Canada has always been known as a multicultural country. But has it always been so? Have you ever wondered who were the peoples who first settled here?
Canada’s founding peoples
Canada has three founding peoples – The Indigenous Peoples, French and British.
The Indigenous Peoples have been thriving thousands of years ago long before the European explorers came to North America. Many Indigenous nations had complex social, political, economic and cultural systems well established in various parts of the continent. They lived off the land – they were able to satisfy their material and spiritual needs through the resources all around them.
Early Indigenous Peoples (First Nations) were categorized by historians based on the geographical areas they populated: Woodland First Nations (in the dense boreal forest in the eastern part), Iroquian First Nations (fertile lands in the southernmost area), Plains First Nations (grasslands of the Prairies), Plateau First Nations (semi-desert in the south and dense forest of the north), Pacific Coast First Nations (coastal areas), and the First Nations of the Mackenzie and Yukon River Basins (forests, barren lands and swampy terrain called muskeg).
Today we know three major Indigenous communities in Canada: The First Nations, Metis and Inuit. The First Nations is comprised of more than 600 communities with differing languages and cultures.
The French first reached North America during the “Age of Discovery” in the fifteenth century. This was a time when European explorers were looking for the Northwest Passage, a shorter route to Asia, but instead landed in various sections of North America. Among the first French explorers who reached the area was Jacques Cartier. He is credited to have laid the original French claim for Canada and named the country after “kanata”, the Huron-Iroquis word for settlement.
Jacques Cartier: French explorer who named Canada – Fast Facts. History
Cartier went back to France to report his marvelous discoveries to the King, Francis I. He went on successive expeditions back to the area that is now known as Canada but was unsuccessful in finding the Northwest Passage and gold which he believed to be abundant in the area (particularly in Stadacona, the site of modern-day Quebec). In 1608, Samuel de Champlain picked up where Cartier left off. Champlain expanded the settlement (what is now Quebec City) and called it “New France”. He did not find gold but found something better. He discovered the lucrative fur trade and partnered with Ochasteguin, Chief of the Arendaenronnon Nation of the Wendat Confederacy. The next few decades saw the growth of the fur trade as well as the expansion of New France as population grew.
Although the British were among the first Europeans to come to Canada, they were not interested in staking claim on the lands, at least at first. Like Cartier, they were focused on discovering the Northwest Passage and finding gold. Among these explorers were John Cabot in 1497, Martin Frobisher in 1576 and Henry Hudson in 1607. However, their explorations helped succeeding English voyagers to lay claim to the fur trading area around Hudson Bay.
By the late 1600s, the British Empire wanted in on the fur trade. This became possible because of two Frenchmen and the Cree who sourced thicker beaver pelts in an area farther north. This led to the birth of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Later on, aside from the trading monopoly, the British started to lay claim to more land including Indigenous territory. By 1759, the British have taken over French settlements along the Atlantic coast. Eventually, they took hold of New France.
The video below is a dramatic depiction of how the first European explorers established their colonies in Canada:
Worlds Collide, Canada: The Story of Us, CBC
Sources: Who We Are, Discover Canada; First Nations in Canada, Government of Canada; Explorers, Early Canada: A Brave New World, Brenda Dyck, Masters Academy and College; Indigenous Peoples in Canada, Zach Parrott, The Canadian Encyclopedia; and It’s time to recognize First Nations as founders of Canada: Steward, Gillian Steward, The Star.
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