The main wave of prehistoric settlers is thought to have arrived in the Americas from northeast Asia via Alaska about 15,000 years ago, although the earliest migrants may have arrived about 30,000 years ago and the youngest about 5,000 years ago. The current theory for the spread of prehistoric settlers is a southward migration along the coast with branching populations that moved eastward and later northward. According to this theory, the oldest cultures are the Pacific coast tribes and the youngest are the Arctic cultures.
The first confirmed European contact with Canada was shortly after 1000: Leif Erikson’s Vikings certainly reached Newfoundland, and there is some disputed evidence that they also travelled up the St. Lawrence River and along what is now the American coast. The next confirmed group is the Portuguese, who had fishing outposts along the Atlantic coast in the early 1500s. Neither group built permanent settlements, however. The attempted Viking settlement, L’anse Aux Meadows, was abandoned after a few years and not rediscovered until 1960. There are unconfirmed claims that several other European groups reached Canada earlier, including the Irish Saint Brendan in the 6th century.
More permanent settlements were established later by the English and French. John Cabot, an Italian who worked for the English, seems to have reached Newfoundland around 1497, but the records are neither clear nor complete. The French explorer Jacques Cartier landed on the Gaspé Peninsula in 1534 and claimed it for King François I of France. Subsequently, French fishing fleets began sailing to the Atlantic coast, where they traded with the indigenous people. Quebec City, founded by Samuel de Champlain in 1608, was the first permanent settlement in New France.
The English explorer Humphrey Gilbert landed in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and claimed it for Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1583 as the first English colony in North America. During the reign of King James I, the English established further colonies in Newfoundland, from where they eventually founded the colony of Virginia further south in what is now the United States of America. The British captured Quebec in 1759 during the Seven Years’ War, and at the end of that war in 1763, the French ceded most of their colonies in continental North America to the British, although the British agreed to allow the continued official use of the French language and legal system in the ceded colonies, and French remains the dominant language in the province of Quebec today. After the British victory, New France was divided into colonies: Upper Canada, Lower Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. The provinces of Upper and Lower Canada were later united in 1841 to form the Province of Canada.
After the American War of Independence, in which the thirteen colonies became independent from the British and formed the United States of America, people who wanted to remain part of the British Empire emigrated to Canada in large numbers. These people are known in Canada as United Empire Loyalists, although Americans might call them Tory traitors. There were other large waves of immigration by former soldiers, mainly Scots, after the Napoleonic Wars and by many Irish from the time of the potato famine.
The British and Americans fought a back-and-forth war between the United States and Canada in 1812. Some of the hotheads on both sides had quite ambitious goals: to drive the British out of North America altogether and annex Canada to the United States, or to reverse the effects of the American Revolution a few decades earlier and reincorporate the United States into the Empire. Neither side succeeded in achieving these goals, and both ideas were completely discredited by the end of the war. The American national anthem was written about one of the battles of this war. Americans see the war as a draw because no borders were changed by the conflict. Canadians do not necessarily see it that way, as the defence against large-scale annexation of Canadian territory by the United States, especially on the valuable Niagara Peninsula, is seen as a historic British-Canadian military victory.
Slavery was abolished in Canada and the rest of the British Empire in 1834, but remained legal in much of the United States until 1865, after the end of the American Civil War. The introduction of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, a federal law that angered northern abolitionist states because it allowed blacks to be kidnapped by slave catchers and forcibly returned to slavery in the South, led to the establishment of an “Underground Railroad” of various routes to freedom in the North through Canada’s Niagara Peninsula or other British Empire outposts such as Nova Scotia.
The British established the first colony on Canada’s Pacific coast in 1849, when the colony of Vancouver Island was granted a charter with Fort Victoria as its capital. The colony of British Columbia was then founded in 1858. The colony of Vancouver Island was then merged with British Columbia in 1866.
The colonies of the Province of Canada (divided into English-speaking Ontario and French-speaking Quebec after federation), Nova Scotia and New Brunswick separated from the self-governing British Dominion of Canada in 1867, with each former colony becoming a province of Canada. Thereafter, the federation expanded considerably. A vast territory called Rupert’s Land – all the land with rivers flowing into Hudson Bay, much of Canada and parts of some American states – was granted by the British Crown to the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670. In 1870, the newly formed Dominion of Canada bought it. This more than doubled the size of the existing provinces of Ontario and Quebec and created the new provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Manitoba joined the federation in 1870, followed by British Columbia in 1871, Prince Edward Island in 1873, and Saskatchewan and Alberta in 1905. After World War II, the former Dominion of Newfoundland became the last province to join the Canadian federation in 1949. Canada’s newest territory, Nunavut, was created in 1999 from part of the existing Northwest Territories.
Canada’s relationship with the United Kingdom is somewhat complex. The British North America Act, passed by the British Parliament in 1867, officially established the country. The British monarch is still the King or Queen of Canada, and a Governor General represents him or her locally. However, it is a constitutional monarchy in which the monarch “rules but does not govern”; the actual power to govern is vested in Parliament. In 1931, changes occurred that made Canada more or less completely independent from the United Kingdom. One notable difference is that during the First World War there were Canadian regiments in the British army under British generals, but from the Second World War onwards there was a Canadian army with its own generals; Canadians and Newfoundlanders made significant contributions in both wars. Another important change is that since the 1960s all governors-general are Canadian; before that they were all British and often nobles.
In 1982, the UK passed the Canada Act and Canada simultaneously passed the Constitution Act, ending any residual power of the UK Parliament to legislate for Canada.