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History of Canada

This is an outline of the history of Canada.

Table of contents
1 The First Nations
2 The European arrival
3 New France
4 French vs. English
5 The American Revolution
6 The War of 1812
7 The timber trade
8 "Responsible government" and the Rebellions of 1837-38
9 Lord Durham's Report
10 Act of Union (1840)
11 Confederation
12 The Red River Rebellion
13 Expansion westward
14 Macdonald's "National Policy"
15 The North-West Rebellion
16 The Manitoba Schools Question
17 The Boer War
18 Laurier's government
19 World War I
20 Post-war society
21 The Great Depression
22 World War II
23 The post-war world and the Cold War
24 The new flag
25 The Quiet Revolution
26 The October Crisis
27 Trudeau and the 1970s
28 The 1980 Quebec Referendum
29 The new constitution
30 Brian Mulroney
31 The 1995 Quebec Referendum
32 Contemporary issues

The First Nations

At around 10,000 BC, the first people entered what is now Canada, having travelled over the Bering Strait. These First Nations, as they are called in Canada, spread over all of Canada, adapting themselves to the various surroundings. Peoples varied from the Cree in northern Quebec, to the Haida and Salish on the Pacific coast, to the Iroquois in the Saint Lawrence River valley, to the Beothuks in Newfoundland. Another group, the Inuit, lived in the arctic regions.

The First Nations populations were extremely diverse. Some such as the Iroquois and Haida were settled and agricultural. Others like the Blackfoot were nomadic hunter gatherers. Some states like the Iroquois had advanced political structures, others still operated almost wholly on the tribal level. Some common factors include a shamanistic religion, a lack of all but stone age technology, and all participated in a trading network that spanned the continent.

The European arrival

Around the year 1000, Leif Ericsson briefly established a colony in Vinland, believed by many to coincide with the Viking colony L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada. The Vikings may have travelled the coast from Labrador to Nova Scotia, and possibly even further south, but they were soon forced to abandon their colony due to attacks from an unknown native group and the poor quality of the soil in the area they settled.

It is possible that Basque and Portuguese fishermen visited the coast of Newfoundland in the 15th century, but the first person known to land in what is now Canada is John Cabot, who landed somewhere on the coast of North America (probably Newfoundland or Cape Breton) in 1497 and claimed it for King Henry VII of England. Portuguese and Spanish explorers also visited Canada, but it was the French who first began to explore further inland and set up colonies, beginning with Jacques Cartier in 1534. Under Samuel de Champlain, the first settlement was made in 1608, which would later grow to be Quebec City. The French claimed Canada as their own and settlers arrived, settling along the St. Lawrence and in the Maritimes. Britain also had a presence in the region, however, and with the advent of settlements, claimed the south of Nova Scotia as well as the areas around the Hudson Bay.

The first contact with the Europeans was disastrous for the native peoples. Relations varied between the settlers and the Natives. The French quickly befriended the Huron peoples and entered into a mutually beneficial trading relationship with them. The Iroquois, however, became dedicated opponents of the French and warfare between the two was unrelenting, especially as the British armed the Iroquois in an effort to weaken the French. It was not warfare that destroyed the native way of life, however, but diseases imported from Europe to which they had no immunities. Smallpox and other maladies wiped out a large portion of Canada's native population.

The first people to regularly visit Canada from Europe were fishers. Fleets from all of the Atlantic nations came to the Grand Banks to take advantage on one of the world's richest fisheries. Fishers from Spain, Portugal, and the South of France had a distinct advantage in this trade. They had large supplies of solar salt and thus could cure their catches aboard ship. The British ships, and those from Northern France did not have this advantage and they had to land at Newfoundland or Nova Scotia and hand their catch to dry in the sun. These sporadic landfalls soon lead to permanent settlements and the southern coast of Newfoundland and the eastern coast of Nova Scotia was soon dotted with small French and English fishing villages.

The first agricultural settlements in what was to become Canada were located around the French settlement of Port Royale in what is now Nova Scotia. The population of Acadians, as this group became known, reached 5000 by 1713.

New France

After Champlain's founding of Quebec City in 1608 it became the capital of New France. While the coastal communities were based upon the cod fishery, the economy of the interior revolved around beaver fur which was the rage in Europe. French voyageurs would travel into the hinterlands and trade with the natives. The voyageurs ranged throughout what is today Quebec, Ontario, and Manitoba trading guns, gun powder, textiles and other European manufacturing goods with the natives for furs. The fur trade only encourages a small population, however, as minimal labour was required. Encouraging settlement was always difficult, and while some immigration did occur, by 1759 New France only had a population of some 60,000.

New France had other problems besides low immigration. The French government had little interest or ability in supporting their colony and it was mostly left to its own devices. The economy was primitive and much of the population was involved in little more than subsistence agriculture. The colonists also engaged in a long running series of wars with the Iroquois.

