Early Canadian History: Pre-Colonization

The history of Canada is deeply rooted in the history of North America as a whole and of Europe in particular. In recent years the growth of globalization and an influx of immigrants from China and India have tied Canada’s ongoing historical narrative into that of Asia.

Before European colonization the land we today as Canada was inhabited by the First Nations People (also know as “Indians”, “Natives” and “Aboriginals”, although “First Nations” is politically and culturally correct). Archaeological evidence shows that First Nations people have inhabited the land for 40,000 years, possibly crossing a land bridge from Siberia during the last ice age.

New excavations along the west coast of North America, however, is shedding light on a theory that some travelled from Asia in boats. Thus it may be possible that over a period of 20,000 years there were several waves of asiatic people finding their way to the continent.We know today that 7,000 years ago the Hurons, a tribe of First Nations people, were settling in areas around the Great Lakes in Southern Ontario and Upper New York state. We also know that 6,000 years ago the great plains tribes were hunting buffalo and living a semi-nomadic lifestyle in central USA and the Canadian prairies. The oldest excavations of First Nation settlements in British Columbia are dated at 4000 years ago.

Huron cave painting near Peterborough, Ontario

Thus, for at least 39,000 years before Europeans arrived, First Nations people were spreading out across North America and sophisticated and intricate cultures were being established.

In the year 1000 AD Viking explorers under Erik the Red arrived in Newfoundland and Labrador and established a few settlements. Little is known about this period as the archaeological evidence doesn’t shed much light on it. We do know that a series of violent conflicts with the local MicMac First Nations tribes resulted in the Vikings abandoning their settlements.Excavated Viking settlement near L’anse Amour, Newfoundland

In 1360 church records show us that Norwegian priest Paul Knutsson sailed to Greenland to convert the “heathen” Vikings who had settled there. His ship blew off course and he ended up sailing along a “massive rocky coast covered in towering pines and maples.” Historical research shows that his voyage took him along the Quebec & Labrador coast and partway down the St. Laurence Estuary.

Thus it was not Columbus who “discovered” the New World, but a series of accidental discoveries by people from both Asia and Europe who preceded Columbus by hundreds, even thousands, of years.In 1492 Columbus discovered the Caribean and shortly thereafter British, French, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese ships were sailing up and down the Atlantic coast of North America.

Four years after Columbus, John Cabot (Giovanno Caboto) of Italy was chartered by the British crown to continue where Columbus had left off. Cabot decided to find a route to India by sailing further north than Columbus and, as a result, he landed on the shores of present-day Newfoundland and sailed around Cape Breton Island and down the St. Laurence Estuary. This makes John Cabot the first actual “discoverer” of the North American continent, as he actually stepped foot on the soil and met with the local First Nation’s people.

“The Matthew”, the ship that brought John Cabot to the actual shores of the New World in 1496

John Cabot made a few more such trips but it was Jacques Cartier, of France, who travelled the furthest into North America via the St. Laurence in 1534. He was commissioned by the King of France to claim the new world before the British or Spanish could and as a result he made his way almost to Lake Ontario, before a vast series of rapids and waterfalls forced his fleet to turn back. Cartier, however, was the first European to map the North American coastlines and his subsequent documentation aided the first European settlers to establish permanent colonies a few years later.

Engraving depicting Jacques Cartier meeting with native First Nation’s people in present-day Quebec. The Iroquois name for “village” is “Kanata”, and it was Cartier who called the land he explored “Canada”
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