This article deals with the history of Canada. It includes material about the First Nations; please read here for articles on more detailed coverage of the Native Americans of North America before contact with Europeans, and Native Americans of North America after contact with Europeans.
The first peoples to settle what is modern-day Canada were Paleo-Indians who had crossed the Bering Straits (at that time dry land, with sea levels lower then today during the last Ice Age) from Siberia sometime between 35,000 BCE and 10,500 BCE.
These groups specialized in hunting the giant mammals (“megafauna”) such as woolly mammoths, bighorn bison, giant beavers and musk oxen that lived in North America at that time. Some of the earliest archaeological sites of North American history are located in Canada, where stone tools and the remains of butchered giant mammals have been found.
Climate change set in as the last Ice Age came to an end, and conditions had become similar to today’s by around 8000 BCE. The Plano culture flourished from c. 8000 BCE to c.5000 BCE, with its northern portions centered on the Canadian Great Plains. The Plano developed techniques for stampeding herds over cliffs or into swamps, and the resulting “overkill” may have contributed to the extinction of the North America megafauna.
From now on, hunting was restricted to much smaller game. This is a characteristic feature of the Archaic cultures which lasted from c. 5000 BCE to 1000 CE. In the vast woodlands of eastern Canada, which stretched from the Great Lakes region to the Atlantic coast, these were represented early on by the Old Copper culture (c. 4000 to 1500 BCE) and the Red Paint people (3000-500 BCE). These lived by hunting, fishing, and gathering a wide variety of plants.
Indeed, Canada’s cool climate meant that agriculture never gained a foothold in the region, except in parts of the prairies near the present US-Canada border. On the whole, the peoples of Canada remained nomadic or semi-nomadic, living by a mix of hunting, fishing and foraging.
- More on the cultures of the Eastern Woodlands of North America
- More on the cultures of the subarctic northern forests
On the Pacific coast, however, things were different, even in the absence of agriculture. Here, a mix of wet, temperate climate on land and plentiful marine life at sea gave the inhabitants an abundant food source. A comparatively dense population could grow up, with comparatively complex societies centered on large stable settlements.
Even after agriculture had arrived on the Canadian Prairies, crop-cultivation remained small-scale and was never a principal occupation; the people remained primarily semi-nomadic hunters and foragers. The cooler climate of Canada did not allow for the production of food surpluses to the extent which was required for the more sophisticated “mound-building” societies further south. In the northern Great Lakes region, however, there is evidence of trade contacts with such cultures as the Hopewell and Mississippian cultures.
In post-contact times, those First Nations who lived on the Prairies, or in neighboring regions, participated in the revolutionary transformation of Native American societies which was precipitated by the spreading use of horses.
The northern peoples became acquainted with horses sometime in the 18th century. Tribes such as the Blackfoot, Cree, Gros Ventre, Sarcee and Ojibway forsook their traditional ways of life and migrated from their homes in the forests and woodlands of Canada onto the Great Plains. There they joined the many other Native American tribes who had already done this, taking up a nomadic lifestyle hunting buffalo on horseback.
In the north, the tundra and ice-fields of the Arctic made life impossible for humans until some groups had developed the highly specialized skills for surviving in this region. These were Inuit and Aleut groups, who moved into the Canadian Arctic from Siberia between 2500 and 1000 BCE. Their way of life revolved around the hunting of big marine animals such as whales, seals and walruses, which, together with fish and some birds, formed their diet.
The ingenuity that they showed in adapting to their extreme conditions resulted in the development of a range of technologies which have found a place in the modern world, including kayaks, sleds, harpoons, crampons, snowshoes, and insulated and waterproof clothing. Other technological achievements were too specialized even for this, for example the ice-houses called igloos.
In 1534, the French explorer Jaques Cartier claimed the Gulf of St Lawrence for France. In the following decades, English and French fishermen set up seasonal fishery camps in and around Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. In the 1580s a group of English fishermen established a permanent settlement at Harbour Grace, in Newfoundland, and French fur traders set up temporary encampments along the St Lawrence river to trade with the indigenous population there. In 1605 the French established their first permanent fishing settlement, at Port Royal, in Nova Scotia, and in 1608, under the leadership of the great explorer and cartographer, Samuel de Champlain, they founded Quebec.
In 1627, the French government chartered the Company of New France, and granted it the monopoly of the French fur trade in North America (which it never managed to properly enforce). In 1634, this company took control of New France, as the French colonies in North America were called, and established Trois Rivieres colony, close to Quebec, and Montreal, in 1642.
