History of Canada

Canadian history does not begin with the arrival of European explorers over 500 years ago; people have been living in the country that we now call Canada for thousands of years.

Canada’s original inhabitants

Centuries before Europeans began to settle in North America, explorers who came here found thriving First Nations and Inuit societies with their own beliefs, way of life and rich history.

When the first European explorers came to Canada they found all regions occupied by native peoples they called “Indians,” thinking 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 new Dominion of Canada

Today, Canada is made up of 10 provinces and three territories.

However, when the British North America Act, 1867, (now the Constitution Acts, 1867 to 1982) created the new Dominion of Canada, there were only four provinces – Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

The Northwest Territories and Manitoba

The year 1870 – three years after Confederation – brought multiple historic changes to land ownership, including:

  • Canada’s purchase of Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company, which had been granted a charter to the area by the British government exactly two centuries earlier. Rupert's Land spanned all land drained by rivers flowing into Hudson Bay – roughly 40 per cent of present-day Canada. The selling price was 300,000 pounds sterling.
  • Britain’s transfer of the North-Western Territory to Canada. Previously, the Hudson’s Bay Company had an exclusive licence to trade in this area, which stretched west to the colony of British Columbia and north to the Arctic Circle. When it was discovered in the mid-1800s that the Prairies had enormous farming potential, the British government refused to renew the company’s licence. With the Hudson's Bay Company out of the area, Britain was free to turn it over to Canada.
  • The combination of Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory to form the Northwest Territories, followed by the creation of the Province of Manitoba from a small part of this area.

British Columbia, Prince Edward Island and Yukon

Subsequent years brought more changes to Canada’s territorial boundaries:

  • In 1871, British Columbia joined the union with the promise of a railway to link it to the rest of the country.
  • In 1873, Prince Edward Island, which had previously declined an offer to join Confederation, became Canada's seventh province.
  • Yukon, which had been a district of the Northwest Territories since 1895, became a separate territory in 1898.

Saskatchewan and Alberta

Meanwhile, Canada was opening up its west, just as its neighbour to the south had done before. Migrants from eastern Canada and immigrants from Europe and the United States began to fill the Prairies, which were still part of the Northwest Territories. Then, in 1905, the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta were created, completing the map of Western Canada.

Newfoundland and Nunavut

After great debate and two referenda, the people of Newfoundland voted to join Confederation in 1949, creating Canada’s tenth province.

On April 1, 1999, Nunavut was created from the eastern part of the Northwest Territories, covering 1.9 million square kilometres of Canada’s Eastern Arctic.

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