebellion at Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg). The Metis declared themselves the provisional government for the territory. To defuse the matter, the Canadian government passed the Manitoba Act of 1870. This Act created the fifth province, Manitoba, and guaranteed the Metis both property and language rights. During the next 15 years, Riel experienced a series of personal and public conflicts. His eventual hanging caused an outburst of racial tension between French/Native Canadians and English Canadians, thus straining Canada's developing unity in this region.

How would you encourage hundreds of thousands of immigrants to settle on the expansive prairies of Canada and other less-populated areas? The Canadian Pacific Railroad knew the answer: Build a transcontinental railroad. The hard work and financial struggles that would be involved in such a process caused several interruptions in the building of the railway. Yet, just the promise of a transcontinental railroad linking to the opposite, eastern coast of Canada encouraged British Columbia to join the Canadian confederation. British Columbia would become the sixth province of Canada in 1871, before the railroad had even been completed.

In 1885, the dreams of a transcontinental railroad were finally achieved. For the first time in its youthful status as a country, a transportation route finally linked Canada from east to west. The Canadian Shield's craggy landscape and the piercing of the towering barrier of the Cordillera had proved most difficult for those building the railroad. The efforts of more than 15,000 Chinese workers helped thousands of others to accomplish the task of completing the railroad through the mountains of British Columbia. As the rails progressed across the prairies and climbed the mountains, thousands of settlers were arriving. The Canadian Pacific Railroad brought western Canada to life as villages and towns bustled in growth. Another rush, this time for gold, would change the mainland of British Columbia forever.

When the 1860 Cariboo Gold Rush had “evaporated,” along with dreams of instant wealth, roads already had been built to the gold fields. These roads reached into the Cariboo Mountains of British Columbia, away from the more settled coastal areas. This opened up the mainland of the province to settlement. Similar happenings took place in the 1890s when the Klondike Gold Rush sparkled in the Yukon.


Proud and confident, Canada greeted the twentieth century with jubilation. Immigrant populations had swelled the previously sparsely populated provinces. Canada, as a confederation, was establishing itself as an industrial and agricultural power.

The struggles of World War I and World War II called for courage. Canadians responded with military manpower and precious natural resources to produce war materials. The contributions in time of war bolstered Canada's international stature and affirmed Canadian capabilities as a modern and industrial nation.

Between these wars, economic and social disasters resulting from the Great Depression tested Canadians' courage. In the years following these struggles of war and the economic depression, the standard of living increased for many people and the economy continued to expand. The latter portion of the twentieth century saw a vocal minority calling for Quebec's secession (withdrawal) from the confederation of Canada. It wouldn't be the first time that Quebec would be thinking independently. In 1982, the British Parliament approved the Constitution Act. This act repatriated (brought home) Canada's constitution from British Parliament (against Quebec's objections.) This repatriation meant that Canada was now free to interpret and amend the constitution without deferring to the British Parliament. More recently, a 1995 referendum (the second) saw Quebec voters just narrowly reject secession.

Recent years have experienced financial conflicts between federal and provincial systems. For example, matters of education and health care funding are largely the responsibility of individual provinces and territories. Decreases in “transfer payments” from the federal government have led to provincial and territorial struggles with health care and educational needs of the citizens, young and old. Recently developed political parties, such as the Bloc Quebecois (represented only in Quebec) and Reform Party, have promoted their special interests in political issues. These parties are in addition to the Liberal, Conservative, and New Democratic Parties already established in Canada. Economic issues within North America, including NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement, concerning trade among Canada, the United States, and Mexico) continue to swirl about on a regular basis.

(And yes, the Toronto Blue Jays once did win back-to-back World Series (baseball) championships!)

Canada's geographical and political map changed on April 1, 1999, when Nunavut was officially named Canada's third territory. Meaning “our land” in Inuktitut, the Inuit language, Nunavut was formed from the eastern portion of the Northwest Territories. This vast territory makes up one-fifth of Canada's size! Here, the Inuit way of life is now represented from within. Nunavut is self-governed by the Inuit, who comprise 85 percent of the population living there. (According to the 2001 census, Nunavut's population was 26,745; the census is taken every five years.) Fascinating, frustrating, tremendous, turbulent—will these descriptions of Canada's past also be descriptions of its future?