Though the country known as Canada only dates back to the 19th century, much of the land it now occupies has been inhabited for millennia.
By the time the Norse arrived and established the earliest known European settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in what is now known as Newfoundland, more than 1,000 years ago, aboriginal people – today considered Canada’s First Nations – had occupied the area the Norse called Vinland for at least 7,000 years.
About 500 years after the arrival of the first Norse colonists, some of history’s greatest explorers began making the journey across the Atlantic Ocean to this land of two million lakes, mighty rivers and vast mountain ranges. In the late 15th century, Italian Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot) made two voyages on behalf of England and discovered rich fishing grounds off the coast of Newfoundland. Less than 50 years later, Jacques Cartier arrived in the Gaspé Peninsula and claimed the land in what is now eastern Québec for France. One year later, in 1535, Cartier journeyed up the St. Lawrence River to the native village of Stadacona, on the future site of Québec City, and called it Canada – a name derived from the Huron-Iroquois “kanata,” meaning a village or settlement.
But it would be another 300 years before the name Canada would refer to a country.
Throughout the 17th century, the French established colonies in Nova Scotia and Québec in the area they called New France. In 1670, England’s King Charles II granted a royal charter to the Hudson’s Bay Company, giving it exclusive trading rights to vast territory drained by rivers flowing into Hudson’s Bay and creating what would become the English-speaking world’s oldest incorporated joint-stock merchandising company.
More than a century later and following the American Revolution when the United States gained independence from Great Britain, some 40,000 United Empire Loyalists fled to Québec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Signs of the future Canada began to emerge when Québec was divided into two colonies along the current Ontario-Québec boundary – Upper Canada, in the west, and Lower Canada, to the east – in 1791 under British rule. Fifty years later, they would unite when Britain’s Parliament passed the Act of Union that established the Province of Canada. But after that, it wasn’t long before this vast territory of land – eventually becoming the world’s second-largest country behind the Russian Federation – would shed its colonial past and become its own nation.
In 1864, delegates attending “confederation” conferences in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island and in Québec City created a model for the future Canada. Three years later, Britain’s Parliament passed the British North America Act (BNA Act) that created a Canadian Constitution and, on July 1, 1867, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Québec and Ontario became the first four provinces of the new “Dominion of Canada.”