In 1660, the company’s financial difficulties led to the territory of New France being placed under direct control of the royal government. The colony was ruled by a royal governor, and unlike in the English colonies which were growing up along the Atlantic coast further south, there was no representative government.
Apart from the small towns, by this date the colony of New France consisted of a thin corridor of farmland stretching along the banks of the St Lawrence river. This was divided into estates owned by seigneurs, landowners who leased the land to habitants, tenant famers who actually worked the land. The seigneurs had the duty of providing their tenants with such public facilities as mills and roads.
The religious needs of the colonists were met by Jesuit priests and other Roman Catholic clergy, under a bishop. They had a dominating influence over the spiritual and cultural life of the colony, and on occasion challenged the political authority of the royal governor.
The Maritime Provinces
The French also had a presence in Acadia (Nova Scotia). Acadia was frequently disputed with the English of New England, and the struggles between the two sides prohibited the establishment if a stable colonial society here. As a result, the small French and English populations lived in tiny, isolated settlements, mostly scattered along the coast.
There were also French settlements on Newfoundland. Here the English had also established permanent settlements, the first one being St John’s, founded in 1630.
To the south
To protect their interests in the interior, particularly in the fur trade, the French created a system of trading posts on the shores of the Great Lakes, and down the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. This process mainly took place in the late 17th century.
Far to the south, in the early 18th century the French also established the colony of Louisiana (the port of New Orleans, at the mouth of the Mississippi, and a small area around it).
Away from the banks of the St Lawrence and the scattered trading posts, the vast interior of Canada was inhabited by the First Nations (see above).
On the whole, the French followed a policy of “live and let live”. The authorities of New France was careful to maintain the friendship of the local indigenous peoples.
Nevertheless, contact between the Europeans and local peoples was unavoidable. The Jesuits made attempts to convert the natives to Christianity by establishing missions in their territories. More important, though, was the fur trade, in which French and natives worked closely with each other.
As elsewhere in the Americas, contact had the effect of infecting the local people with European diseases such as smallpox, chicken pox and measles, to which they had no immunity. As a result, death rates rose dramatically amongst them, and their population levels fell.
On the other hand, the First Nations in the vicinity of New France did not suffer one of the most baleful results of the coming of the Europeans, which was the loss of their land. The primacy of the fur trade over settlement meant that the French did not have the same voracious hunger for farmland that the English colonists to the south had.
The fur trade soon established itself as the main – and by far the most profitable -economic activity of the French colony. Indeed, until the mid-18th century, with the English colonists to the south confined to the lands of the Atlantic seaboard east of the Appalachians, French fur traders had the interior more or less to themselves.
These voyageurs, as they came to be called, ranged far and wide, traveling long distances by canoe along the great rivers and lakes of North America. They bought pelts from indigenous tribesmen and brought them to French trading posts along the shores of the Great Lakes or banks of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, or back to the French settlements on the St Lawrence.
Some of these traders came to live permanently in the backcountry, marrying indigenous women and becoming the ancestors of the mixed-race Métis community.
Intensified competition between First Nation peoples
The numbers of French or Métis traveling or living in the interior were small, but their impact was immense. Their demand for fur upset the balance between the indigenous tribes by intensifying competition between them. As local beaver populations were reduced, tribes in affected areas attempted to monopolize control of remaining beaver areas by keeping out rivals.
The resulting struggles were made more destructive by the use of firearms, which were one of the principal trade goods which the French traders had to offer in exchange for furs (another was alcohol, which of course had its own destabilizing effects).
Of all the First Nations, it was the Huron with whom the French had the closest links. In the 17th century the latter were able to use this to their own advantage by acting as middlemen between the French and other indigenous peoples. They thus created a network of dependent trading relationships which covered a huge region of Canada and into the northern parts of the United States, reaching to the west of the Great Lake region.
The competition between indigenous peoples came to a climax at the end of the 17th century with the Beaver Wars. These occurred when the League of Five Iroquois tribes made a concerted attempt to take control of the fur trade from the Huron. The Huron trading network was destroyed, and the Huron and their allies seriously reduced in numbers.
Meanwhile, in 1670 the English had formed the Hudson’s Bay Company, with a monopoly of trade in the Hudson Bay and its vast hinterland. The first head of the company was Prince Rupert, the cousin of Charles II; and the Bay’s hinterland was named Prince Rupert’s Land.
Unlike the French, the British for long confined their activities to trading posts they established along the Bay’s coast. They did not send traders out into the interior, but simply received the pelts brought to them by native peoples, exchanging them for guns, alcohol and other goods, and shipping them back to England.
French fur traders responded to this potential threat by pushing northwards into the Bay region. They were not supported by the French colonial government, however; it feared that the valuable fur trade would be diverted north. They were therefore unable to sustain their presence there.
