The first inhabitants of Canada were native Indian peoples, primarily the Inuit (Eskimo). The Norse explorer Leif Eriksson probably reached the shores of Canada (Labrador or Nova Scotia) in 1000, but serious colonization efforts began in 1497, when John Cabot, an Italian in the service of Henry VII of England, reached Newfoundland or Nova Scotia. Canada was taken for France in 1534 by Jacques Cartier. The actual settlement of New France, as it was then called, began in 1604 at Port Royal in what is now Nova Scotia; in 1608, Quebec was founded. France's colonization efforts were not very successful, but French explorers by the end of the 17th century had penetrated beyond the Great Lakes to the western prairies and south along the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, the English Hudson's Bay Company had been established in 1670. Because of the valuable fisheries and fur trade, a conflict developed between the French and English; in 1713, Newfoundland, Hudson Bay, and Nova Scotia (Acadia) were lost to England. During the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), England extended its conquest, and the British general James Wolfe won his famous victory over Gen. Louis Montcalm outside Quebec on Sept. 13, 1759. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 gave England control over the French territory.
Canada Wins the Right to Self-Government and Welcomes English-Speaking Immigrants
At that time the population of Canada was almost entirely French, but in the next few decades, thousands of British colonists emigrated to Canada from the British Isles and from the American colonies. In 1849, the right of Canada to self-government was recognized. By the British North America Act of 1867, the dominion of Canada was created through the confederation of Upper and Lower Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. In 1869, Canada purchased from the Hudson's Bay Company the vast middle west (Rupert's Land) from which the provinces of Manitoba (1870), Alberta (1905), and Saskatchewan (1905) were later formed. In 1871, British Columbia joined the dominion, and in 1873, Prince Edward Island followed. The country was linked from coast to coast in 1885 by the Canadian Pacific Railway.
During the formative years between 1866 and 1896, the Conservative Party, led by Sir John A. Macdonald, governed the country, except during the years 1873–1878. In 1896, the Liberal Party took over and, under Sir Wilfrid Laurier, an eminent French Canadian, ruled until 1911. By the Statute of Westminster in 1931 the British dominions, including Canada, were formally declared to be partner nations with Britain, “equal in status, in no way subordinate to each other,” and bound together only by allegiance to a common Crown.
Newfoundland became Canada's tenth province on March 31, 1949, following a plebiscite. Canada also includes three territories—the Yukon Territory, the Northwest Territories, and the newest territory, Nunavut. This new territory includes all of the Arctic north of the mainland, Norway having recognized Canadian sovereignty over the Sverdrup Islands in the Arctic in 1931.
Canada's Wild West
Much like its southerly neighbor, Canada experienced its own period of westward expansion (and a similar period of building national identity). A few short decades after the California Gold Rush and the completion of the Intercontinental Railroad in the U.S., Canada would also seek to expand its territories from coast to coast. The government and private interests would oversee the construction of the Intercolonial Railway; this project would see a spike in Chinese labor and resultant backlash from white settlers (including a policy of Chinese exclusion), rising tensions with the First Nations populations across Canada like the Métis and the Cree, and massive growth in the West fueled by the region's natural resources. This time period would also see the rise of the Mounties, both as a real provincial police force and as an important image in Canadian history. Much like cowboys or the Texas Rangers, the rough-riding Mounties would become an iconic image of both their historical era and the country at large.
French-Speaking Contingent Gains More Political Power
The Liberal Party, led by William Lyon Mackenzie King, dominated Canadian politics from 1921 until 1957, when it was succeeded by the Progressive Conservatives. The Liberals, under the leadership of Lester B. Pearson, returned to power in 1963. Pearson remained prime minister until 1968, when he retired and was replaced by a former law professor, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Trudeau maintained Canada's defensive alliance with the United States but began moving toward a more independent policy in world affairs.
Faced with an increasingly violent separatist movement in the predominantly French province of Quebec, Trudeau introduced the Official Languages Bill, which encouraged bilingualism in the federal government; he also gave an economic portfolio to a French-speaking minister, Jean Chrétien. Both measures increased the power of French-speaking politicians in the federal government.
In 1976, the Parti Québécois (PQ) won the provincial Quebec elections, and René Lévesque became premier. The Quebec government passed Bill 101 in 1977, which established numerous rules promoting the French-speaking culture; for example, only French was to be used for commercial signs and for most public school instruction. Many of Bill 101's provisions have since been amended, striking more of a compromise; commercial signs, for example, may now be in French and English, provided that the French lettering is twice the size of the English. Quebec held a referendum in May 1980 on whether it should seek independence from Canada; it was defeated by 60% of the voters.
Resolving a dispute that had occupied Trudeau since the beginning of his tenure, Queen Elizabeth II signed the Constitution Act (also called the Canada Act) in Ottawa on April 17, 1982, thereby cutting the last legal tie between Canada and Britain. The constitution retains Queen Elizabeth as queen of Canada and keeps Canada's membership in the Commonwealth. This constitution was accepted by every province except Quebec.
Conservative Government Signs Free-Trade Pact with the United States
In the national election on Sept. 4, 1984, the Progressive Conservative Party scored an overwhelming victory, fundamentally changing the country's political landscape. The Conservatives, led by Brian Mulroney, won the highest political majority in Canadian history. The dominant foreign issue was a free-trade pact with the United States, a treaty bitterly opposed by the Liberal and New Democratic parties. The conflict led to elections in Nov. 1988 that solidly reelected Mulroney and gave him a mandate to proceed with the agreement.
The issue of separatist sentiments in French-speaking Quebec flared up again in 1990 with the failure of the Meech Lake Accord. The accord was designed to bring Quebec into the constitution while easing its residents' fear of losing their identity within the English-speaking majority by giving it status as a “distinct society.”
Jean Chretien of the Liberal Party Comes to Power
The economy continued to be mired in a long recession that many blamed on the free-trade agreement. Brian Mulroney's popularity continued to decline, causing him to resign before the next election. In June 1993 the governing Progressive Conservative Party chose Defense Minister Kim Campbell as its leader, making her the first female prime minister in Canadian history. The national election in Oct. 1993 resulted in the reemergence of the Liberal Party and the installation of Jean Chrétien as prime minister.
The Quebec referendum on secession in Oct. 1995 yielded a narrow rejection of the proposal, and separatists vowed to try again. Since then, however, the Quebec Liberal Party has replaced the Bloc Québecois as the ruling party.
On April 1, 1999, the Northwest Territories were officially divided to create a new territory in the east that would be governed by Canada's Inuits, who make up 85% of the area's population.
In July 2000, Stockwell Day of the new right-wing Canadian Alliance Party unexpectedly emerged as the leader of Canada's opposition. In Nov. 2000 elections, however, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien of the Liberal Party won a landslide victory for a third five-year term. After the election, the conservatives rapidly lost steam.