French vs. English

The French were well established in Canada, while Britain had control over the Thirteen Colonies to the south as well as control over Hudson Bay. The British, however, with greater financial power and a larger navy, were consistently in a better position to defend and expand their colonies than the French. The French government gave very little support to their colonists in New France and the colonists, for the most part, had to fend for themselves. Thus in the long series of Anglo-French wars, which dominated the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the French steadily lost ground. Quebec City itself was briefly taken by the British in 1629 (but was returned in 1632).

The first areas lost to the British were the Maritimes. After the War of the Spanish Succession, Nova Scotia, other than Cape Breton, was ceded to the British by the Treaty of Utrecht. This gave Britain control over a large number of French-speaking Acadians. Not trusting these new subjects the British tried to dilute their numbers. Thus an effort to recruit Foreign Protestants, primarily from Germany and Switzerland was launched. After only mild success with this effort the British ordered a massive deportation in 1755 and spread the Acadians throughout their North American holdings. While many subsequently returned, the era of francophone Nova Scotia was at and end.

Canada was also an important battlefield in the Seven Years' War, during which Great Britain gained control of Quebec City after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, and Montreal in 1760. Under the Treaty of Paris (1763) France ceded almost all of its Canadian territory to the British. Many British people (including the American colonies to the south) hoped the French Canadians would be assimilated, but distinct rules of governance for Quebec were set out in the Quebec Act of 1774.

The Quebec Act expanded the territory of Quebec, which was then limited to a narrow area around the St-Lawrence river. The most significant expansion was to the southwest, into land that American colonists wanted to settle. The Act also allowed French Canadians to retain their Catholic religion and their French system of civil law. The Quebec Act became one of the Intolerable Acts that infuriated the thirteen American colonies.

The American Revolution

In 1775 American revolutionaries attempted to push their insurrection into Quebec. The Canadiens did not support the revolution, preferring British protection under the Quebec Act to certain assimilation under an American government. The Americans took the towns of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Montreal and laid siege to Quebec City. An attempt to take the city on the night of New Year's Eve 1775 failed, and the Americans were driven from Quebec in 1776.

The American Revolution also led to the arrival of thousands of Loyalists (referred to as "Tories" in the United States) who, as their name suggests, remained loyal to Britain and fled north to more securely-held British territory. However, they did not want to live under French law, and the colonies of Ontario and New Brunswick were created for them. The rights of English and French Canadians were set out in the Constitutional Act of 1791, which separated the Province of Quebec into Upper Canada and Lower Canada along the Ottawa river, and set up more effective colonial governments.

The War of 1812

Canada was once again a battleground, this time between the British and the relatively young United States, in the War of 1812. During the war unsuccessful attempts were made by the Americans to invade Ontario, after overestimating the amount of support they would receive from Canadian colonists. Many of the inhabitants of Upper Canada (Ontario) were Americans who had very recently arrived in the colony, and some of them did support the invading force; however, the rest of the population was made up of the descendants of Loyalists or the original French colonists, who did not want to be part of the United States. The first American invasion came in October of 1812, but they were defeated by General Isaac Brock at the Battle of Queenston Heights. The Americans invaded again in 1813, capturing Fort York (now Toronto, Ontario). Later in the year the Americans took control of the Great Lakes after the Battle of Lake Erie and the Battle of the Thames, but they had much less success in Quebec, where they were defeated at the Battle of Châteauguay and the Battle of Chrysler's Farm. The Americans were driven out of Ontario in 1814 after the Battle of Lundy's Lane, although they still controlled the Great Lakes and also defeated the British at the Battle of Lake Champlain. The war was essentially a draw, and it is much more important for Canadian mythology than it is as a historical event. In English Canada it is seen as a victory against American invasions, with heroic legends surrounding many of the participants (such as Isaac Brock and Laura Secord) and battles (especially those in the Niagara Peninsula).

The timber trade

As the fur trade declined in importance the timber trade became Canada's most important commodity. The industry became concentrated in three main regions. The first to be exploited was the St. John River system. Trees in the still almost deserted hinterland of New Brunswick were cut and transported to St. John where they were shipped to England. This area soon could not keep up with demand and the trade moved to the St. Lawrence River where logs were shipped to Quebec City before being sent on to Europe. This area also became insufficient and the trade expanded westward, most notably to the Ottawa River system, which by 1845 provided three quarters of the timber shipped from Quebec City. The timber trade became a massive business. In one summer 1200 ships were loaded with timber at Quebec City alone.

The cutting of the timber was done by small groups of men in isolated camps. For most of the nineteenth century the most common product was square timber, which was a log that had been cut into a square block in the forest before being shipped. The timber was transported from the hinterlands to the major markets by assembling it into a raft and floating it downstream. Because of the narrower and more turbulent waters that one would encounter on the Ottawa River system, smaller rafts, known as "cribs," were employed. On the St. Lawrence, however, very large rafts, some up a third of a mile in length would be employed. The most common type of tree harvested was white pine, mostly because it floated well. Oak, which does not float, was in high demand but was much harder to transport and oak timbers needed to be carefully integrated into the raft if they were to be carried to market.