The French and English colonies of North America, as well as the indigenous tribes they were in contact with, were all caught up in the greater struggles between Britain and France in the late 17th and 18th centuries.
So far as the First Nations were concerned, the Beaver Wars of the late 17th century (see above) had left a legacy of bitter hatred between the tribes. Unsurprisingly, the main French allies were the Huron, while the leading British allies were the Iroquois: the indigenous peoples were motivated more by hatred of their traditional enemies than loyalty to the European powers. In these conflict, these native allies did much of the actual fighting. This was especially true on the French side, as they had a far smaller population of colonists.
One of the key moments in this century-and-a-half long struggle was the Treaty of Utrecht, in 1713. This confirmed the Hudson Bay area, along with Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, as being in British hands (though many settlers of French descent – called Acadians – continued to live in Nova Scotia). The French kept New France and Louisiana. They also kept Cape Breton Island, a small bit of land jutting out from Nova Scotia.
The French soon built the strong fortress of Louisbourg, on Cape Breton Island, to command the mouth of the St Lawrence river. The English responded by founding the fortress and town of Halifax, in 1749; this soon became the main British base in Nova Scotia.
The two and a half decades after 1713 saw the area of farm settlements in New France continue to spread along the banks of the St Lawrence river, and the fur trade continue to expand in this region. This brought the local French fur traders into increasing conflict with traders from the New England colonies.
The French colonial government therefore took the initiative by claiming the region of the Ohio valley, between the Appalachians (at that time the western frontier of the English colonies) and the Great Lakes region. It sent a military expedition into the region and established a line of fortified trading posts to secure this region, and the French trading posts down the Mississippi were also fortified.
All these developments led to a growing feeling amongst the inhabitants of the Thirteen English colonies that they were being hemmed in by the French. The tensions that this caused led to the outbreak of the French and Indian Wars (1754-63), which in turn led to, and became a part of, the global conflict between Britain and France known as the Seven Years’ War (1756-63).
The disparity in the French and British colonial populations (by this time about 70,000 French to about a million British) gave the British the advantage in numbers. However the French started the war with better troops and commanders, and success went there way for some time.
Eventually the British were able to gain the upper hand. The British Navy took Louisbourg in 1758, and a British army took Quebec at the famous battle of the Heights of Abraham, in 1759. By the end of the following year the whole of New France had been occupied, and in the Treaty of Paris which ended the war (1763) Britain gained all of North America east of the Mississippi river.
In what was to become Canada, there were now four, soon five, distinct territories under British control. Each was under its own governor, appointed by the British government. He was advised by a council.
The most populous was New France, now renamed Quebec province, along the banks of the St Lawrence river. Here, the British government found itself in control of a French-speaking, firmly Roman Catholic population.
To regulate the government of Quebec, after some vacillation the British government passed the Quebec Act in 1774. This recognized the French language of the inhabitants, kept French law to which they were accustomed, and entrenched the authority of the Roman Catholic church and the seigneurs in the province. The governor was empowered to appoint a provincial council rather than call an elected assembly.
These measures ensured the loyalty of the elite, but were unpopular with the ordinary farmers as they brought them more firmly under the control of Church and the seigneurs.
Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland
To the east of Quebec was Nova Scotia, now with a small but mainly Protestant population, the French-speaking, Roman Catholic Acadians having been ejected from their homes during the war.
Now at peace under firm British control, Nova Scotia saw significant settlement from New England. There were also growing numbers of Scots, Irish and German immigrants to the area.
Off the north coast of Nova Scotia lay Prince Edward Island, which was soon being populated by settlers from Britain, mainly Scots and Irish. This was hived off from Nova Scotia as a separate colony in 1769.
Then there was Newfoundland, with the coast of Labrador added to it. The island became a major British naval base, and the admiral in command doubled as the governor of the island.
Prince Rupert Land
The largest territory, in geographical terms, was in the far north. This was Prince Rupert Land, around Hudson’s Bay. This was a vast land, thinly populated by indigenous peoples with a scattering of small fur trading posts on the shores of the bay.
The events of the American Revolutionary wars had a major impact on Quebec and Nova Scotia. The failure of American attempts to drive the British out of these territories ensured that the regions north of the Thirteen colonies would not become part of the new United States, but remain in British hands. The treaty ending the war in 1783 fixed the boundary between the new United States and British North America at roughly the present border, at least in the East.
Many American loyalists moved to Canada. So did many native Americans, above all Iroquois, who had sided with the British during the war. Those from upstate New York settled along the St Lawrence, west of Quebec province, while those from New England settled in Nova Scotia (which had not joined the rest of the Americans in rebellion). Here they concentrated in the St John’s river area.
