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Canada - Historical Background

It has been determined that many of the original prehistoric inhabitants of North and South America traveled through Canadian territory on their trek from Siberia to milder climes. Some of these prehistoric travelers stayed on in Canada to become the many Indian tribes of its expansive forests. Europeans also first sampled the Western Hemisphere by touching Canadian shores during the Viking trips at the beginning of the second millennium. Continental Europeans of many stripes followed, but the first true claims were staked in 1534 by the Frenchman Jacques Cartier. The French were also the first to make permanent European settlements at Quebec in the early 17th century.

Indian tribes embraced French traders, with both parties profiting through the fur trade. By 1663, there were over 3,000 French citizens in Canada, and the occupied region was formerly made a province of France. The British arrived three years later to stake their claim to Canada's wealth and managed to avoid conflict with the French neighbors for about 70 years. However, open warfare commenced in 1745 and raged on and off until the British defeated the French at Quebec City in 1759. The Indian tribes had allegiances on both sides of the conflict. In a treaty signed four years later, the French ceded all Canadian claims to Great Britain. At this point, although still heavily populated with French loyalists, Canada became part of Britain's enormous holdings in North America. These holdings included the soon to be rebellious 13 colonies of the United States.

During Britain's eight-year war to control the American colonies beginning in 1775, many British occupants of those colonies who were still loyal to the king headed north to Canada to avoid persecution by the Americans as "Tories." So many fled that by the war's end in 1783 over 50,000 had arrived in Canada and changed the ethnic balance against the French. While more "British" than before, Canada started to show sporadic signs of resenting rule from London. When the U.S. and Great Britain fought again in the War of 1812, London decided it would be best to make Canada more of a partner than a colony. By 1867, this partnership converted into the British North America Act, which designated the new Dominion of Canada with its own constitution, albeit highly similar to the parliamentary system of the United Kingdom.

Though functioning as a semiautonomous dominion, Canada was itself made up of culturally disparate and separately governed provinces spread over an enormous geography. East and West Coast provinces had little contact and, like the mainly French Quebec, saw few mutual interests. All this changed with the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railroad that spanned and "united" the nation. By 1912 almost all the provinces had joined in a centralized government (Nova Scotia--little affected by the railroad--held out until 1949).

In World War I, Canadian troops fought and died in great numbers alongside their British cousins. Canada joined the British Commonwealth in 1931 and fought in World War II as both a British force and as a direct ally of the United States. Like the United States, Canada escaped the economic devastation of the war and prospered in the 1940s and 1950s. The 1960s and 1970s saw a major influx of immigrants from the Middle East and Europe, while the 1980s and 1990s were characterized by a growth in immigration from Asia. Canada has become, like neighboring America, a multicultural society in the modern sense, although both nations have technically always been so. Canada's response to this "change" has been decidedly unlike that of the United States. Though still a market economy, Canada has chosen a more expansive social (some critics might say socialist) system than the United States to support its citizenry. Canada has also signed a number of agreements with its native tribes to grant them extensive land rights and political autonomy. Also, throughout the 1980s and 1990s Canada was threatened with a separatist movement led by--you guessed it--the French-speaking Quebec residents. Unwilling to be absorbed into a Canadian melting pot, the Parti Quebecois petitioned for a series of national votes on the issue, which it lost by ever-decreasing margins. The vote in 1995 failed by only a few thousand votes, giving hope for future attempts. During this tumult, some of the Maritime Provinces even toyed with the idea of joining the United States. Canada is still a thriving political and economic entity, but its permanent physical structure may have yet to be fully determined.

The Liberal Party has ruled Canada since 1993 under the tutelage of Prime Minister Jean Chretien. When the country entered a recession in 2001, the government rejected the lure of deficit spending and stuck to the fiscal discipline it had established in the late 1990s. Following the Sept., 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States, Canadian forces joined with their close neighbor in operations against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. It remains to be seen in 2003 if this solidarity will carry over into additional operations in Iraq and elsewhere.


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