In 1842 the British preferential tariff were lifted, however, the transatlantic trade still remained a profitable one. Demand in Britain remained high, especially for railway ties. Improved ships and new technologies, especially the steam engine, allowed the trade to continue to prosper. After the middle of the century the trade in timber began to decline, being replaced by trade in cut lumber and the pulp and paper industry.

One of the most important side effects of the timber trade was immigration to British North America. Timber is a very bulky and not a particularly valuable cargo. For every ship full of British manufactured goods dozens would be needed to carry the same value of timber. There was no cargo coming from the British Isles to Canada that could take up as much room on the return voyage. Exporting salt filled a few ships, and some vessels were even filled with bricks, but many timber ships made the westward voyage filled with ballast. The population of Canada was small and the lack of wealth in the area made it an unattractive market.

There was, however, one cargo that the ship-owners did not have to worry about finding a market for in the sparsely populated New World: people. Many of the timber ships turned to carrying immigrants for the return voyage from the British Isles to fill this unused capacity. Timber ships would unload their cargo and sell passage to those desiring to emigrate. During the early nineteenth century, with the preferential tariff in full effect, the timber ships were among the oldest and most dilapidated in the British merchant fleet, and travelling as a passenger upon them was extremely unpleasant and dangerous. It was, however, very cheap. Since timber exports would peak at the same time as conflicts in Europe, such as the Napoleonic Wars, a great mass of refugees sought this cheap passage across the Atlantic.

In later decades after the repeal of the tariff and the increase of competition, the quality and safety of the ships improved markedly. Since the travellers would bring along their own food and bedding the trade was an extremely easy one to operate. All that was required was a few advertisements, generally in Irish newspapers, and the installation of bunks along the side of the hold. An average timber ship could thus carry about 200 passengers. Even with only a fraction of the hundreds of timber ships carrying passengers, this created an unprecedented influx of new inhabitants. By comparison it has been calculated that the trade between New France and Europe only included an average sixty-six immigrants per year over the lifetime of that colony.

"Responsible government" and the Rebellions of 1837-38

After the War of 1812, the first half of the 19th century saw the growth of political reform movements in both Upper and Lower Canada, largely influenced by American and French republicanism. The colonial legislatures set out by the Constitutional Act had become dominated by wealthy elites, the Family Compact in Upper Canada and the Chateau Clique in Lower Canada. The moderate reformers, such as Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine, argued for a more representational form of government which they called "responsible government." By "responsible," the reformers meant that such a government would be ultimately responsible to the will of the subjects of the colonies, not to the British legislature or monarchy. The radical reformers, such as William Lyon Mackenzie and Louis-Joseph Papineau demanded equality or a complete break from British rule and the establishment of a republic.

Lower Canada - the Patriotes Rebellion

Louis-Joseph Papineau was elected speaker of the colonial assembly in 1815. His attempts at reform were ignored by the British, and in 1834, the assembly passed The Ninety-Two Resolutions, outlining its grievances against the legislative council. Papineau organized boycotts and civil disobedience. The colonial government illegally ordered the arrest of Papineau. The Patriotes resorted to armed resistance and planned a rebellion in the fall of 1837. British troops in the colony quickly put down the rebellion and forced Papineau to flee to the United States. A second rebellion by the Frères chasseurs of Robert Nelson broke out one year later, but the British put it down as well, with much loss of life and destruction of property.

The Rebellion in Upper Canada

William Lyon Mackenzie, a Scottish immigrant and reformist mayor of York (Toronto), organized a rebellion in December of 1837 after the Patriotes rebellion had begun. Upper Canadians had similar grievances; they were annoyed at the undemocratic governance of the colony, and especially by the corrupt and inefficient Canada Company. On December 4 the rebels assembled near Montgomery's Tavern, where the British troops stationed in the city met them on December 7. The rebels were hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, and were defeated in less than an hour. Mackenzie escaped to the United States.

Also in December, a group of Irish immigrants attempted to seize southwestern Ontario by force in the Patriot War. They were defeated by government troops at Windsor.

Lord Durham's Report

Lord Durham was appointed Governor General of Canada in 1838. He was assigned to investigate the causes of the Rebellions, and concluded that the problem was essentially animosity between the British and French inhabitants of Canada. His Report on the Affairs of British North America contains the famous description of "two nations warring in the bosom of a single state." For Durham, the French Canadians were culturally backwards, and he was convinced that only a union of French and English Canada would allow the colony to progress in the interest of Great Britain. A political union would, he hoped, cause the French-speakers to be assimilated by English-speaking settlements, solving the problem of French Canadian nationalism once and for all.