New provinces: New Brunswick and Cape Breton Island
The province of New Brunswick was created for these New Englanders in 1784. In the same year, Cape Breton Island was also hived off from Nova Scotia (though it would rejoin Nova Scotia in 1820).
Upper and Lower Canada
In 1791 the British government passed the Canada Act. This divided Quebec province into two. Lower Canada, in the east, which had been the heart of the former New France, maintained the arrangements as defined in Quebec Act of 1774, though now the governor was to call an elected assembly. Upper Canada, in the west, was formed for the English-speaking settlers from America. This used English common law, and also had an elected assembly.
All the provinces of British North America now came under a governor-general, who governed Lower Canada directly but had lieutenant-governors answering to him in each of the other provinces.
The Canada-US borders
The War of 1812 between the United State and Britain saw a failed attempt by the Americans to invade Canadian territory. The war thus confirmed the boundaries between the United States and British North America, at least in most of the east. This was formalized in 1818 at the 49th Parallel. The US-Canadian border to the west of the Rocky mountains remained fuzzy – and oddly, so did the easternmost border (Lower Canada-New Brunswick) border. This would not be properly delineated until the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842. The far western border with Oregon was not settled until 1848.
While the eastern colonies grew in number and population, the western fur trade was also continuing to expand, reaching ever further into what would be central and western Canada. Financial control was now in British hands, though the actual trade on the ground remained largely in the hands of the French-speaking voyageurs.
The First Nations
The British policy towards the First Nations remained similar to that of the French authorities whom they had displaced. A Royal Proclamation of 1763 prohibited the alienation of land from native tribes without their consent, or without the crown’s approval.
The Royal Proclamation continued in force in Canada after the independence of the United States had rendered it void south of the border. As a result, there were not the long series of conflicts between white settlers and indigenous peoples in Canada as there was in the United States. Armed resistance to the British authorities in Canada would mostly come from a different quarter, the Métis.
Rivalry between two companies
In 1779 the North West Company, based in Montreal, was founded to develop the fur trade further in the northwest. This established a network of trading posts which spread westward across the continent, reaching the Pacific in the early years of the 19th century.
The new company’s field of operations drew it into intense competition with the Hudson’s Bay Company. The later responded by sending its own agents inland, a departure for the company which had hitherto concentrated its activities on its trading posts on Hudson’s Bay.
The Red River massacre
Meanwhile the competition between the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company had continued to intensify. In 1812 the Hudson’s Bay Company established a settlement on the Red River in southern Manitoba.
This was seen as a direct threat by the local French-speaking employees of the North West Company. Many of these were Métis. By this time these formed a distinct ethnic group in Canada. They are especially concentrated in the fur trade, where their contacts with both whites and natives gave them an advantage.
As Canadian society moved west, Métis were in the vanguard. However, they had little respect for the British authorities, and were unafraid to assert their interest through violence if they felt this was called for.
The new settlement at Red River became the scene of a series of clashes between the employees of the two companies, until in 1816 an incident left more than 20 Hudson’s Bay Company settlers dead. This incident did the North West Company no good at all; and its profits were being squeezed by several factors, including American competition and over-hunting of beaver. Finally, in 1821, the British authorities in Quebec forced the merger of the two companies. In effect this was a takeover of the North West Company by the more financially sound Hudson’s Bay Company.
Social and political tensions
In the years after 1815, immigration from the British Isles – especially Scots, Irish and northern English – began to increase, and in the 1830s went into higher gear. As a result of this, in the mid-19th century Canada became a predominantly English-speaking country. Lower Canada, however, retained its majority French-speaking character.
As Canadian society became more established it also became more class-based. In Lower Canada, Upper Canada and Nova Scotia small groups of wealthy families came to dominate society and politics. The governors’ councils were filled by members of these groups, all of whom were English-speaking. Naturally, this development led to deepening resentment amongst other groups, who felt excluded from influence. In 1837, farmers in Upper Canada, who felt that their interests were being ignored, joined forces with French-speaking radicals in Lower Canada in taking up arms against the British authorities. Their aim was to gain more self-government.
Lord Durham’s report
Both rebellions were put down without difficulty, but it made clear to the imperial government back in Britain that things were not as they should be. The British government therefore sent a politician, Lord Durham, to Canada as governor-general to investigate matters, and in 1841 he produced a report whose proposals were largely accepted and had far-reaching effects on Canadian government and politics.
