The first inhabitants of what is now Canada were the ancient ancestors of the Inuit. Exactly where they originated or when they arrived is uncertain, but they probably crossed from eastern Siberia to Alaska, Canada, and Greenland between 15,000 and 10,000 BC . Their descendants, the Dorset people, who inhabited the central Canadian Arctic region from about 700 BC to AD 1300, were primarily hunters of walrus and seal. The shorter-lived Thule culture, which may have assimilated the Dorset, lasted from about 1200 to the first arrival of the Europeans. Although most Inuit lived near the coast, some followed the caribou herds to the interior and developed a culture based on hunting and inland fishing.
Although the Norse had occupied a settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland by AD 1000, the first fully documented arrival by Europeans was in 1497 by the Italian-born John Cabot, who led an English expedition to the shore of a "new found land" (Newfoundland) and claimed the area in the name of Henry VII. In 1534, the French, under Jacques Cartier, planted a cross on the tip of the Gaspé Peninsula; the following year, his expedition discovered and ascended the St. Lawrence River. By 1604, Pierre du Guast, Sieur de Monts, along with Samuel de Champlain had founded the first permanent French colony, Port Royal (now Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia). Four years later, Champlain established the town of Québec. The great St. Lawrence waterway led Étienne Brulé and others after him to the Great Lakes and the rivers flowing south through the center of the North American continent. Missionaries and fur traders soon arrived, and an enormous French territory was established. Between 1608 and 1756, about 10,000 French settlers arrived in Canada. In the hope of protecting French settlers and the fur trade, Champlain supported the Huron Indians against their enemies, the Iroquois. When the Iroquois demolished the Hurons, the French colony was almost destroyed.
In the 17th century, England pressed its claim (by virtue of Cabot's expedition) to the rich fur-trading colony, and during the frequent skirmishing between New France and New England the English conquered Québec (1629). Restored to France in 1632, Québec, together with the rest of New France, was placed under the absolute control of a chartered commercial organization, the Company of One Hundred Associates, with the twofold purpose of exploiting the fur trade and establishing settlements. In 1663, New France became a royal province of the French crown. Thereafter, three important officials—the royal governor, the intendant, and the bishop—competed in exercising control of the government. Under the seigneurial system, which had been founded in 1598, large land grants were made to seigneurs, who made other grants to settlers. The actual farmers owed some quasi-feudal dues and could sell the property only by paying a large duty to the seigneur.
The movement of exploration, discovery, commercial exploitation, and missionary enterprise, which had begun with the coming of Champlain, was extended by such men as Jacques Marquette, Louis Jolliet, and Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, reaching its climax in the last three decades of the 17th century. At that time, French trade and empire stretched north to the shores of Hudson Bay, west to the head of the Great Lakes, and south to the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, a British enterprise, the Hudson's Bay Company, founded in 1670, began to compete for the fur trade.
The European wars between England and France were paralleled in North America by a series of French and Indian wars. The imperial contest ended after British troops commanded by James Wolfe defeated Marquis Louis Joseph de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham, bringing about the fall of Québec in 1759. The French army surrendered at Montréal in 1760, and the Treaty of Paris in 1763 established British rule over what had been New France. The Québec Act of 1774 established English criminal law but secured seigneurial tenure, a modified oath of office allowing Roman Catholics to serve in the conciliar governments, and the right of the Roman Catholic Church to collect tithes.
These concessions, which reflected the sympathy of the British ruling class for the French upper classes, instituted the separateness of French-speaking Canada that has become a distinctive feature of the country. It also secured the loyalty of the French clergy and aristocracy to the British crown during the American Revolution. Although the poorer French settlers (habitants) sympathized with the Revolutionists, efforts to take Canada by arms for the revolutionary cause failed in the Québec campaign. Some 40,000 Loyalists from the colonies in revolt fled northward to eastern Canada and did much to change the political character of their new country. The Constitutional Act of 1791 divided Lower Canada (now southern Québec) from Upper Canada (now southern Ontario) and provided for elected assemblies with limited powers, the first organs of self-government in the territory.
In the 1780s, the newly organized North West Company began to challenge the Hudson's Bay Company's fur-trade monopoly. The period was one of expansion, marked by Alexander Mackenzie's journey to the Arctic Ocean in 1789 and his overland voyage to the Pacific Ocean in 1793. British mariners secured for Britain a firm hold on what is now British Columbia.
