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History of Canada

This is an outline of the history of Canada.

Table of contents

The First Nations

At around 10,000 BC, the first people entered what is now Canada, having travelled over the Bering Strait. These Indians, or First Nations, as they are called in Canada, spread over all of Canada, adapting themselves to the various surroundings. Tribes varied from the Cree in northern Quebec, the Haida on the Pacific coast and the Iroquois in the Saint Lawrence River valley. Another group, the Inuit, lived in the arctic regions.

The European Arrival

The first Europeans to arrive in Canada were the Vikings. Around the year 1000, they briefly established a colony at L'Anse aux Meadows.

John Cabot landed on the coast of North America in 1497 and claimed it for King Henry VII of England. The French also soon arrived at North America with Jacques Cartier exploring much of the coast, and claiming it for France. Under Samuel de Champlain, the first settlement was made, which would later grow to be Quebec City. The French claimed Canada as their own and settlers arrived settling along the St. Lawrence and in the Maritimes. The British also claimed the region, however, and they also began to settle, claiming the south of Nova Scotia as well as the areas around the Hudson Bay.

The early Canadian economy revolved around beaver fur which was the rage in Europe. French voyagers would travel into the hinterlands and trade with the natives. As the period continued other resources increased in importance, especially timber, which was essential for the navies of the European nations.

The arrival of the Europeans was disastrous for the native peoples. Relations varied between the settlers and the Natives. The French quickly befriended the Huron peoples and entered into a mutually beneficial trading relationship with them. The Iroquois, however, became dedicated opponents of the French and warfare between the two was unrelenting, especially as the British armed the Iroquois in an effort to weaken the French.

It was not warfare that destroyed the native way of life, however, but diseases imported from Europe to which they had no immunities. Smallpox and other maladies wiped out a large portion of Canada's native population.

French vs. English

The French were well established in Canada, while the English had control over the thirteen colonies to the south as well as control over Hudson Bay. The British, with greater financial power and a larger navy, were consistently in a better position to defend and expand their colonies than the French, however. The French government gave very little support to their colonists in New France and they had to, for the most part, fend for themselves. Thus in the long series of Anglo-French wars, which dominated the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the French steadily lost ground.

The first areas lost to the English were the Maritimes. This gave the British control over a large number of French-speaking Acadians. Not trusting these new subjects, the British ordered a massive deportation effort and spread the Acadians throughout their North American holdings. After its victory in the Seven Years' War, Great Britain gained control of Quebec as part of the Treaty of Paris (1763). Distinct rules of governance for Quebec were set out in the Quebec Act of 1774.

The Quebec Act also divided Canada into Upper Canada, the domain of English Canadians and present-day Ontario; and Lower Canada, the domain of French-Canadians and present-day Quebec.

The American Revolution

In 1775 American revolutionists attempted to push their insurrection into Quebec. The Quebecois by and large regarded the English as the lesser of two evils and remained loyal to the crown. The Americans took the towns of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu[?] and Montreal and laid siege to Quebec City. An attempt to take the city on the night of New Year's Eve 1775 failed. The Americans were driven from Quebec in 1776. During the War of 1812 unsuccessful attempts were made by the Americans to invade Ontario and by the British to take control of Lake Champlain. A few towns in northern New York were occupied by the British, but were returned eventually to the United States. For the remainder of the 19th Century, relations varied from relatively harmonious to frosty. The most serious events occurred in 1837-1838 when Hunter Patriots attacked Windsor, Ontario and engaged in a serious military action at Prescott, Ontario. In 1864 a handful of Confederate raiders based in Quebec briefly seized the town of St Albans, Vermont. See St Albans raid[?].

"Responsible Government" and the Rebellions of 1837-38

The first half of the 19th century saw the growth of political reform movements in both Upper and Lower Canada. These reformers argued for a more representational form of government which they called "responsible government." By "responsible," the reformers meant that such a government would be ultimately responsible to the will of the citizens of the colonies, not to the British legislature or monarchy.

A major point of debate among Canadian historians is how closely linked the reform movements in Upper and Lower Canada were. The previously popular view, and the one expressed by Lord Durham in his famous analysis of the rebellions in 1837, was that these two movements were unique and separate, simply coincidental in time. This view usually interprets the rebellion in Lower Canada largely in ethnic and cultural terms, suggesting that it was primarily a conflict between French nationalists and an English ruling class, while the less-successful rebellion in Upper Canada was a conflict between republican and monarchical ideology. Increasingly, this view has been put into questions by historians such as John Ralston Saul. Saul suggests the rebellions were both part of the same broad movement for democratic and republican reform, pointing to the extensive correspondence between the leaders of the rebellion, and the prominence of some English speakers in the rebellion in Lower Canada.

Lower Canada - the Patriotes Rebellion

In Lower Canada, the movement for reform took shape in a period of economic disenfranchisement of the French-speaking majority. In banking, the timber trade, and the transportation trade, anglophones were disproportionately represented (one representative statistic: anglophones accounted for 5% of the population of Rimouski[?] in 1842, and 50% of the businessmen). At the same time, many among the increasingly anglophone business elite were pushing for a union of Upper and Lower Canada, a plan which the British-appointed governor, George Ramsey, Earl of Dalhousie[?], favoured. The reaction was a growing sense of nationalism among the French-speaking majority, which solidified into the Parti Canadien, later called the Parti Patriote.

Louis-Joseph Papineau was elected speaker of the colonial assembly in 1815. The assembly, while elected, had no real power; its decisions could be vetoed by a legislative council and governor appointed by the British government. Dalhousie and Papineau were soon at odds over the issue of uniting the Canadas. Dalhousie forced an election in 1827 rather than accept Papineau as speaker. Sympathizers to the reform movement in England had Dalhousie forced from his position and reappointed to India. Even still, the legislative council and the assembly were not able to reach a compromise, and by 1834, the assembly had passed The Ninety-Two Resolutions[?], outlining its grievances against the legislative council.