Upper and Lower Canada were united into the Province of Canada. Upper Canada was renamed Canada West, and Lower Canada was renamed Canada East. The idea was to tie the French population of Upper Canada more closely into the national life of Canada as a whole. A few years later, in 1846, the province was given “responsible” government – that is, government ministers were to be appointed by, and be responsible to, the elected assembly, not the governor. All the other provinces of British North America soon also received responsible government (by 1855).
During these years, British North America was expanding. Growing tensions with the United States as to where exactly the boundary between the two lay were resolved in 1848, when it was fixed at the 49th parallel right the way to the Pacific Ocean.
In 1849, Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island, off the Pacific coast of North America, was made the headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s western operations; Vancouver Island became a crown colony. In 1858 the discovery of gold in British Columbia led to a gold rush there, and the British government organized that region as a crown colony as well. In 1866 the colonies of British Columbia and Vancouver Island were united.
White settlement of the middle and west of the country only really began in the 1850s. As in the United States, the government of Upper Canada adopted a policy of setting aside reservations for First Nation peoples. This began as early as the 1830s, but it only really came into use in the 1850s.
By this, the Canadian government signed treaties with various tribes, which kept a portion of their land as guaranteed reserved zones, in exchange for which they were to receive grants of cash and supplies. They were also promised access to free schooling and basic medical services.
Farmers under pressure
Up to 1846, British North American corn exports to Britain had been protected from foreign competition by a series of “Corn Laws”. In that year, however, the British Government had promoted free trade by repealing these laws. Their repeal threatened the prosperity of Canadian farmers.
This led to calls for the provinces and colonies of British North America to draw closer together so as the create a larger market for Canadian produce. It also prompted the construction of railroads to knit the Canadian territories together, as well as the Canadas with the much greater markets of the United States to the south.
The Grand Trunk Railway
The Grand Trunk Route, which aimed at connecting Canada with the eastern and mid-western parts of the United States, was the most ambitious of these projects, and began opening in stages in 1853. Unfortunately, the comparatively small population of Canada, the long distances between towns and cities, the challenging terrain, and the construction of too many lines, made railroad profits hard to come by.
By the 1860s it was becoming widely accepted that the division of British North America amongst multiple administrations was not helping the economic development of the vast region. Moreover, an expanding, land-hungry southern neighbor was a source of anxiety to Canadian (and British) politicians, who wished to create a more effective defense system.
A major step towards the emergence of Canada as a single nation was taken in 1867, when the province of Canada (until 1841 Upper and Lower Canada) confederated with Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to form the Dominion of Canada. The province of Canada was divided into two, the provinces of Quebec (previously Lower Canada/Canada East) and Montreal (Upper Canada/Canada West). Ottawa was designated the capital city.
The North West Territory and Manitoba
In 1869 the Canadian government bought out the Hudson Bay Company’s monopoly of Prince Rupert Land, effectively taking control of the huge region. This step was partially taken to counter the United States’ purchase of Alaska from the Russians, two years before.
The North West Territories was formed from the Hudson’s Bay purchase. As a territory, it came under the administration of the Federal government.
The territory’s borders initially included present-day Manitoba, but the following year, 1870, a group of Métis, led by Louis Reil, revolted against the government of Canada. They felt that their particular interests were being ignored. This led to the establishment of Manitoba as a separate province, the better to safeguard their rights. Originally this covered a small area around the Red River Settlement. In the province, the French language had equal status with English, and Catholic schools with Protestant schools.
The Dominion expands
British Columbia joined the Dominion in 1871, on the promise of financial aid for economic development; and Prince Edward Island joined in 1873. Newfoundland remained outside the Dominion. In 1881 Manitoba enlarged its borders northwards and westwards.
The 1870s and 80s were difficult times for the First Nations, their fate at this time paralleling that of the Native Americans in the United States, albeit in a milder form. Buffalo hunters of European origin were becoming increasingly active on the Prairies, and the herds of bison were fast disappearing. Many hunting peoples were falling into poverty.
At the same time, White settlers were increasingly encroaching on their lands, and the people of the First Nations were finding themselves having to cope with European-type legal and administrative arrangements which were completely alien to their own customs.
These factors induced many of them to agree to the establishment of reservations on their traditional lands. The government promised them that they could continue to live on these reservations undisturbed, and would receive grants, schools, basic health care and other hand-outs.
Sadly the government did not always live up to these promises. A growing spirit of disillusionment affected the First Nations, made worse by the fact that the railroad was inching across the plains to the West, and taking away the livelihood that many of their people had earned their living from canoe transport and porterage.
In 1885 the Métis, again led by Louis Reil and supported by several native tribes, rose in rebellion in Saskatchewan. This was put down quickly, helped by the government being able to rush troops to the crisis zone by railroad and steamer. Louis Riel was executed.