The War of 1812, in which US forces attempting to invade Canada were repulsed by Canadian and British soldiers, did not change either the general situation or the US-Canadian boundary. After amalgamating the North West Company in 1821, the Hudson's Bay Company held undisputed sway over most of the north and west. Eastern border problems with the United States were resolved by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty in 1842; in the west, however, US expansionists sought to fix the border at 54° 40′ N . In 1846, the border was resolved at 49° N , and since then, except for minor disputes, the long border has been a line of peace.
The continuing influx of immigrants stimulated demands for political reforms. In Nova Scotia and New Brunswick the reformers had some early success, but in the two Canadas it was not until groups led by Louis Joseph Papineau in Lower Canada and William Lyon Mackenzie in Upper Canada had conducted separate futile rebellions in 1837–38 that the British government acted. John George Lambton, Earl of Durham, was sent to Canada as governor-general in 1838; he resigned later that year, but in 1839 submitted a report to the crown in which he recommended the granting of some forms of self-government. He also advised the immediate union of the two Canadas for the express purpose of Anglicizing the French Canadians. Union of the two provinces was approved in 1840, but responsible government was not achieved until 1849, after strenuous efforts by leaders in the various provinces. There was, however, no single unified nation—only a string of provinces in the east and the Hudson's Bay Company domain in the west and north.
The movement for Canadian confederation—political union of the colonies—was spurred in the 1860s by the need for common defense and the desire for a common government to sponsor railroads and other transportation. John Alexander Macdonald and George Brown, rival political leaders, agreed in 1864 to unite Upper Canada and Lower Canada under a common dominion government. Already the Maritime provinces were seeking union among themselves; their Charlottetown Conference in 1864 was broadened to admit delegates from the Canadas. After two more conferences, in 1864 and 1866, the dominion government was established under the British North America Act of 1867. The dominion was a confederation of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the two provinces of Canada. There had been much opposition, and Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were brought to accept the union only through the efforts of Sir Charles Tupper and Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley and by the fear and indignation roused by the invasion of Canada by Fenians (militant Irish nationalists) from the United States in 1866. Since the name Canada was chosen for the entire country, Lower Canada and Upper Canada became the provinces of Québec and Ontario, respectively.
In 1869, the Hudson's Bay Company relinquished its territorial rights to Rupert's Land and the Northwest Territories. In 1870, the province of Manitoba was established and admitted to the confederation, and the Northwest Territories were transferred to the federal government. In 1871, British Columbia, on the Pacific shore, joined the confederation, largely on the promise of a transcontinental railroad. Prince Edward Island did not join until 1873. Pushing through the Canadian Pacific (CP) Railway was a main achievement of Macdonald's Conservative administration. The CP was given large grants of land in return for its promise to aid in settling these lands, a policy that is still being carried on. Objection in the west to being taken over by the east led to two métis rebellions, headed by Louis Riel, in 1869–70 and 1885, but the west was opened to settlement nonetheless.
Under the long administration (1896–1911) of the Liberal Party under Sir Wilfrid Laurier, immigration to the prairie provinces was greatly accelerated. The prairie agricultural empire bloomed. Large-scale development of mines and of hydroelectric resources helped spur the growth of industry and urbanization. Alberta and Saskatchewan were made provinces in 1905. In 1921, Manitoba, Ontario, and Québec were greatly enlarged to take in all territory west of Hudson Bay and south of 60° N and all territory east of Ungava Bay. In February 1931, Norway formally recognized the Canadian title to the Sverdrup group of Arctic islands (now the Queen Elizabeth Islands); Canada thus held sovereignty in the whole Arctic sector north of the Canadian mainland. Newfoundland remained apart from the confederation until after World War II; it became Canada's tenth province in March 1949.
Canadian contributions of manpower and resources were immensely helpful to the Allies when Canada joined the British side in World War I; more than 600,000 Canadians served in Europe, and over 60,000 were killed. The war contributions of Canada and other dominions helped bring about the declaration of equality of the members of the British Commonwealth in the Statute of Westminster of 1931. The wartime struggle over military conscription, however, deepened the cleavage between French Canadians and other Canadians. After the war, the development of air transportation and roads helped weld Canada together, and the nation had sufficient strength to withstand the depression that began in 1929 and the droughts that brought ruin to wheat fields. The farmers developed huge cooperatives, especially in Nova Scotia and the prairie provinces, and also took up radical political doctrines, notably through the Social Credit and the Socialistic Cooperative Commonwealth Federation parties.
