Important People From Canadian History

In addition to the prime ministers of Canada, Canadian history has been shaped by a diverse array of important people. Here are 30 of the most notable. See also the chapter on famous Canadians.

Early History

John Cabot (c. 1449-c. 1499)

Cabot is the first European known to have sailed to the continent of North America, making a successful 1497 voyage from England to somewhere in Atlantic Canada. Very few hard facts are know about Cabot or his trip, but his journey is recognized as a important symbolic start point for the story of European settlement of North America.

Jacques Cartier (1491-1557)

Cartier was a French explorer and the first European to make a substantial visit to what is now Canada. In 1534 he sailed into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, landing at modern-day Gaspé, Quebec. He claimed the land for France and made contact with local aboriginals. Cartier made two further voyages to the region, in 1535-1536 and 1541-1542, during which he explored more of Quebec and attempted, without success, to set up a permanent French colony.

Samuel de Champlain (c. 1567-1635)

Called the "founder of Quebec," Champlain was a French explorer and governor who oversaw and directed much of his country's initial colonization of North America during the early 1600s. He helped found a number of settlements in colonial New France that would grow into major Quebec cities, including the capital, Quebec City.

The Count de Frontenac (1622-1698)

Frontenac was the powerful governor New France during a turbulent period that lasted from 1672 to his death. Ambitious and arrogant, he expanded French settlement into new territories, pushed the fur trade, and fended off British and Indian attacks — often defying the instructions of his superiors in Paris in the process.

Montcalm and Wolfe

The Marquis de Montcalm (1712-1759) and James Wolfe (1727-1759) were the French and English commanders during the Battle of the Plains of Abraham (1759) that ended with New France being conquered by the British. Both men were killed in the battle itself, and the British victory turned Wolfe into a martyr-figure for English Canada.

Guy Carleton (1724-1808)

Sir Guy (later the Baron Dorchester) was an early and important British governor of Quebec, serving from 1768-1778 and then 1786-1796. He oversaw the implementation of the Quebec Act (1774), which aimed to create compromise with the French-Canadians while still asserting English control. When the American Revolution (1775-1783) broke out, he encouraged Loyalist refugees to settle in his colony.

John Graves Simcoe (1752-1806)

Sir John was the first governor of English-speaking Upper Canada, following the partition of Quebec in 1792. At one time he was honoured as the founder of Ontario, but these days he is increasingly remembered for passing a 1793 anti-slavery act. Though not a complete ban, this move began the process of legally phasing out the practice of African slavery in English Canada.

19th Century

Isaac Brock (1769-1812)

General Brock was the commander of much of the British Empire's North American forces during the Anglo-American War of 1812 (1812-1814). His strategic alliances with many aboriginal leaders were seen as key to helping secure early British victories over the United States, and his defeat on the battlefield during the Battle of Queenston Heights (1812) was a major setback.

Laura Secord (1775-1868)

A young Canadian woman during the War of 1812, Secord overheard American officers planning their next attack while sitting in her father’s pub. Walking 23 kilometers to the nearest British base, she successfully managed to warn the army in time, and the Americans were defeated. Today, she is perhaps best known for a chocolate company named in her honour.

Tecumseh (1767-1813)

Canada’s most famous aboriginal leader, Tecumseh was chief of the Shawnee nation and a vital British ally during the War of 1812. As head of a confederacy of tribes in the Ohio valley, his opposition to American settlement led to a British alliance, and when the Anglo-American war began his troops helped secure a handful of early British victories. His role was abruptly ended by a battlefield death.

Mackenzie and Papineau

William Lyon Mackenzie (1795-1861) and Louis-Joseph Papineau (1786-1871) were leading pro-democracy radical politicians in early 19th century Canada. Aggressively contemptuous of the authoritarian British elite that ruled the Canadian colonies, they led botched revolutions that helped trigger the appointment of the moderate Lord Durham as governor.

Lord Durham (1792-1840)

John George Lambton was appointed governor of Britain’s Canadian colonies in 1838, following much political unrest. His brief administration is best remembered for writing the so-called “Durham Report,” which argued there would be no political stability in British North America until the colonies had a government run somewhat democratically and the French colonists were assimilated into English culture.

Sir James Douglas (1803-1877)

The founding father of British Columbia, James Douglas was the powerful governor of Britain’s Pacific northwest colonies from around 1838 to 1864. By consolidating British Columbia and Vancouver Island under his personal rule, he was able to unify them into a single colony. Fearful of American settlement and influence, he helped keep his lands British in part by suppressing democratic institutions.

Baldwin and LaFontaine

Sometimes called Canada’s “first prime ministers,” Louis Hippolyte LaFontaine (1807-1864) and Robert Baldwin (1804-1858) were pro-democracy advocates in the United Province of Canada. In 1848 they were made co-attorney generals — the colony's top jobs — by the governor after their political party won the most seats in parliament. This heralded the beginning of the modern Canadian parliamentary system, also known as "responsible government."

George-Etienne Cartier (1814-1873)

Cartier was one of modern Canada’s most important founding fathers. As head of the French Tory delegation in the colonial legislature of the United Province of Canada, he worked closely with the Anglo Tory leader, John A. MacDonald (1815-1891), to negotiate the 1867 creation of the modern Canadian confederation. When MacDonald became Canada’s first prime minister, Cartier became his trusted minister of defence.

