A Brief History of Canada

By Tim Lambert

The first people in Canada crossed the Bering Straits from Asia. In the north, the Inuit lived by hunting seals, walruses, and whales. They also hunted caribou. On the west coast, people hunted deer, bears, and beavers. They also fished. On the plains, people lived by hunting buffalo. In the east, people grew crops of beans, squash, maize, and sunflower seeds.

The first Europeans to reach Canada were the Vikings. In 986 a Viking called Bjarni Herjolfsson was blown off course by a storm and he spotted a new land. However, he sailed away without landing. In 1001 a man named Leif Eriksson landed in the new land, which he named Vinland (it was part of Canada). However, Eriksson did not stay permanently. Later the Vikings did establish a colony in North America but they abandoned it because of conflict with the natives.

However, after the Vikings Canada was forgotten until the end of the 15th century. In 1497 the English king Henry VII sent an Italian named Jean Cabot on an expedition across the Atlantic to Newfoundland. Cabot discovered rich fishing waters off the coast of Canada.

Then in 1534 and in 1535-36, a Frenchman named Jacques Cartier (1491-1557) sailed on two expeditions to Canada. On 10 August 1535 (St Lawrence’s Day) he sailed into the St Lawrence River, which he named after the saint.

Canada in the 17th century

However, no permanent European settlements were made in Canada until the early 17th century. In 1603 a Frenchman named Samuel de Champlain (1567-1635) sailed up the St Lawrence River. In 1604 he founded Port Royal in Acadia (Nova Scotia). In 1608 de Champlain founded Quebec. (The name Quebec is believed to be an Algonquin word meaning a narrow part of a river). In 1642 the French founded Montreal. The new colony in Canada was called New France. By 1685 the population of New France was about 10,000. By 1740 it was 48,000.

In the early 17th century French missionaries such as the Jesuits attempted to convert the natives of Canada to Christianity – without much success. Meanwhile, the French settlers traded with the natives for furs and farmed the land. Unfortunately, they also brought European diseases like smallpox, to which the natives had no resistance.

However, the English were also interested in Canada. In 1610 Henry Hudson discovered Hudson Bay. (In 1611 his crew mutinied and set him adrift). In 1631 Thomas James led another expedition. James Bay is named after him. Then in 1629, the English captured Quebec. However, it was returned to France in 1632.

In 1670 the English founded the Hudson Bay Company. The company was given exclusive rights to trade with the inhabitants of the Hudson Bay area. They traded with the natives for skins and furs. Meanwhile, the rivalry between the British and the French in Canada continued.

Canada in the 18th century

After the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713) France was forced to recognize British control of Hudson Bay and Newfoundland. The French were also forced to cede Nova Scotia to Britain.

However, more conflict between Britain and France was inevitable. During the Seven Years War (1756-1763) the two nations fought for control of Canada. In 1758 the British captured the French fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island. Then in 1759, General Wolfe captured the city of Quebec. (Wolfe’s victory at Quebec ensured that Canada would become British rather than French). Then in 1760, the British captured Montreal. Finally, in 1763 the French were forced to surrender all their territories in Canada to Britain by the Treaty of Paris.

The British were then left with the problem of how to deal with the French Canadians. Wisely they decided to treat them gently and the Quebec Act of 1774 allowed the French Canadians to practice their religion (Roman Catholicism). The French Canadians were also allowed to keep French civil law alongside British criminal law. By 1775 Canada had a population of about 90,000. The colony was flourishing.

When the American Revolution began in 1775 the Americans hoped the French Canadians would join them. However, they were disappointed. An American army entered Canada in September 1775 and captured Montreal in November. However, an attempt to capture Quebec in December failed and the American soldiers retreated in 1776.

After the American Revolutionary War about 40,000 Americans who remained loyal to Britain migrated from the newly independent country to Canada.

Then in 1791, the British parliament passed another act, which divided the Lawrence River Valley into two parts, Upper and Lower Canada. (Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were not affected).