Canada was again vitally important in World War II, under the premiership of William Lyon Mackenzie King. More than one million Canadians took part in the Allied war effort, and over 32,000 were killed. The nation emerged from the war with enhanced prestige, actively concerned with world affairs and fully committed to the Atlantic alliance.
Domestically, a far-reaching postwar development was the resurgence in the 1960s of French Canadian separatism, symbolized by a series of cultural agreements between France and Québec. In 1970, terrorist acts by the Québec Liberation Front led to the banning of that organization and to the federal government's first invocation in peacetime of emergency powers under the War Measures Act. The emergency measures, imposed on 16 October, were not lifted until 30 April 1971. Although administrative reforms—including the establishment of French as Québec's official language in 1974—helped meet the demands of cultural nationalists, separatism continued to be an important force in Canadian politics. In the 1976 provincial elections, the separatist Parti Québécois came to power in Québec, and its leader, Premier René Lévesque, proposed that Québec become politically independent from Canada, in a relationship termed sovereignty-association. In a referendum on 20 May 1980, in which 82% of those eligible voted, the proposal was defeated, 59.5% to 40.5%. Meanwhile, other provinces had their own grievances, especially over oil revenues. Alberta objected to federal control over oil pricing and to reduction of the provincial share of oil revenues as a result of the new National Energy Program announced in late 1980; the failure of Newfoundland and the federal government to agree on development and revenue sharing hindered the exploitation of the vast Hibernia offshore oil and gas field in the early 1980s.
Since 1927, when discussions first began on the question of rescinding the British North America Act, disagreements between the provinces and the federal government over constitutional amendment procedures had stood in the way of Canada's reclaiming from the UK authority over its own constitution. In 1980, Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau made "patriation" of the constitution a principal priority of his administration. Initially he faced considerable opposition from eight of the 10 provincial premiers, but a compromise on amending procedures and a charter of rights eventually proved acceptable to all but Québec. The Constitution Act, passed in December 1981 and proclaimed by Queen Elizabeth II on 17 April 1982, thus replaced the British North America Act as the basic document of Canadian government. In 1987, Québec was to sign the new constitution, after winning the inclusion of a clause acknowledging that Québec is a "distinct society." The Meech Lake Accord of 1987, however, failed to compel Québec into signing the constitution, and Québec's status has been in limbo ever since. New Brunswick and Manitoba failed to ratify the Accord because of the perceived preferential status Québec would have received. The Charlottetown Accord also proposed recognizing Québec as a "distinct society" in addition to acknowledging aboriginals' inherent right to self-government and converting the senate into an elected and more effective legislative body. On 26 October 1992, however, the majority of Canadians chose not to support the Charlottetown Accord in a national referendum.
Canada joined with the United States and Mexico to negotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was built upon the US-Canada Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The three nations came to an agreement in August 1992 and signed the text on 17 December 1992. NAFTA seeks to create a single market of 370 million people with a combined GNP exceeding US $6 trillion and was implemented in 1994.
Like the French Canadians of Québec, Canada's native peoples have also challenged the federal government on issues of identity and autonomy. In 1992 the Inuits approved an agreement by which the country's Northwest Territories would be divided in two, with the eastern part comprising the semi-autonomous Nunavut territory, which would serve as an Inuit homeland. Other native groups also advanced land claims.
On 30 October 1995, the province of Quebec held a referendum on secession from Canada; the measure was defeated by the narrowest of margins—a majority of less than 1%. As the 1990s ended, the province remained deeply divided over the secession issue, and the constitutional impasse over the status of Québec persisted. In 1998, Canada's Supreme Court ruled that in order for Quebec to secede from the country, it had to reach agreement with the other provinces and the federal government on issues including a common currency and payment of the national debt.
After ousting the Progressive Conservatives in the 1993 national election, the Liberal party, led by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, won a second consecutive parliamentary victory for the first time in 40 years in June 1997. However, the party's majority was significantly reduced from its previous size, and the right-wing Reform Party replaced the Bloc Québécois as the leading opposition group, a development that added to the regional fragmentation posing an increasing threat to the national unity of Canada. To overcome regional divisions within their own ranks, Canada's conservatives voted to create the new Canadian Alliance party early in 2000, in an attempt to unite the western-based Reform Party with the Progressive Conservatives.
In the late 1990s, Canada's native peoples achieved two historic milestones in their quest for autonomy. In 1998 the Nisga'a Indians ratified a treaty according them 1930 sq km (745 sq mi) of land in British Columbia. The following year, the Nunavut territory—occupying an area larger than Western Europe—was officially founded as a homeland for the Inuit in the Northwest Territories.