Act of Union (1840)

Lord Durham was succeeded by Lord Sydenham, who implemented Durham's suggestions in the Union Act, passed on July 23, 1840. Upper and Lower Canada became, respectively, Canada West and Canada East, both with 42 seats in the legislature of the Province of Canada despite Lower Canada being more populated. The official language of the province became English and explicitly banned French in the parliament and in the courts.

It took the administration of Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine and Robert Baldwin, who had remained moderate reformers during the Rebellions, to undo this discrimination. Lafontaine and Baldwin reintroduced French as an official language alongside English the Assembly, the Courts and other governmental bodies. Under the progressive Governor General Lord Elgin, a bill was passed to allow the leaders of former Patriote movement to return to their homeland; Papineau returned and for a short time re-entered Canadian politics. A similar bill was passed for the former Upper Canadian rebels.

The parliament of United Canada in Montreal was set on fire by a mob of tories in 1949 after the passing of an indemnity bill for the people who suffered losses during the rebellions of Lower Canada.

One noted policy of the Union was the Canadian-American Reciprocity Treaty of 1855 which lead to free trade in resources.

The Union Act was ultimately unsuccessful, and led to calls for a greater political union in the 1850s and 1860s.


In the 1860s, in the wake of the American Civil War, the British were concerned with possible American reprisals against Canada for Britain's tacit support of the Confederacy. Britain also feared that American settlers might expand to the north, into land that was technically British but which was sparsely settled. There were also problems with raids into Canada launched by the Fenian Brotherhood, a group of Irish Americans who wanted to pressure Britain into granting independence to Ireland. Canada was already essentially a self-governing colony, and Britain no longer felt it was worth the expense of keeping it as a colony. Both sides would, it was felt, be better off politically and economically if Canada was independent. These factors led to the first serious discussions about real political union in Canada.

However, there were internal political obstacles to overcome first. The Province of Canada had little success in keeping a stable government for any period of time; the Tories, led by John A. Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier, were constantly at odds with the "Clear Grits" led by George Brown. In 1864 the two parties decided to unite in the "Great Coalition." This was an important step towards Confederation.

Meanwhile, the colonies further east, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland, were also discussing a political union with each other. Representatives from the Province of Canada joined them at the Charlottetown Conference in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island in 1864 to discuss a union of all the colonies, and these discussions were extended into the Quebec Conference of 1866. While there was opposition in each of the colonies, only Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland decided to remain outside of the planned Confederation. In 1867 the other colonies travelled to Britain to finalize the union, which was granted by the British North America Act on July 1, 1867. July 1 is now celebrated as Canada Day. While the BNA Act gave Canada a high degree of autonomy within the British Empire, this autonomy extended only to internal affairs. External affairs, such as border negotiations with the United States, were still controlled from Britain.

The Red River Rebellion

The new country was led by Prime Minister John A. Macdonald. Under Macdonald, Canada bought Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1869, and westward settlement was encouraged. However, the people who already lived there, natives and Métis, descendants of the children of natives and French Canadian fur traders, were opposed to waves of English-speaking settlers buying their lands. The Métis of the Red River settlement (near present-day Winnipeg, Manitoba), led by Louis Riel, formed a provisional government to negotiate with the Canadian government, although these negotiations quickly fell apart. Riel led the Red River Rebellion in 1869 and 1870, during which he executed an Orangeman, causing an uproar among Protestant English Canadians. Macdonald sent a militia to put down the rebellion, which they quickly did, and Riel fled to the United States.

The Rebellion led to the creation of the province of Manitoba in 1870, with laws protecting the rights of the natives, Métis, French-speakers and English-speakers, Catholics and Protestants.

Expansion westward

Despite the violence of the Red River rebellion and the later North-West Rebellion Canada evaded the widespread Indian Wars fought by the United States. Rather than fight, the government sent negotiators to the prairie First Nations and worked out a series of treaties. While these treaties were often ignored by the settlers and the government, they did bring peace to the region, and are today recognized by the courts as valid.

In 1866 the colonies of British Columbia (formerly New Caledonia) and Vancouver's Island were united. British Columbia had been important for British control of the Pacific Ocean, and was a centre of the fur trade between Britain, the United States, Russia, Spain, and China. It did not participate in the original Confederation conferences, but agreed to join Canada in 1871 when Macdonald promised to built a railroad across the continent through the Northwest Territories (formerly Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory), which at this time still extended to the U.S. border. The Canadian Pacific Railway and the Dominion Land Survey were begun soon after.

In 1873, Prince Edward Island, the Maritime colony that had opted not to join Confederation in 1867, was admitted into the country. That same year, Macdonald created the North West Mounted Police to help police the Northwest Territories, and assert Canadian independence over possible American encroachments into the sparsely populated land. The "Mounties" became legendary for keeping law and order in the west, while at the same time the American West was lawless and violent.