Meanwhile, exploration continued. George Vancouver (1757-1798) sailed along the west coast of Canada from 1791 to 94. Vancouver Island is named after him. Alexander Mackenzie (1755-1820) traveled from Great Slave Lake along the Mackenzie River and reached the Arctic Ocean in 1789. In 1793 he crossed the continent by land and reached the Pacific.

Canada in the 19th century

During the American War of 1812, the Americans invaded Canada but they were repulsed.

Meanwhile, in the early 19th century the population of Canada grew rapidly boosted by many migrants from Britain. A shipbuilding industry flourished in Canada and canals were built to help commerce.

However, in the early 19th century, many Canadians became dissatisfied with their government. In 1791 both Lower and Upper Canada were allowed an elected legislature. However, the king appointed councils with executive powers. Yet both French and English-speaking Canadians wanted a more democratic form of government.

Eventually, in 1837 some Canadians rebelled. Louis Joseph Papineau led an uprising of French Canadians. However, the rebellion was soon crushed. In Upper Canada William Lyon Mackenzie, who became the first Mayor of Toronto in 1834, led the insurrection. In 1837 he led an uprising, which was quickly crushed. Mackenzie himself was killed.

However, Canada finally gained a democratic government in 1867 when Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick were federated as the Dominion of Canada. Canada then had a strong central government, which ruled from Ottawa, the new capital. The first prime minister of Canada was Sir John Macdonald.

Manitoba was made a province in 1870. British Columbia joined the confederation in 1871. Alberta and Saskatchewan joined in 1905.

In the late 19th century and the early 20th century, the population of Canada grew rapidly. The Canadian economy also expanded rapidly helped by the spread of railways. A transcontinental railway, the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed in 1885.

Bow Lake

Many Britons migrated to Canada and in the early 20th century many Eastern Europeans also migrated there. Vast areas of land were turned over to farming and manufacturing industries boomed.

Meanwhile in 1896 gold was found in the Klondike district of the Yukon and a gold rush ensued.

Canada in the 20th century

More than 60,000 Canadian men died in the First World War. Meanwhile, Manitoba was the first province of Canada to allow women to vote in provincial elections in 1916. Women in Canada were given the right to vote in federal elections in 1918. By 1925 all provinces except Quebec had granted women the right to vote in provincial elections. Quebec finally gave women that right in 1940.

The 1920s were, in general, prosperous years for Canada. However, like the rest of the world, Canada suffered in the Depression of the 1930s. Canada suffered from a huge drop in exports of timber, grain, and fish. By 1933 unemployment had soared to 23%. The government introduced relief works but economic hardship continued throughout the 1930s. The depression only ended when the Second World War began in 1939. However, during World War II 45,000 Canadians were killed.

In the late 20th century the population of Canada grew rapidly. In 1951 it was 16 million. By 1961 it had risen to 18 million. After 1945 people from Southern and Eastern Europe flocked to live in Canada. From the 1960s many immigrants came from South Asia.

Meanwhile, during the 1950s and 1960s, the Canadian economy boomed and Canada became an affluent society. Meanwhile, television began in Canada in 1952. However, things turned sour in the 1970s. In the early 1980s, Canada suffered a deep recession and unemployment rose to 11%. There was another recession in the early 1990s. Yet Canada recovered.

Canada launched its first satellite, Alouette in 1962. In 1984 Marc Garneau became the first Canadian astronaut.

In 1995 the people of Quebec voted in a referendum not to secede from Canada. Then in 1999, North West Territories was divided into two, and a new territory called Nunavut was created.

Meanwhile, in 1993, Kim Campbell became the first woman prime minister of Canada.

Canada in the 21st century

Like other countries, Canada suffered in the recession of 2009. However, Canada soon recovered. In April 2012 unemployment in Canada stood at 8.1%. In November 2023 it was 5.8%. Today Canada is a prosperous country and it has vast natural resources. In 2024 the population of Canada was 39 million.


Last revised 2024