In the second half of the 19th century, the Canadian government – like the American – increasingly favored a policy of assimilation, with the aim of turning indigenous peoples into “proper” Canadians.
In 1876 the Indian Act granted individual natives the right to become full Canadian citizens on condition that they renounced their particular rights and privileges as members of a tribe. This sent a clear message that members of the First Nations were second class citizens within their own country.
The Act also provided for the setting up of boarding schools for indigenous children. These were funded by the government, run by different church denominations, and had the overt aim of removing the children from their own cultures and assimilating them into White culture. With this in view, thousands of children were forcibly separated from their families, taken to distant schools and educated in the ways of the dominant Canadian culture.
The system would last into the 1960s and 70s, and misery and abuse that the children – and their families – suffered is detailed in numerous official reports through the 20th century. By and large it seems to have produced young adults unable to thrive in either indigenous or urban society.
A main impetus for these expansions of Canada had been the need for a railroad to the West. In 1872 the transcontinental Canadian Pacific railroad company had been formed, with the task of constructing the longest railroad in the world at that time. This huge project sputtered on, chronically short of funds, and the line slowly advanced across the continent. However, the rebellion of 1885 showed the usefulness of the railroad in establishing order in the West, and gave the project added impetus. It was completed the same year.
In 1896 gold nuggets were found in the Klondike river, in British Columbia. This sparked a gold rush in 1897, and thousands of hopefuls poured in to the region to try their luck. Many of these came from the United States and Europe. This episode led the the region in which the Klondike is situation, the Yukon, being designated as a territory in its own right, hived from from the North West Territory.
More prosaically, but of greater importance for the long-run development of western Canada, was the discovery of a whole range of minerals – coal, nickel, silver and copper – in the region. The population of western Canada grew dramatically, and roads, railroads and towns sprang up in many places.
The rise of Canada as a major mining nation occurred from the end of the 19th century and in the early 20th century. This coincided with the prairies being opened up to agriculture as tens of thousands of farmers settled the region. This led to Alberta and Saskatchewan being established as provinces in 1905.
This was also a period when the government, following the example of administrations in the United States in the “Progressive Era”, took a much more active role in establishing schools, ensuring housing and working conditions for the poor were satisfactory, and generally alleviating poverty. Economic ties with the United States were growing at this time, and Canada was becoming more open to ideas from its southern neighbor.
One issue which had dogged Canada throughout its existence was the status of the French-speaking population. The issue had been inflamed by the execution of Louis Reil, who was seen as a martyr by many French-Canadians; and was a source of tension in the western provinces, where the French-speaking Catholics pushed for their own schools (which eventually they were allowed, but they had to pay the taxes which funded them). It became a live issue again at the start of the 20th century, when the British government sought aid from colonial governments in putting down the Boer rebellion in South Africa.
Although Canada had self-government, foreign policy and defense were handled by the imperial government in London. Most English-speakers were happy with this arrangement, and in particular were willing to held the “mother country” in fighting the Boer War. The French speakers, however, were deeply opposed to the idea of sending troops to a war which was only in Britain’s interests. In the end, volunteers were sent, but were paid for as a part of the British army.
The issue rumbled on, however. This was the period when European nations were involved in the arms race which would lead the the First World War, and Britain asked its colonies to help it fund the huge increase in its navy that was going on. Again, the French-Canadians bitterly opposed any assistance, whilst the English-speaking majority were favorably disposed towards it.
When the war came, in 1914, Canada immediately entered the war with Britain. Its troops earned the respect of the other nations involved in the war, above all of the British: the battle for Vimy Bridge was a magnificent Canadian success. Of the 625,000 Canadians who fought in the war, almost one in ten were killed, and many more were wounded.
At home, the Canadian economy was put on a war footing, with shortages of labour met by women coming into the labour force in a large way. The government’s reach also expanded, as it nationalized railways (which in many cases were virtually bankrupt), introduced conscription and directed the economy.
Once again, this situation exacerbated the French-English divide in the country. For English speakers, participation in the war was an essential patriotic duty. For French-speakers, it was far less so. In particular, the coming of conscription in 1917 was deeply resented by many French speakers.
The war years saw rampant inflation, which created difficulties for millions of families. The coming of peace in 1918 released pent-up resentments about pay and working conditions. The farming population in particular had been hard-hit be inflation, and their political representatives swept into power at both national and state level. In the cities, unions, whose membership had doubled during the war, organized a wave of strikes.
