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History of Canada



Canada's History

  Aboriginal peoples are thought to have arrived from Asia thousands of years ago by way of a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska. Some of them settled in Canada, while others chose to continue to the south. When the European explorers arrived, Canada was populated by a diverse range of Aboriginal peoples who, depending on the environment, lived nomadic or settled lifestyles, were hunters, fishermen or farmers.

First contacts between the native peoples and Europeans probably occurred about 1 000 years ago when Icelandic Norsemen settled for a brief time on the island of Newfoundland. However, it would be another 600 years before European exploration began in earnest. 


First Colonial Outposts

  Seeking a new route to the rich markets of the Orient, French and British explorers plied the waters of North America. They constructed a number of posts - the French mostly along the St. Lawrence River, the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River; the British around Hudson Bay and along the Atlantic coast. Although explorers such as Cabot, Cartier and Champlain never found a route to China and India, they found something just as valuable - rich fishing grounds and teeming populations of beaver, fox and bear, all of which were valued for their fur.

Permanent French settlement began in the early 1600s and increased throughout the century. With settlement came economic activity, but the colonies of New France remained economically dependent on the fur trade and politically and militarily dependent on their mother countries.

Inevitably, North America became the focal point for the bitter rivalry between England and France. After the fall of Quebec City in 1759, the Treaty of Paris assigned all French territory east of the Mississippi River to Britain, except for the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, off the island of Newfoundland.

Under British rule, the 65 000 French-speaking inhabitants of Quebec had a single aim - to retain their traditions, language and culture. In 1774, Britain passed the Quebec Act, which granted official recognition to French civil laws and guaranteed religious and linguistic freedoms.

Large numbers of English-speaking colonists, called Loyalists because they wished to remain faithful to the British Empire, sought refuge in Canada after the United States of America declared its independence in 1776. They settled mainly in the colonies of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and along the Great Lakes. 

The increase in population led to the creation in 1791 of Upper Canada (now Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec). Both were granted their own representative governing institutions.

After the Rebellions for political reforms in Upper and Lower Canada in 1837 and 1838, Lord Durham recommended to the British Parliament that the Canadas be joined, leading to the Act of Union. In 1848, the joint colony was granted responsible government except in matters of foreign affairs. Canada gained a further measure of autonomy but remained part of the British Empire.


A Country Is Born 

  Britain's North American colonies - Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland - grew and prospered independently. However, with the emergence of a more powerful United States after the American Civil War, some politicians felt a union of the British colonies was the only way to fend off eventual annexation. On July 1, 1867, Canada East, Canada West, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick joined together under the terms of the British North America Act to become the Dominion of Canada.

The government of the new country was based on the British parliamentary system, with a Governor General (the Crown's representative) and a Parliament consisting of an elected House of Commons and an appointed Senate. Parliament received the power to legislate over certain matters of national interest, while the provinces were given legislative powers over matters of "particular" interest (such as property and education).


Westward Expansion

  Soon after Confederation, Canada expanded into the northwest. Rupert's Land - an area extending south and west from Hudson Bay for thousands of kilometres - was purchased by Canada from the Hudson's Bay Company, which had been granted the vast territory by King Charles of England in 1670.

Westward expansion did not happen without stress. In 1869, Louis Riel led a political battle over the Hudson's Bay Company land, in an attempt to defend Métis ancestral rights to the land. A compromise was reached in 1870 and a new province, Manitoba, was carved from Rupert's Land.

British Columbia, already a Crown colony since 1858, decided to join the Dominion in 1871 on the promise of a rail link with the rest of the country; Prince Edward Island followed suit in 1873. In 1898, the northern territory of Yukon was officially established to ensure Canadian jurisdiction over that area during the Klondike gold rush. In 1905, two new provinces were carved from Rupert's Land: Alberta and Saskatchewan. The residual land became the Northwest Territories. Newfoundland preferred to remain a British colony until 1949, when it became Canada's tenth province.

The creation of new provinces coincided with an increase in immigration to Canada, particularly to the west. Immigration peaked in 1913 with 400 000 people coming to Canada. During the pre-war period, Canada profited from the prosperous world economy and established itself as an industrial as well as an agricultural power. 


A Nation Matures 

  Canada's substantial role in the First World War won it representation distinct from Britain in the League of Nations after the War. Its independent voice became more and more pronounced, and in 1931 Canada's autonomy from Britain was confirmed with the passing of the Statute of Westminster.

In Canada as elsewhere, the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 brought hardship. As many as one out of every four workers was without a job and the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba were laid waste by drought.

Canada played a significant role during the Second World War, both militarily and economically. The War boasted Canada's international stature and did much to industrialize the Canadian economy and increase Canadians' standard of living.

Since the Second World War, Canada's economy has continued to expand. This growth, combined with government social programs such as family allowances, old-age security, universal medicare and unemployment insurance, has given Canadians a high standard of living and a desirable quality of life.

Noticeable changes have occurred in Canada's immigration trends. Before the Second World War, most immigrants came from the British Isles or eastern Europe. Since 1945, increasing numbers of southern Europeans, Asians, South Americans and people from the Caribbean islands have enriched Canada's multicultural mosaic.

On the international scene, as the nation has developed and matured, so has its reputation and influence. Canada has participated in the United Nations since its inception and is the only nation to have taken part in all of the UN's major peacekeeping operations. It was a Canadian, Lester Pearson, who invented the concept of peacekeeping; he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1959 as a result. Canada is also a member of the Commonwealth, la Francophonie, the Group of Eight industrialized nations, the OAS (Organization of American States) and the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) defence pact.


A New Federation in the Making 

  The last quarter of a century has seen Canadians grapple once more with fundamental questions of national identity. Discontent among many French-speaking residents of Quebec led to a referendum in that province in 1980 on whether Quebec should become more politically autonomous from Canada, but a majority voted against sovereignty association.

In 1982, the process toward major constitutional reform reached an important milestone when the British North America Act of 1867 and its various amendments became the Constitution Acts, 1867-1982. The Constitution, its Charter of Rights and Freedoms and general amending formula redefined the powers of governments, entrenched the equality of women and men and advanced the rights of individuals and ethnocultural groups.

Two major efforts were subsequently made to reform the constitutional system: the 1987 Meech Lake Accord, which was not implemented since it did not obtain the legislative consent of all provinces, and the 1991 Charlottetown Accord, which was rejected in a national referendum held on October 26, 1992.

On February 2, 1996, the Parliament of Canada passed a bill guaranteeing Canada's five major regions that no constitutional change concerning them would be made without their unanimous consent. As well, less than a month after the Quebec sovereignty referendum of October 30, 1995, the Parliament of Canada passed a resolution recognizing Quebec as a distinct society within Canada.

Federal evolution is also under way in Canada's North. On April 1, 1999, the northern territory of Nunavut joined the federation, marking the first change to the map of Canada since Newfoundland became a province fifty years earlier in 1949. Meaning "our land" in Inuktitut, the Inuit language, Nunavut is a vast territory, containing one-fifth of Canada's land and made up of the central and eastern portions of the Northwest Territories. As the newest partner in the federation, Nunavut is the latest development in Canada's nation-building process.

Source: Communication Canada





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