In 1832, British troops fired on voters in an assembly by-election, killing three people. In 1834, the Parti Patriote swept to power with more than three-quarters of the popular vote. However, the reformers in Lower Canada became divided over several issues. A moderate reformer named John Neilson[?] quit the party and formed a Constitutional Association to push for non-violent reform. Papineau's increasingly anti-clerical position alienated reformers in the Roman Catholic Church, and his support for secular rather than religious schools made him a powerful enemy in Bishop Jean-Jacques Lartigue[?]. Lartigue called on all Catholics to reject the reform movement and support the authorities, forcing many to choose between their religion and their political convictions.

In November of 1837, Lord Gosford, then governor of Lower Canada, launched a pre-emptive attack on the Patriotes, who were planning a rebellion for December 4. The Patriotes were caught by surprise. Papineau escaped to the United States. The rebellion was quickly put down, but a second rebellion broke out one year later. The military responded by burning down the houses of rebels, and hanging twelve rebels in Montreal. The historian Elinor Kyte Senior estimates nearly 4000 Patriote sympathizers had fled to the United States by 1839.

The Rebellion in Upper Canada

In Upper Canada, the controversial issue was the allocation of land. Much land had been set aside as "Crown reserves." These reserves of unworked land lowered the value of neighbouring farm, because isolated farms were less efficient than farms close together. The British government's system of allocating land was seen by many as excessively bureaucratic when compared with the American system. In 1804, a Scottish pollster named Robert Goulay[?] became a political martyr when the British government expelled him from the country, for fear that he was stirring up Republican sentiment over the issue of Crown reserves.

Land had also been allocated to the "Protestant Clergy," but it had never been specified whether this was intended for the Anglican Church only, or for all Protestant denominations. This debate encouraged republican sentiment among non-Anglican Protestants. Also, the colony had experienced an influx of American immigrants, many of whom prefered the republican system of their mother country.

A Scottish immigrant named William Lyon Mackenzie became the spokesman of the reform movement in Upper Canada. In 1824, he founded a reformist newspaper called The Colonial Advocate. He became active in politics, winning a seat in the Upper Canadian assembly.

In 1836 and 1837, Mackenzie gathered support among farmers. An especially bad harvest in 1835 had led to a recession, and in the following years, the banks had begun to tighten credit and recall loans. On December 1, 1837, Mackenzie began calling for an armed revolt. Originally planned for December 7, Mackenzie's cohorts moved the date of the rebellion to December 4. This change in date lead to some confusion, as the rebels were unable to gather at the same time, though how much damage this confusion did to the rebellion remains a controversial point. When the revolt began, Mackenzie hesitated in attacking York (Toronto), the capital of Upper Canada. On December 7, Mackenzie's military leader, Anthony von Egmond[?], arrived. Egmond, a veteran on both sides of the Napoleonic Wars, advised immediate retreat.

Mackenzie ignored Egmond's advice, and waited for the government counterattack. When the loyalist forces arrived, he rebels were hopelessly outnumbered. As well, only half of them were armed. After only a few minutes, the rebel forces fled.

Lord Durham's Report

John George Lambton, Earl of Durham, was appointed Governor-General of Canada in 1838. He was assigned to investigate the causes of the Rebellions, and concluded that the problem was essentially animosity between the English and French inhabitants of Canada. His Report on the Affairs of British North America contains the famous description of "two nations warring in the bosom of a single state." For Durham, the French were culturally backwards, and he was convinced that only a union of French and English Canada would allow the colony to progress. A political union would, he hoped, cause the French to be assimilated by English settlement, solving the problem of French nationalism once and for all.

Union Act

Lord Durham was succeeded by Lord Sydenham[?], who implemented Durham's suggestions in the Union Act, passed on July 23, 1840. According to the Act, Upper and Lower Canada became, respectively, Canada West and Canada East, both with 42 seats in the legislature of the Province of Canada. The official language of the province became English: the French language was abolished in a text of law for the first time in world History. The Union Act was ultimately unsuccessful, and led to calls for a greater political union in the 1850s and 1860s.


In the 1860s, in the wake of the American Civil War, the British were concerned with American reprisal for their lukewarm support of the North, and pushed to implement a defensive grouping of their colonies to the north of the United States. Though these fears ultimately proved foundless, on July 1, 1867, Canada's birthday (now celebrated as Canada Day), several of Britain's North American colonies became provinces of Canada at Confederation: Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. The prairies and the Arctic, at that time possessions of the Hudson's Bay Company, were integrated as Rupert's Land in 1869.

The Metis people of this region formed a provisional government in 1868, led by Louis Riel. This government negotiated with the Canadian government, resulting in the creation of Manitoba in 1870, with laws protecting the interests of French-speakers.

British Columbia voted to join Canada in 1871, Prince Edward Island in 1873. In 1905 the remaining southern portion of Rupert's Land was divided into the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. The last province to join was Newfoundland and Labrador in 1949. Before joining Canada, Newfoundland had been an independent dominion; at the time it joined, Newfoundland was essentially bankrupt. In 1999, a large part of the Northwest Territories became the separate region of Nunavut, a sparsely populated territory inhabited mostly by Inuit.

We really need to elaborate on the War of 1812, the North-West Rebellion, and more modern history.

On May 12, 1885 the four day Battle of Batoche[?], pitting rebel French Canadians against the Canadian government, came to an end with a decisive rebel defeat.

See also : Canada, Louis Riel

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