Canada’s contribution to the Allied victory in the First World War could not go unrecognized, and the post-war years saw the emergence of Canada as a fully independent nation. It was a founding member of the League of Nations in 1920, and its independent status within the British Commonwealth was institutionalized by the Statute of Westminster, in 1931. This recognized the dominions of the British Empire – Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – as fully sovereign states sharing a common crown with Britain.
The 1930s saw the worldwide Depression hit Canada – indeed, as primarily an exporter of raw materials, Canada was affected particularly badly. Unemployment soared, wages fell, social tensions rose. As in other countries, the government responded fitfully and half-heartedly; in 1935 a package of measures based on Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the United States was introduced, but this was neither as comprehensive or effective as the original.
By the late 1930s the international situation was deteriorating again, with the rise of Nazi Germany, the Japanese invasion of China, and the undermining of the League of Nations.
With Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany on 3rd September 1939. Canada followed 6 days later, after an almost unanimous vote in parliament. Initially, this was a commitment to provide Britain with mostly material aid, as Canadian politicians were reluctant to send troops overseas. The government made a commitment not to introduce conscription. Nevertheless, for Canadians, World War 2 had begun.
Canadian volunteers were soon flying in the British Air Force, playing an active role in the Battle of Britain (1940) and the Bomber offensive against Germany (1941-45). Bomber air crews suffered some of the highest casualties of any group of combatants.
Canada was soon sending troops abroad; and in August 1942 it was Canadian units which conducted a raid on the U-boat sheds at Dieppe, on the north coast of France. This force suffered terrible casualties, and although the raid failed to achieve its objective, it taught the Allies valuable lessons about how to attack defended positions from the sea.
Canadian naval units and merchant shipping made a vital contribution to the Battle of the Atlantic, at considerable loss; and Canadian troops fought in the campaigns in Sicily and Italy (1943-45). Later, at D-Day, (June 1944) the Canadian army was assigned one of the five beaches to be attacked, and then took an important part in the advance through France into Germany (1944-5).
More than a million men and women served in the Canadian forces during the war.
At home, even more so than in World War I, the economy was geared up for war. Canadian factories produced a huge range of war equipment for the Allies, as well as sending vital food supplies to a beleaguered Britain. The reach of state once again extended into everyday lives, for example with new social programs, and there was a huge expansion of the civil service. In particular, the federal government expanded at the expense of state governments, the better to organize the national war effort.
In 1949, Newfoundland joined Canada after a referendum.
The post-war period for Canada has been characterized by strong economic growth, albeit with periods (in the early 1970s, early 80s and early 90s) of downturn and retrenchment. Traditional Canadian economic activities such as mining and steel production have expanded, and in addition, Canadian firms entered new and advanced industries such as electronics, aerospace, automobiles, nuclear power and chemical engineering. This expansion has been enabled by massive investment from abroad, mostly from the United States.
The 1950s in particular saw a dramatic increases in immigration, especially from eastern and southern Europe. Canada’s population rose from 13 million to 16 million in the ten years following the war. As these immigrants became politically active citizens, Canada’s ties with Britain and the Commonwealth weakened. Those with the United States, on the other hand, became stronger.
One of the more concrete manifestations of this was Canada’s participated with the United States in the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Established in 1958, NORAD created a joint air defense system for North America by pooling Canadian and U.S. radar and fighter resources to detect and intercept a Soviet nuclear attack.
In foreign policy, Canada has been a firm ally of the United States during the Cold War, in the Middle East and other parts of the world. Canada was a founder member of the United Nations, and of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); and Canada took a full part in the UN mission in Korea (1950-53), for example, and in the NATO mission to Kosovo (1998-9). One distinctive element within Canada’s foreign policy has been the emphasis it has placed on its foreign aid efforts.
Canada signed a free trade agreement with the US in 1988, and in 1992 the multilateral North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the United States and Mexico came into force.
US-Canadian relations were tested, however, with Canada’s refusal to support the United States in its invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Official efforts to encourage members of the First Nations to assimilate into broader Canadian society, begun in the later 19th century, were intensified in the early 20the century. The authorities forced tribes to seek portions of their reservations for White settlement, and other measures – such as the requirement for permission to travel, or to sell goods – were enacted to make life difficult for indigenous people in their homelands.
Only in the 1930s did a gradual change in official policy set in. Very slowly, through the rest of the 20th century, attempts at assimilation were abandoned.
In 1923, the policy of establishing reservations for First Nation tribes was ended. In 1951, native people were given the same legal rights as all other Canadian citizens, including full voting rights in national elections (in the localities they were to vote in tribal rather than provincial elections).