However, also in 1873, Macdonald and the Conservative government faced a major political crisis, when it was revealed that the Canadian Pacific Railway Company had helped fund Macdonald's election campaign in 1872. A new election was called in 1874 and Alexander Mackenzie was elected Prime Minister. Under Mackenzie the Canadian Pacific Railway continued to expand to the west, but the public's suspicion of Macdonald was erased by 1878, when the Macdonald and the Conservatives were re-elected.

Macdonald's "National Policy"

After being restored as Prime Minister, Macdonald introduced the National Policy, a system of protective tariffs meant to strengthen the Canadian economy. Part of the policy was the completion of the railroad, which would allow products to be transferred more easily across the country. It was also a response to the United States, which had a much stronger economy that threatened to overwhelm Canada; the United States had a trade reciprocity treaty with Canada while it was still a colony, but did not renew the treaty with the new nation in 1874. Many people believed this Policy was only beneficial to Ontario, as the Maritimes especially depended on trade with the United States. While it was somewhat beneficial for asserting Canadian independence, it was not very useful in the less industrial Maritimes and West.

The North-West Rebellion

After the Red River Rebellion, many Métis moved west to what is now Saskatchewan. However, with the expansion of the railway, as well as increased European immigration to western Canada, they felt their way of life was once again being attacked. In 1884 Louis Riel returned from exile, and in the spring of 1885 he led the Métis and other natives against the North West Mounted Police. The Mounties surrounded the Métis settlement at Batoche, and by May reinforcements of Canadian militia had arrived on the new railway. The Métis and natives were decisively defeated, and this time Riel was not allowed to escape. In November, he was found guilty of treason and hanged, causing an uproar among French Canadians who felt English-speaking Canada was unfairly prejudiced against him. This incident caused a deeper rift between the two populations, leading to a renewed sense of French Canadian nationalism that is still felt today. However, the crisis allowed the Canadian Pacific Railway company to show its worth by quickly transporting troops west which encouraged enough political support for further funding to complete the line, thus realizing MacDonald's dream of a transcontinental railway to help strengthen the nation building.

The Manitoba Schools Question

After the Red River Rebellion and the entrance of Manitoba into Confederation, settlers from English Canada arrived in the new province in greater numbers. In 1890 the provincial government passed the Manitoba Schools Act, abolishing government funding for Catholic schools and abolishing French as an official language - contrary to the Manitoba Act that created the province. This led to another federal political crisis, and by 1896 Prime Minister Mackenzie Bowell was forced to resign. Wilfrid Laurier, a Catholic from Quebec, was then elected. Laurier developed a compromise stating that French would be used in schools when there were a significant number of French-speaking students; this compromise was denounced by both sides, but was recognized as the only possible solution. However, along with the execution of Louis Riel, the Manitoba Schools Question led to an increase of French Canadian nationalism.

The Boer War

Laurier hoped to unite French and English Canada in a unique sense of Canadian nationalism, rather than remain unquestionably loyal to Britain. Along with some Americans, he also hoped for a shift of focus towards North America, a policy often known as "continentalism." However, in 1899, the British immediately assumed Canada would send military support to the war in South Africa, and there was indeed enormous support for military action from English Canada. French Canada was, of course, strongly opposed to military support for Britain's imperialist wars. The opposition was led by Henri Bourassa, who, like Laurier, preferred a united, independent Canada. Bourassa denounced Laurier when Laurier eventually decided to allow a volunteer force to fight in the war, even though the other option would have been calling up an official army.

Laurier's government

Laurier successfully brought Saskatchewan and Alberta into Confederation in 1905, carving those provinces out of the Northwest Territories. He felt Canada was on the verge of becoming a world power, and declared that the 20th century would be "Canada's century." However, he faced even more criticism when he introduced the Naval Service Bill in 1910. It was meant to make Canada less dependent on Britain and British imperialism, but Bourassa felt the British would now call on the Canadian navy whenever it was needed, just as they did with the Canadian army. Pro-British imperialists were also opposed to the attempt to remove Canada from the Empire. The Naval Service Bill led to Laurier's downfall in the election of 1911, in which Robert Laird Borden became Prime Minister.

World War I

Borden's government did not solve the naval crisis, but in 1914 he oversaw Canada's entry into the First World War. Although Canada had no choice in the matter, as foreign affairs were still conducted from Britain, the war was initially popular even among French Canadians, including Henri Bourassa. Canadians fought at Ypres, the Somme, Passchendaele, and other important battles, originally under British command, but eventually under a unified Canadian command. From a Canadian point of view the most important battle of the war was the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917, during which Canadian troops captured a fortified German hill that had eluded both the British and French. Vimy, as well as the success of the Canadian flying ace Billy Bishop, helped give Canada a new sense of identity.

With mounting costs at home, Sir Thomas Whyte introduced the first income tax in Canada as a "temporary" measure. The lowest bracket was 4% and highest was 25%.

