Canada was originally the French colony of New France, which comprised the range of territory as far west as the Mississippi, including the Great Lakes. After the war of independence it was confined to what are now the provinces of Quebec and Ontario—then known as Upper and Lower Canada. At the confederation (1867) it included only these two provinces, with New Brunswick and Nova Scotia; and since then it has been extended by purchase (1870), by accession of other provinces
The surface of the country east of the great lakes is diversified, but characterised by no outstanding features. Two ranges of hills skirt the St. Lawrence—that on the north, the Laurentians, stretching 3,500 miles from Lake Superior to the Atlantic, while the southern range culminates in the bold capes and cliffs of Gaspé. The St. Lawrence and its tributaries form the dominating physical feature in this section, the other rivers being the St. John, the Miramichi, and the Restigouche in New Brunswick. Eastern Canada is practically the Canadian part of the St. Lawrence valley, (330,000 square miles), and the great physical feature is the system of lakes with an area of 90,000 square miles. In addition to the tributaries of the St. Lawrence already mentioned, the Dominion boasts the Fraser, the Thompson, and the greater part of the Columbia River in British Columbia; the Athabasca and Peace Rivers, which flow into Lake Athabasca, and out of it as the Slave River, which in its turn issues from the Great Slave Lake and flows into the Arctic Ocean as the Mackenzie River (total length 2,800 miles); the Albany and the Churchill, flowing into Hudson Bay, and the Nelson, which discharges from Lake Winnipeg into Hudson Bay the united waters of the Assiniboine, the Saskatchewan, the Red River and the Winnipeg.
West of the Great Lakes the scenery is less varied. From the lakes to the Rockies stretches a vast level plain of a prairie character, slowly rising from 800 feet at the east end to 3,000 feet at the foothills of the Rockies.
The eastern and western portions of the Dominion are heavily wooded, and comparatively little inroad has been made on the forest wealth of the country. It is estimated that there are 1,200,000 square miles of woodland and forest, chiefly spruce and pine, including about a hundred varieties; consequently the industries connected with the forest are of great importance, especially since the development of the pulp industry. The central prairie plain is almost devoid of forest. Agriculture is the dominant industry in Canada, not only in the great fertile plains of the centre, but also on the lands which have been cleared of forest and settled in other parts of the Dominion.
The Canadian climate is cold in winter and warm in summer, but healthy all the year round. With all its extremes of cold it permits of the cultivation in the open air of grapes, peaches, tobacco, tomatoes, and corn. The snow is an essential condition of the prosperity of the timber industry, the means of transport in winter, the protector of the soil from frost, and the source of endless enjoyment in outdoor sports.
The French Canadians are almost exclusively the descendants of the French in Canada in 1763, there being practically no immigration from France. The French language is by statute, not by treaty, an official language in the Dominion Parliament and in Quebec, but not now in any other province, though documents, etc., may for convenience be published in it. English is understood almost everywhere except in the rural parts of Quebec, where the habitants speak a patois which has preserved many of the characteristics of 17th century French.
The Indian people, numbering a little over 108,000 in 1902, are scattered throughout the Dominion. They are usually located on reserves, where efforts, not very successful, are made to interest them in agriculture and industry. Many of them still follow their ancestral occupations of hunting and fishing, and they are much sought after as guides in the sporting centres. The Dominion government exercises a good deal of parental care over them and for them; but the race is stationary, if not declining.
The constitution of Canada is of a federal character, midway between the British and United States constitutions. The federated provinces retain their local legislatures. The Federal Parliament closely follows the British model, and the cabinet is responsible to the House of Commons. The members of the Senate are appointed by the governor-general in council, and retain their seats for life, and each group of provinces is entitled to so many senators. The numbers of the commons vary according to the population. The local legislatures generally consist of one house, though Quebec and Nova Scotia still retain their upper houses. The Federal Parliament is quinquennial, the local legislatures quadrennial. The lieutenant-governors of the provinces are appointed by the governor-general in council. The governor-general (appointed by the King, though paid by Canada) has a right to disallow or reserve bills for imperial consent; but the veto is seldom exercised, though the imperial authorities practically disallowed temporarily the preferential clauses of 1897. The Constitution of Canada can be altered only by Imperial Parliament, but for all practical purposes Canada has complete self-government.
In 1534, Jacques Cartier landed on the Gaspé coast of Quebec, of which he took possession in the name of Francis I, King of France. But nothing was done towards permanent occupation and settlement until 1608, when Samuel de Champlain, who had visited the country in 1603 and 1604, founded the city of Quebec. Meantime French settlements were made in what is now the maritime provinces, but known to the French as Acadia. France claimed, as a result of this settlement, exclusive control of the whole immense region from Acadia west to Lake Superior, and down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. But the control of this region was not uncontested. England claimed it by right of prior discovery, based mainly on the discovery of Newfoundland in 1497 by John Cabot.
In the north the charter granted in 1670 by Charles II to Prince Rupert to found the Hudson's Bay Company, with exclusive rights of trading in the Hudson Bay basin, was maintained till 1869, when, on a payment of $1,500,000, their territory was transferred to the newly created Dominion of Canada. A long struggle was carried on between England and France for the dominion of the North American continent, which ended in the cession of Acadia by the treaty of Utrecht in 1713, and the cession of Canada by the treaty of Paris in 1763. Of all its Canadian dependency France retained only the Islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, off the coast of Newfoundland, and the vexatious French-shore rights.
During the war of American Independence Canada was invaded by the Americans, and the end of the war saw a great influx of loyalists from the United States, and the formation of two new colonies—New Brunswick and Upper Canada (now Ontario). The treaty of peace in 1783 took away from Canada territory now included within Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. In 1791, owing to differences of race, Upper Canada was separated from Lower Canada; but discontent resulted in rebellion in 1837-8 which occasioned Lord Durham's mission and report. The results of that were the granting of responsible government to the colonists, and in 1840 the reunion of the two provinces. But the different elements, British and French Canadians, worked no better together than they had done while separated; and in 1867, as an escape from the deadlocks which occurred, confederation was consummated. After the War of Independence the history of Canada is chiefly concerned with the gradual removal of the commercial preferences she had enjoyed in the English market, and the gradual concession of complete powers of self-government.
The half-breeds of the north-west broke out in rebellion in 1869-70, but it collapsed as soon as the forces led by Colonel Wolseley reached Fort Garry on Winnipeg. Riel, the leader, escaped, to return later and foment another outbreak in 1885. This proved more dangerous but was eventually suppressed and Riel executed. The chief events since have been the Halifax award (1888), which justified the Canadian contention against the United States interference with fisheries. The Behring Sea award (1897) settled the sealing difficulty; and a joint commission met at Quebec in 1898 to determine all outstanding questions between Canada and the United States. In 1903 these reached a final solution in the Alaskan Boundary Commission's settlement of the frontier line between British Columbia and Alaska.