Early Canadian History

Jacques Cartier

Jacques Cartier, like many early European explorers, believed that one of the main objectives of his travels to the "New World" was to spread Christianity to unenlightened peoples. Large delegations of missionaries were thus some of Canada's first and most influential residents.

How far back do you want to go?

The land that is now “Canada” was, of course, occupied long before white people showed up. For thousands of years, a diverse assortment of aboriginal peoples of the Amerindian race thrived on the North American continent, inhabiting organized civilizations that, although technologically primitive in many ways, nevertheless maintained sustainable economies, sophisticated political systems, complex spiritual beliefs and rich, vibrant cultures. These natives lived in small, nomadic groupings across all regions, even in extremely inhospitable territory like the far north and barren central grasslands of the continent.

Once European settlers showed up, however, these natives were systematically uprooted and pushed out of their traditional lands, either through war or forced “resettlement” into useless areas where they wouldn’t be in the way. Though natives would occasionally be recruited as soldiers, hunters and fur traders by the Euros, overall, they were a people in decline for much of the last 300 years, and have only recently begun to enjoy equal and dignified treatment under the law. You can learn more about Canada’s aboriginal people in the First Nations chapter.

Exploration and Colonization (1534-1756)

Canadians are taught that the symbolic start date of the European conquest of North America occurred in 1534, when a French explorer named Jacques Cartier (1491-1557) sailed from the Atlantic Ocean into modern-day Quebec via the St. Lawrence River and stuck a giant crucifix in the shore, claiming all he could see for the King of France. Plucky though he was, Cartier’s attempt to establish a permanent settlement failed, and it was not until 1603 that another French explorer, Samuel de Champlain (1567-1635), actually got the ball rolling. A zealous missionary, expert navigator, savvy governor and visionary nation-builder, Champlain presided over the founding of the colony of New France, creating several permanent cities for French immigrants, notably Quebec City (1608), Trois-Rivières (1634) and, after his death, Montreal (1642). As the years went on, the French eventually moved away from the St. Lawrence coast and into central North America, where they set up colonies in the vast Ohio valley region and modern-day Louisiana.

Fur trade

Founded in 1670, a British fur corporation known as the Hudson's Bay Company quickly bought up much of the good land in the Canadian north, which it then ran directly. The company sold its land back to Canada in the 19th century, but still hangs around today in the form of a popular chain of HBC department stores.

The British landed in North America around the same time as Champlain, and quickly set about building happy little colonies of their own. Starting with famous settlements such as Jamestown (1607), Plymouth (1620) and Boston (1630), the Brits would eventually assemble an impressive collection of 13 separate colonies along the eastern coast of North America, known collectively as New England. In 1670, the 13 were joined by the impressive acquisition of Rupert’s Land, a vast stretch of territory surrounding Hudson’s Bay, on the north coast of the continent.

In those days, the simple colonial economies were based around killing animals and selling their skins back to Europe, where rich people could turn them into fashionable hats. This was known as the fur trade, and the French were a lot better at it than the English, in large part because France’s colonies occupied much more of central North America, where all the animals lived, rather than the less forested coastal areas, which the Brits controlled.

Jealous of their rivals, the British soon decided to invade the French colonies, and in 1756 the Seven Years War (or French-Indian War) broke out between England and France. It’s easily the most important war in Canadian history.

End of France, Rise of Britain, Start of America (1756-1776)

Wolfe and Montcalm

James Wolfe (1727-1759) and the Marquis de Montcalm (1712-1759) were the respective commanders of the British and French forces in the Seven Years War. Both died during the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, and to this day, remain enormously important symbolic figures of either British triumph or French victimhood.

Though the French had more people in North America, they had fewer soldiers. A series of large-scale, surprise British attacks on major French cities generated a string of early French defeats, before the British secured final victory in the decisive 30-minute Battle of the Plains of Abraham (1759).

The terms of the Treaty of Paris (1763) that ended the war were terrible from a French perspective: all of their North American colonies were handed over to the British, which were then merged into a new British mega-colony called Quebec. But the British weren’t completely sore winners. Anxious about being outnumbered, they promised to respect French law and the French Catholic church in their new colony — and not just attempt to deport all the French people, either. It was a weird way to run a supposedly “British” colony, but the severe population imbalance didn’t give the English a lot of options.

Controversy over the conquest of New France quickly spread throughout the British Empire, and barely had the Seven Years War concluded when unrest began to rise in the 13 colonies of New England. Among other things, the New Englanders resented the way their British governors were managing North America in the aftermath of the French defeat, limiting their ability to migrate and settle in Britain’s newly-acquired western territories and propping up what was seen as a fundamentalist Catholic military dictatorship in Quebec.

In 1776, the New Englanders declared independence from Britain and fought a self-proclaimed Revolutionary War (1775-1783) that ended with the creation of a new country free from British rule: the United States of America. But not all of Britain’s colonies joined in. The far-north English colony of Nova Scotia, sometimes called the “14th colony,” refused to participate, and surprisingly, so did the conquered French subjects of Quebec. Both groups felt that, despite England’s abuses, their rights and security were ultimately better trusted to stable, reliable Britain than some crazy gang of rebels.

The Loyalists and the Partition of Quebec (1776-1791)

Loyalist refugees

This 1901 painting ("Tory Refugees On Their Way to Canada," Howard Pyle) depicts a common, romanticized image of the weary but noble Loyalist exile. Note the angry mob in the distance.

Not that the Revolutionary War was universally popular in the 13 colonies, either, of course. Large segments of the New England population did not support the Revolution at all, and after independence was declared, trekked northward to Quebec, and a return to British rule. These migrants, dubbed Loyalists for their loyalty to Britain and its King, are some of the most important settlers in Canadian history, but their precise motivations remain debated to this day.

One perspective has been to view the Loyalists as fundamentally conservative folk (dubbed “Tories” after the conservative faction in English politics), dedicated to the cause of monarchy, Empire, and hierarchy, rather than revolutionary American notions of republicanism, democracy and egalitarianism. Such a class of people would include wealthy merchants, upper-crust politicians and aristocrats, and other folks who had reason to fear the vindictive aftermath of a revolution staged against their interests. This was a popular theory among those who liked to think of Canada as a fundamentally more conservative country than the United States, and indeed, a country that was spawned as a conservative pushback against American radicalism.

More recently, however, a more moderate perspective on the Loyalists has started to become mainstream. Many historians now argue that the Loyalists comprised a broad cross-section of New Englanders of all classes, backgrounds and politics, united only in their desire to not live in a violent, revolutionary war zone with a deeply uncertain future.

In any case, the Loyalists dramatically swelled Quebec’s English-speaking population in just a few short years, causing great concern to the colony’s French residents, who were already anxious enough about the survival of their culture.

In 1791, Britain attempted to alleviate these concerns by splitting Quebec into two colonies, Upper Canada (for the English) and Lower Canada (for the French). Each colony would henceforth have its own colonial government, in order to give it a bit of political and cultural independence from the weirdos next door. “Canada,” by the way, was an old aboriginal term meaning “village.”

Continue to the history of the 19th century…

Links About Early Canadian History:

Quick Facts:

  • Britain and Europe first set up colonies in the area that is now Canada in the 1600s.
  • The fur trade was a hugely important industry for the early colonists.
  • Britain invaded and conquered the leading French colony, New France, in 1759.
  • After the American revolution, many pro-British loyalists fled to Canada.