The Conscription Crisis of 1917

After three years of a war that was supposed to have been over in three months, Canada was suffering from a shortage of volunteers. Borden had originally promised not to introduce conscription, but now believed it was necessary to win the war. The Military Service Act was passed in July, but there was fierce opposition, mostly from French Canadians (led not only by Bourassa, but also Wilfrid Laurier), as well as Quakers, Mennonites, and other pacifists. Borden's government almost collapsed, but he was able to form a Union government with the Liberal opposition (although Laurier did not join the new government). In the 1917 election, the Union government was re-elected, but with no support from Quebec. Over the next year, the war finally ended, with very few Canadian conscripts actually participating.

Post-war society

During the war, the women's suffrage movement gained support. The provinces began extending voting rights to women in 1916, and women were finally allowed to vote in federal elections in 1918 (but only if they were over 21 years of age). Canada was also faced with the return of thousands of returning soldiers, with few jobs waiting for them at home. They also brought back with them the Spanish Flu, which killed over 50 000 people by 1919, almost the same number that had been killed in the war itself.

The move from a wartime to a peacetime economy, combined with the return of the soldiers from Europe, led to another crisis. In 1919 the One Big Union was formed, an organization of the various unions across the country. This Union was a large influence on the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, which some saw as as outbreak of Bolshevism, especially as the Soviet Union had recently been formed. The army had to be sent in to break up the strike.

Meanwhile, in western Canada, and to some extent in the Maritimes, populist reformers were pushing for increased provincial rights and a focus on agriculture, rather than the industrial focus of Central Canada. They formed the Progressive Party, which supported the Liberal party of William Lyon Mackenzie King and helped elect Mackenzie King as Prime Minister in 1921. Mackenzie King eventually lost support, however, because of the trade tariffs issue, as well as a liquor smuggling scandal. He was forced to resign in 1925, but was re-elected in 1926.

The Great Depression

Canada suffered greatly when the Great Depression began in 1929. While the decline started in the United States, it quickly spread to Canada because of the gold standard and the close economic links between the two countries. The Canadian economy was the second-worst affected in the world by the Depression, after the United States. The first area affected was wheat, which saw a collapse in prices. This destroyed the economies of the Prairie provinces, but as wheat was then Canada's largest export it also hurt the rest of the country. This was soon followed by a deep recession in manufacturing, first caused by a drop-off in demand in the United States, and then by Canadians also not buying unneeded luxuries. Perhaps most harmful, however, was the subsequent reduction of investment: both large companies and individuals were unwilling and unable to invest in new ventures. Unemployment rose to 25 per cent.

Mackenzie King believed the crisis would pass and refused to send federal aid to the provinces and only introduced moderate relief efforts. The Liberals lost the 1930 election to Richard Bedford Bennett and the Conservatives. Bennett, a successful western businessman, campaigned on high tariffs and large scale spending, but as deficits increased he became wary and cut back severely on federal spending. With falling support and the depression only getting worse Bennett attempted to introduce policies based on the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the United States, but this was largely unsuccessful.

R. B. Bennett

Bennett also oversaw further independence for Canada in the Statute of Westminster, passed by the British Parliament in 1931. Britain had been making foreign policy decisions for Canada up to the late 1920s, but now renounced authority over the legislatures of Canada and several of its other colonies. Nevertheless, Bennett's perceived failures during the Great Depression led to the re-election of Mackenzie King's Liberals in 1935.

Return of Mackenzie King

Although the United States began to see rapid improvements as a result of FDR's policies, Canada saw far less growth. Nevertheless, by this time the worst of the Depression was over. Mackenzie implemented some relief programs such as the National Housing Act and National Employment Commission, and also established the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (1936) and Trans-Canada Airlines (1937, the precursor to Air Canada). It took until 1939 and the outbreak of war for the Canadian economy to return to 1929 levels, however.


The Depression saw some remnants of the Progressive Party from the 1920s organized to form the Social Credit Party. Other members joined with Labour to form the Canadian Commonwealth Federation, a socialist party that achieved some success. The period also saw the rise of a small Canadian Communist Party and great controversy as the government tried to ban its activities.

The Depression saw a rise of militancy among the working class. In 1935 the On-to-Ottawa Trek, a massive protest march, was stopped by the RCMP in Regina, Saskatchewan, and a large riot broke out that attracted publicity across the nation. The Depression also saw the permanent entrenchment of organized labour in the economic and political life of the nation.

One of the most lasting effects of the depression was the new role of government. Under Bennett and Mackenzie King the first elements of Canada's welfare state were created, and the size and role of the government began to grow immensely over the next decades.

World War II

The Canadian economy, like the economies of many other countries, improved in an unexpected way--the outbreak of the Second World War. Canada had been a founding member of the League of Nations, but elected to remain neutral throughout the 1930s. Mackenzie King even met with Adolf Hitler and decided he was not a threat. When Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Mackenzie King was finally convinced that military action would be necessary, but, in a show of independence, waited until September 10 to declare war (unlike World War I, when Canada was automatically at war as soon as Britain was).

