Early History: Colonization of Canada

This dynamic, growing, and booming country that we call Canada today really began in the year 1534, when French explorer Jacques Cartier planted the French flag on the Gaspe Peninsula and declared the land “New France”. Within a year French fishing fleets were sailing from Europe to the cod-rich waters of Newfoundland and the St Laurence Channel. Soon small fishing settlements were being set up, although these were, for the most part, only temporary.

These fishing settlements were used mainly for dry-curing fish catches (as opposed to wet-curing them on board ship at sea. Dry-curing allowed more catch to be preserved and was more profitable). As more and more ships plied their way, and as Spanish and English colonies to the south were founded, French settlers began to arrive and turn these temporary fishing settlements into permanent outposts of French civilization.

Early French settlements in North America.

In 1583 the British claimed Newfoundland as a British colony and British fishing vessels soon began to compete with the French. France, however, had an advantage with their network of settlements along the mainland, and by 1604 explorers were vying inland, the most famous of whom is Samual deChamplain, who  mapped the coastline of America, sailed up the St Laurence and then canoed the Ottawa River all the way to Lake Huron. He set up a series of trading forts along the way, including Quebec and Trois Rivieres in New France and Port Royal in Nova Scotia. Meanwhile the British had established the fort of St John’s, Newfoundland.

New France militia

New France militia

In 1635 a group of French Jesuits came to the New World with the mission of establishing a French-Iroquois utopia. They planned to make a commune-style society with equality for all under Christ, and they founded their community on an island in the middle of the St Laurence River. Originally called “Ville Marie”, the name was changed to “Mont Royal” after a few years in recognition of the big mountain that dominated the land. This “Royal Mountain” was to become Montreal, one of the first big cities to grow in North America. By the early 18th Century the pattern of colonization was set. England ruled the seaboard and was dominate with the 13 colonies and Newfoundland. Spain ruled the south Americas, while France had pretty much free reign throughout the interior of the continent. France’s “coureurs-du-boix” (runners-of-the-woods) forged a path along the vast rivers and deep forests of these lands, trapping beavers and foxes for furs, establish trade links with native tribes, and mapping new lands. The first Europeans who burst onto the prairies and set their eyes on the Rocky Mountains were these French coureurs, who also established trading posts and intermarried with the native populations (creating the Metis tribes; mixed French-native blood). As Boston and other British cities grew, Frances cities also grew up, most famous of which were Fort Quebec, Montreal, and Fort Louisburg on Cape Breton Island. By 1700 there were 50,000 French settlers living and working in New France, and a sizeable French military garrison complete with a naval fleet.

The streets of Quebec City, unchanged since the 17th Century.

The streets of Quebec City, unchanged since the 17th Century.

The British 13 colonies to the south, however, outnumbered the French nearly 10:1, and it was only a matter of time before England turned her gaze northwards, especially considering the fact that France dominated the lucrative fur and fish markets of Europe, thanks to her strategically-placed trade network which stretched from the shores of the Atlantic to the great plains.

The 18th Century was a time of constant war in North America, between the British and French empires and their respective native allies. In this the French held an advantage. French traders had traditionally shown respect and friendliness towards their native counterparts. Treaties were fair and upheld with great honour by both sides, and French settlers never strayed onto Native lands. British colonialism, on the other hand, was one of “civilizing the savages” and was unfair and often brutal. Native tribes were forcefully removed from their lands to make way for British settlers, and native treaties were respected only so far as it was convenient to British rule; otherwise treaties were unceremoniously broken when it suited them. A century of bad treatment by the British forced most native tribes to side with the French when war finally did break out between the two super-powers.

French and Iroquois hold a conference.

French and Iroquois hold a conference.

In 1753 the French and Indian Wars (part of the bigger 7 Year’s War) between England and France broke out. Because of French strategic dominance of the continent, the early victories were enjoyed by France. The weight of the British population, and the strength of the Royal Navy, however, swung the balance of power in the New World towards England’s favour.

The wars (there were actually several of them in a short space of time) were brutal and and hard. European soldiers had a difficult time coping with the rugged North American terrain and the freezing winters. Between 1756 and 1757 a series of strong French campaigns saw large tracts of British territory conquered, particularly in what is today upper New York State and Pennsylvania. The most famous culmination of the French campaign is the battle of Fort William Henry, popularized in the movie “Last of the Mohicans”. The resulting slaughter of the British garrison by angry Iroquois shocked not only England but all of Europe. The British responded by sending most of their navy and army to the New World. The resulting British offensive slowly pushed the French back, and conquered Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Hudson Bay and parts of Upper Canada (today Ontario).

The first of the big French settlements to fall was Fort Louisburg, in Cape Breton. This French fort had a sizeable population almost matching Montreal’s, and its giant naval cannons dominated the entrance to the St Laurance channel. This strategic fort gave France control over all of Nova Scotia and the interior of North America. In 1758 a British expedition under General Amherst, with General Wolfe as his lieutenant, besieged the fort. The Seige of Louisburg lasted nearly 10 days, and in that time British cannons fired more than 100,000 rounds, the largest artillery bombardment in history up until that time. The largest building in North America was destroyed then, too, when the fort’s HQ building was set on fire by the cannonade. On July 26 the fort’s defenders surrendered to the British, and Nova Scotia passed to British domination. They razed fort Louisburg to the ground and expelled all the French settlers in the region, known as the great Acadian Expulsions. British settlers were brough in to a little-known fort town to the south of Nova Scotia; Halifax. This fort town would become England’s main HQ and port 20 years later during the American Revolution.

The seige of Louisburg, July 1758

The seige of Louisburg, July 1758


In 1760 a small British force, under the command of Lt-General Wolfe, landed below Fort Quebec and silently scaled up the cliffs in the dead of night. As the sun rose the French garrison, under the command of General Montcalm, was shocked to see a British army spreading out in battle lines on the fields below the fort. These fields, called the Plains of Abraham, are today recognized as the turning point in North America changing from a French-dominated continent to a British-American dominated one.

Montcalm ordered his forces out of the fort and the French battle lines drew up and marched towards the red-coated British with their black tri-pointed hats. Iroquois allies of the French moved around the flanks of the British line. There was a sudden intense and terrifying series of volleys as both French and English lines opened fire on each other. English naval guns from the ships in the St Laurence added their weight to the fire. Smoke and explosions and screams filled the battlefield, and somewhere in the confusion both General Wolfe and General Montcalm were struck down by musket balls and killed. After 20 minutes of fighting and nearly 1,200 dead, the French turned and fled from the plains. Fort Quebec fell into British hands, and the end of the French  empire in North America was sealed.

The Plains of Abraham are a UNESCO World Heritage Site today.

The Plains of Abraham are a UNESCO World Heritage Site today.

With the fall of Louisburg and Quebec French hopes of hanging on to the rest of her empire were dashed, and the King of France sued for peace. The Treaty of Paris ended the war and gave Britain complete dominion over the Canadas and most of the continent. France hung on to some land along the Mississippi River and the Louisiana territories.

With her Empire secure, Britain began to import settlers to Canada, founding the cities of York (Toronto), Halifax, Sudbury and Detroit. The British allowed the conquered French population to retain their Catholic faith, European traditions and French language, and renamed “New France” to “Quebec” with it’s provincial capital being Quebec City.

This colonization of British Canada would continue for 300 more years, and laid the roots of the Canada we know today.


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