Joseph Howe (1804-1973)

An iconic Nova Scotia politician and pro-democracy activist, Howe was considered a key figure in making his colony the first in British North America to embrace the democratic "responsible government" parliamentary system. A ferocious opponent of the 1867 confederation deal, in the first Canadian general election Howe led a political party that opposed it, but eventually changed his views and served in the cabinet of Prime Minister Macdonald.

Amor DeCosmos (1825-1897)

The eccentric Amor DeCosmos was a British Columbian journalist and politician considered highly influential in helping convince his colony to join Canada in 1871. Deeply critical of the dictatorial rule of Governor James Douglas (1803-1877), he saw union with Canada as a path to greater democracy, and lobbied aggressively for the goal in writings and speeches. In 1872, he served briefly as B.C.’s second premier.

Louis Riel (1844-1885)

Riel was the founder and first leader of the western territory of Manitoba, which under his leadership became Canada’s fourth province in 1870. A member of the mixed-race, French-Indian Metis community, he quickly soured on Canada when the federal government reneged on a variety of conditional promises made to his people. In 1869 and 1885, he led armed rebellions against the federal government and was eventually caught, tried and executed.

William Cornelius Van Horne (1843-1915)

Van Horne was a wealthy railway tycoon and one of Canada’s most powerful men during the late 1800s. In 1881, he was hired by the government of Prime Minister John A. MacDonald to build a railroad to unite Canada’s Pacific and Atlantic coasts, a hugely ambitious project known as the Canadian Pacific Railway. The settlement patterns of western Canada were largely dictated by his railroad's route.

Oliver Mowat

Sir Oliver was the third and perhaps most influential premier of Ontario, serving a 24-year term from 1872 to 1896. His long Liberal reign oversaw the rapid development of Ontario into Canada’s industrial base, while tensions with John A. MacDonald‘s federal government helped clarify and strengthen provincial powers. Mowat later entered federal politics to serve Prime Minister Laurier’s attorney general.

Sam Steele (1849-1919)

Sir Sam was a superintendent in the newly-formed Royal Canadian Mounted Police during the late 1800s. Tasked with managing police officers in the western Canadian territories, and later the Yukon, he became a celebrated figure of stern Canadian law and order. Today Steele is often credited with helping make the Mounties such a popular and glamorized symbol of Canada.

20th Century

Arthur Currie (1875-1933)

Called "Canada's greatest soldier," Sir Arthur was a World War I (1914-1918) general who, in 1917, became the first Canadian to command a regiment of the British Empire's armed forces. He is considered an important architect of several allied victories on the war's western front.

Agnes MacPhail (1890-1954)

McPhail was an Ottawa schoolteacher who made history in 1921 by becoming the first woman ever elected to the Canadian House of Commons. Fairly radical in her politics, she switched parties several times during her five terms before finally joining the socialist Cooperative Commonwealth Federation.

The Famous Five

Emily Murphy (1868-1933), Nellie McClung (1873-1951), Irene Parlby (1868-1965), Louise McKinney (1868-1931) , and Henrietta Muir Edwards (1849-1931) were five female politicians and activists from Alberta who fought for women's rights in various ways. From 1927-1929 they were involved in a high-profile legal challenge known as the "Persons Case" that argued women should be eligible to be appointed to the Canadian Senate.

Maurice Duplessis (1890-1959)

Duplessis was premier of Quebec from 1936 to 1939, and then 1944 to his death. He’s now remembered mainly as a symbol of the old, conservative Quebec ruling elite, and ran the province as a tight oligarchy in which the Catholic Church and provincial government united to fight common enemies like the labour movement. His death would trigger an aggressive period of liberal reforms dubbed the “Quiet Revolution.”

James Gladstone (1887-1971)

In 1958, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker (1895-1979) made history by appointing James Gladstone of Alberta's Blood Nation as Canada's first senator of aboriginal descent. Serving until his death, Gladstone, a former rancher, was an activist for indigenous interests at a time when Status Indians could not vote in Canada. They gained that right in 1960, and in 1968 Len Marchand (1933-2016) became the first aboriginal man elected to Parliament.

Tommy Douglas (1904-1986)

Douglas was the NDP premier of Saskatchewan from 1944 to 1961. As the first open socialist to lead a government in Canada his election was controversial, but he proved moderate in office. His main legacy was the introduction of government-run health insurance, which would go on to inspire a similar nationwide program. Douglas later served as head of the federal NDP from 1961 to 1971.

Viola Desmond (1914-1965)

Desmond was a businesswoman and part of Nova Scotia's small black community. In 1946 she attempted to sit in a part of a movie theatre that was reserved for white customers and was arrested. Though unsuccessful in fighting the trumped-up charges in court, she nevertheless became an important symbol of the struggle for civil rights among Canadian minorities.

Joey Smallwood (1900-1991)

Smallwood was the first premier of the province of Newfoundland, which joined Canada in 1949. In Newfoundland’s final years as an independent country, he was a leading activist in the campaign for annexation to Canada and is sometimes considered Canada’s "last Father of Confederation” as a result. His long rule as premier (1949-1972) was marked by ambitious economic initiatives and resettlement schemes.

Rene Levesque (1922-1987)

Levesque was the first separatist premier of Quebec, serving from 1976 to 1985. Fiery and charismatic, his administration was marked by predictable tension with the federal government, including opposition to the constitutional reforms of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (1919-2000). In 1980, his government held Quebec’s first ever referendum on secession from Canada, though only 40 per cent voted in favour.

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