Canada's major contribution to the war was the Commonwealth Air Training Plan, run by Billy Bishop and the Royal Air Force as a training ground for Commonwealth pilots. The first military action of the war for Canadians came in 1941, when they unsuccessfully defended Hong Kong from the Japanese. Hong Kong was taken on December 25, which horrendous Canadian and British casualties. On August 19, 1942, Canadians were again defeated in the Dieppe Raid, an unsuccessful attempt at an invasion of Europe. Canadian troops fought in Italy in 1943, and in 1944 successfully captured Juno Beach during the Battle of Normandy. They were instrumental in liberating the Netherlands, for which the Dutch still fondly remember Canadians today.

The Conscription Crisis of 1944

As in World War I, the number of volunteers began to run dry as the war dragged on. Mackenzie King had promised, like Borden, not to introduce conscription, though his position was somewhat ambiguous, as he had declared "conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription."

With rising pressure from the people, on June 21, 1940, King passed the National Resources Mobilization Act (NRMA) which gave the government the power to "call out every man in Canada for military training for the defence of Canada", and only Canada. Conscripts could not be sent overseas to fight. English Canadians, expectedly, were displeased and took to calling these soldiers "zombies" who they stereotyped as French Canadians who were "sitting comfortably" while countrymen died.

On April 27, 1942 Mackenzie King held a national plebiscite to decide on the issue, having made campaign promises to avoid conscription (and, it is thought, winning the election on that very point). English Canada was mostly in favour of conscription, but, as expected, French Canada was not. Nevertheless, the vote was yes all overall and King was free to bring in a conscription law if he wanted. However, the issue was put off for another two years, until 1944, when it was decided conscription was now necessary. There were riots in Quebec, and even an aged Henri Bourassa spoke out against the decision.

In the end, 16 000 new men, in addition to 12 000 NRMA "zombies", were sent overseas. Of these, but 2500 reached the front and 69 were killed in action. Basically it was quite pointless, because in the end, the war ended before conscripts played a major role in battle.

The post-war world and the Cold War

The Second World War brought many changes to Canada; the government was necessarily more centralized during the war, and it remained so afterwards. The federal government also began to adopt social welfare policies, often borrowed from the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, which had introduced such policies in the western provinces even before the war. Federally, these included universal health care, old-age pensions, and veterans' pensions. Due to the post-war Baby Boom, the government also introduced allowances known as "baby bonuses." The economy had prospered because of the war, and in Alberta, there was an economic boom due to the discovery of new oil fields in 1947.

Mackenzie King won the election of 1945, but retired in 1948 and was succeeded by Louis St. Laurent. St. Laurent succeeded in extending the welfare state, and also brought Newfoundland into Confederation as Canada's 10th province in 1949. Before joining Canada, Newfoundland had been an independent dominion of the British Empire; when it joined, Newfoundland was essentially bankrupt.

Meanwhile, Canadian foreign relations were beginning to focus on the United States, which had eclipsed Britain as a world power. During World War II, Canada was a minor partner in the alliance between the United States and Britain, and the US had pledged to help defend Canada if necessary. Canada was one of the founding members of the United Nations in 1945, and also of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949, but was largely overshadowed in world affairs by the United States.

Canada participated, under the United Nations, in the Korean War. St. Laurent's Minister of External Affairs, Lester Bowles Pearson, was involved in the diplomatic side of the conflict, and became more active in diplomacy with the United Nations after the war ended. In 1956 Pearson suggested a solution to the Suez Crisis - the creation of an international peacekeeping force. For his efforts, Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957.

St. Laurent and his successor John George Diefenbaker attempted to create a new, highly advanced jet fighter, the Avro Arrow. This controversial aircraft was cancelled by Diefenbaker in 1959, although Diefenbaker did help establish a missile defence system with the United States, NORAD.

The new flag

Diefenbaker was succeeded by Pearson in 1963, at a time of increasing political unrest in much of the Western world. In Canada the largest crises involved provincial rights, especially in Quebec, where nationalism had been increasing and was on the verge of violent explosion. Pearson recognized Quebec to be a "nation within the nation". One attempt at pacifying Quebec, and moving Canada away from the old British imperialism, was creating a new flag. The old Red Ensign no longer reflected Canada's place in the world, and Pearson felt a new flag would help unite French and English Canada with truly Canadian symbols. After lengthy debates over numerous designs, the current maple leaf flag was adopted in 1965 and was quickly embraced by the public. 15 Years before, Quebec had replaced the British provincial flag with the current Quebec flag, which was quickly embraced by Quebecers.

The Quiet Revolution

The Quiet Revolution began in Quebec when Jean Lesage became premier in 1960. It was, essentially, a peaceful nationalist movement to give to Quebec a modern secular state, seen as the only way to propel Quebec's into full modernity. The Quiet Revolution was boosted by the success of Expo '67 in 1967 and the adoption the Official Languages Act in 1969, making Canada officially bilingual. However, not everyone in Quebec was content with peaceful means of attaining a unique status.