The residential school system (see above) was wound down during the 1950s and 60s (though the last residential school did not close until 1996). The 1960s, however, saw the large-scale removal of Indigenous children from their families and their placement into social services – a process now called the “Sixties Scoop”. The immediate cause of this was that many parents were deemed unable to take care of their children, but many now see an underlying policy of assimilation by another form. Today Indigenous children are still over-represented in the foster care system, and the Canadian government’s historic treatment of Indigenous people is widely viewed as a form of genocide.
From the 1960s and 70s, however, as in the United States, the Canadian government began to develop policies to foster self-determination. The Office of Native Claims was established in 1974 to create a channel whereby native tribes could seek redress for past wrongs.
In 1982 the Canadian constitution recognized the Métis as having the status of indigenous people.
One group, the Inuit of the far north, have had particular problems in dealing with the modern world, due to the very isolated and specialized nature of their way of life. As a result, a new territory, Nunavut, was created for them in 1999, to allow their interests and challenges to be properly dealt with.
A major issue in domestic Canadian politics in the post-war period has been the rise of nationalism and separatism in Quebec.
The position of the French-speaking population had been an issue in Canada since the 18th century, but came to the forefront again in the 1960s, when many French Canadians suddenly seemed to give the cultural links to France much more importance. An active minority on the political left began advocating independence as a first step to radical social change. They founded the Parti Québécois, which won some electoral success within Quebec, though achieving nowhere near a majority.
A tiny minority resorted to a campaign of terrorism. Bombings, kidnappings and murders began in 1963 and continued sporadically for a few years.
In 1967 the French President, Charles de Gaulle, visited Quebec and received an enthusiastic response. He explicitly encouraged the people of Quebec to aim for separation from the rest of Canada by proclaiming the slogan of French separatists: “Vive le Québec libre!” (“Long live free Quebec!”).
In 1968, however, Pierre Trudeau became prime minister of Canada, wining decisive majorities in Canada as a whole, and also in Quebec. He was French-peaking, but he roundly rejected separatism.
Trudeau dominated Canadian politics for most of the period from 1968 to the early 1980s. He worked to create a bilingual and bicultural nation, aimed at maintaining the unity of Canada. The electoral success of his Liberal party, and the policy of rapid economic development which it pursued, temporarily drove the separatist Parti Québécois into the margins of provincial politics.
By the late 1970s, however, the bilingual policy was creating tensions with English-speaking Canadians, and to some extent went into reverse. This in turn revived the question of Quebec separatism, but again, a referendum in Quebec received the support of only two-fifths of Quebec voters.
In October 1995, with a recent recession still fresh in people’s memories, Quebec held another referendum on secession, and this time the separatists were only narrowly defeated. However, as prosperity returned to the country, enthusiasm for independence in Quebec waned.
In recent decades, a large expansion of the powers and capabilities of provincial governments has taken place. New responsibilities, especially in welfare, and an expansion of revenues and expenditures, has led to a growing sense of local importance. The federal government has had to treat provincial governments with more sensitivity, as recognized in the institution of the federal-provincial conference. In 1975, for the first time, the provinces together spent more of Canada’s gross national product than the federal government did. The federal government has now become less powerful than the provinces when they choose to act collectively, as they more frequently do.
Almost 800,000 Canadians class themselves as belonging to the First Nations.
As in the USA, they experience shorter life expectancy, higher suicide rates, lower per capita income, more unemployment and more ill-health, often due to alcohol-related diseases, than the majority of the population. One factor in this is that their reservations are often isolated from major centers of economic dynamism, and have often been adversely affected by environmental damage caused by mining, hydroelectric schemes and other industrial activities.
When they do leave for the cities, moreover, individual indigenous people find themselves marginalized in the wider society. In becoming part of mainstream Canadian society, however, many are now members of the urban middle classes, with good jobs and an affluent lifestyle. First Nation artists, dancers and actors have achieved success. Political activists work effectively within official Canadian institutions to improve conditions for their people. Involvement in community affairs is higher amongst native peoples than it is amongst the rest of the population. All this has been accompanied by a revival of indigenous arts, crafts, dance and story telling. The reserves have benefitted from an upswing in tourism, which has brought jobs and money.
Apart from a recession in the early 1990s, the late 20th and early 21st centuries have seen continued economic expansion, now boosted by the NAFTA. A new generation of Canadians—both inside and outside Quebec—have seemed less concerned with sovereignty issue and more interested in taking advantage of the opportunities available to them in a vibrant, prosperous society. On the other hand, the late 20th century was characterized by deep cuts in government spending, at both federal and provincial levels. This has affected the less well-off citizens the most. Nevertheless, Canada remains one of the wealthiest and most stable nations in the world.