The October Crisis

Pierre Elliott Trudeau, himself a French Canadian, came to power in 1968, just as the Quiet Revolution was at its height. Unfortunately, Quebec also produced a more radical nationalist group, the Front de Libération du Québec, who since 1963 had been using terrorism in an attempt to make Quebec a sovereign nation. In October of 1970, in response to the arrest of some of its members earlier in the year, the FLQ kidnapped James Cross and Pierre Laporte, later killing Laporte. Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act, declaring martial law in Quebec, and by the end of the year the kidnappers had all been arrested.

Trudeau and the 1970s

Trudeau was a somewhat unconventional Prime Minister; he was more of a celebrity than previous leaders, and in the 1960s had been the centre of "Trudeaumania." He also did not unquestioningly support the United States, especially over the Vietnam War and relations with the People's Republic of China and Cuba; Richard Nixon particularly disliked him.

Domestically Trudeau had to deal with the aftermath of the October Crisis. The separatist movement was not aided by the FLQ, yet it still existed in a less radical form under Premiers Robert Bourassa (1970-1976) and René Lévesque (1976-1985). Lévesque came to power as leader of the Parti Québécois, which wanted to make Quebec at least an autonomous society in Canada and at best an independent nation. A step towards this was taken in 1977 with the adoption of Bill 101, making French the only official language in the province.

The 1980 Quebec Referendum

In 1980 the Parti Québécois launched a referendum on the question of sovereignty. The question actually asked whether Quebec should negotiate for sovereignty, not whether Quebec should simply declare independence, but it was vaguely worded and confused many voters. Trudeau, although it was not a federal referendum, supported the "no" side, promising constitutional reform to keep Quebec as an officially distinct part of Confederation. The "no" side won by a margin of 60% to 40% when the question was put to the voters on May 20.

The new constitution

In 1982 Britain passed the Canada Act, repatriating the Constitution of Canada. Previously, the Constitution has existed only as an act passed by the British parliament, and was not even physically located in Canada. As Trudeau promised, the new constitution gave Quebec a special status, although this was a rather controversial addition. Trudeau also added the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which had also not previously existed in Canada in a true legal sense. It was also controversial, and in order for it to be accepted, Trudeau had to include the notwithstanding clause in Section 33, allowing the provinces to override certain sections if and when they found it necessary to do so. There is still ongoing debate over the merits of the new constitution, although it is generally accepted as an improvement over the former dependence on the British parliament to make amendments. The new constitution was Trudeau's last major act as Prime Minister. He resigned in 1984.

Brian Mulroney

Brian Mulroney came to power in 1984 and quickly restored friendlier relations with the United States, which had been strained during Trudeau's time as Prime Minister. Mulroney's major focus was the establishment of free trade with the US, a very controversial topic. This eventually culminated in the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1992.

Mulroney also worked to appease the sovereignty movement in Quebec. In 1987 he attempted to draft the Meech Lake Accord, amending the 1982 constitution so that it would be acceptable to Quebec, which had not yet signed it. However, the Meech Lake Accord was defeated in a national referendum, as was the Charlottetown Accord in 1992. These setbacks, along with the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax, forced Mulroney to resign in 1993.

The 1995 Quebec Referendum

Jean Chrétien became Prime Minister in the 1993 election, pledging to repeal the GST, which proved to be unfeasable. Chrétien faced another sovereignty referendum in Quebec in October of 1995. The federal Bloc Québécois and the provincial Parti Québécois campaigned for the "yes" side, but the referendum question was perhaps even more vague and confusing than the 1980 question. On October 30, the referendum was defeated by the narrowest of margins, a victory for the "no" side with 50.6% of the vote.

Contemporary issues

While the sovereignty issue in Quebec has died down in recent years, there are occasionally still debates over the nature of the "distinct society," and whether or not this applies to other provinces as well. In 1999, the first new territory to be added to Canada since 1898 was created, when a large part of the Northwest Territories became the separate region of Nunavut, a sparsely populated territory inhabited mostly by Inuit.

Some of the problems faced by the Chrétien government included the debate over the universal health care system, as well as military spending, which has decreased significantly in recent years. Canada does not play as large a role in United Nations peacekeeping as it once did, and Chrétien faced some criticism for not participating in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. However, with the mounting criticisms about the apparently false pretences for that war and the USA's troubled occupation, Chretien was hailed for keeping the nation out of the affair. The value of the Canadian dollar has also been greatly weakened during Chrétien's time as Prime Minister; although in 2003, it had regained about 20% of its value during the year, such a dramatic climb that industry leaders were (and still are) worrying that the high currency would harm exports.

See also: List of Canadian Prime Ministers, Canadian federal elections, Timeline of Canadian history, Military history of Canada