Before Canada became a nation, explorers, fur trappers, and rugged settlers arrived at this largely uninhabited land in search of fortune and a new life. In the early days of the history of Canada, what they found was a treasure trove of the natural world.
They found fish so plenty – as described a few centuries earlier by explorer John Cabot that schools of fish impeded his ships off the coast of present-day Newfoundland – one could grab a fish from the sea with their bare hands. There were forests as far as the eye could see and more fresh water than anywhere on the planet.
Settlers of the New World held ambitions that influenced the fashion pendulum for the aristocratic classes of Europe. Europe’s high society enjoyed lavish furs from Canada, like chinchilla, mink and the industry game-changer beaver pelts.
Over the years, Canada has matured with grace and its natural beauty has mellowed with the history of the land. Here are 10 things about the history of Canada you’ll be amazed to discover and a pre-Confederation nod and toast to the characters and events that laid the foundation for the Canada we love today.
1How Canada got its name
Canada was named through a misunderstanding when Jacques Cartier, the French explorer met with local Natives who invited them to their ‘kanata’ (the word for ‘village’).
The party mistakenly thought the name of the country was “Kanata” or Canada.
2Power of the Beaver Pelt
Hudson’s Bay Company is the oldest continuously operated company in the world.
It held great importance to Canada’s founding and played an important part in the history of Canada.
The economic power of the beaver pelt is what made early Canada rich. The fashion rage in Europe made beaver top hats the darling of Europe’s parlours, salons and ballrooms.
Today, the beaver has become Canada’s official animal. Beavers are on coins, the coat of arms and used as mascots for all sorts of other things.
Reminisce in one of the world’s oldest commercial enterprises still in existence, The Hudson’s Bay Company, and head to the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg for a deeper delve into the history of Canada.
Home to over 10,000 artefacts that were initiated by the Company officials in 1920, the Collection is one of the world’s most significant historic resources. It spans three centuries of the Company’s colourful history.
To indulge in some retail therapy, visit one of the many HBC locations across Canada.
3Fur trading outposts ruled
The power of HBC’s monopoly involved creating fur trading outposts in some of the most remote wilderness areas by rivers that spilled into the great bay.
Today, travellers can seasonally venture to one of them. There’s Moose Factory located on an island in Ontario’s boggy north.
There you can slumber in one of the top eco-lodges in the world, as ranked by National Geographic. Or if you fancy, head west to York Factory in neighbouring Manitoba, at the mouth of the Hay’s River off Hudson Bay’s southwestern shores.
The factory was once a massive fur trade depot and settlement. These days, it’s a historic site managed by Parks Canada open for seasonal tours (weather permitting).
4History of Canada – The Franklin Expedition of 1845
Queen Victoria and the British Admiralty had an obsession with finding a route to the Northwest Passage.
Explorer Sir John Franklin, HRH’s beloved Royal Navy Officer – who commandeered previous Arctic expeditions – was put in charge of the ships HMS Erebus and Terror. Sadly, the ships and crew disappeared.
After searching for Franklin’s failed expedition ships for over a hundred years a team of High Arctic archaeologists led by Parks Canada made the stunning discovery of the HMS Erebus in 2014.
The discovery has sparked a renewed interest in the Franklin Expedition.
The entire historic voyage of 1845 has been carefully documented and analyzed by scholars. But it’s still one of the world’s great nautical mysteries and a curious event in the history of Canada.
Tragically, the entire expedition of 129 members also perished in the ill-fated expedition. Some of the gravesites eerily lie at Beechey Island, now a National Historic Site.
Tours of the area are offered as shore excursions by a handful of High Arctic cruise companies.
5Canada’s first railway
Canada’s first railway, the Champlain and St. Lawrence, started service in 1836 between Laprairie, Quebec and Saint-Jean, Quebec.
Fast forward a few decades and discover how the most ambitious pre-Confederation dream of a national railway would become the monumental project that stitched Canada together as a single country.
Known as The Grand Trunk Railway, it was a ribbon of steel that connected the country and opened up a whole new era in the history of Canada.
Today, you can visit Canada’s largest railway museum, Exporail in Saint Constant in Quebec to see artefacts and steam train vestiges from days gone by.
6Steam and water mills
Steam engines, more importantly, steam-powered saw mills, cleared Canada’s vast forests for agricultural settlements.
Steam and water mills were once the hubs of commerce and every community had one. They were as common as a Canadian loonie (name of the dollar coin).
Today, you can visit places like Caledon or Merrickville, both located in the province of Ontario, and Wakefield, Quebec.
These former mill hubs have become fashionable tourist sites. Stay overnight at the wondrous Wakefield Mill Hotel and Spa or The Millcroft Inn and Spa or head to the quaint town of Merrickville, known as the “Jewel of the Rideau.”
7Bypassing Niagara Falls
The first Welland Canal opened in 1829, partly in response to the Americans opening the Erie Canal, which was the longest manmade waterway in North America between 1817 to 1825.
Canada’s answer to the Erie was the groundbreaking unprecedented engineering of the Welland Canal. The Welland Canal allowed lakers and cargo ships to bypass the greatest natural obstacle in the country, Niagara Falls. It gave ships passageway to the Great Lakes system and access to the rest of the world.
The founding father, William Hamilton Merritt also wanted to provide consistent water to the local mills. Today you can visit the Welland Canal and its onsite museum that has a viewing platform for cruising fans to watch the passing ships.
8Canada abolished slavery before the British
As American slavery raged on in the 1700s to the 1800s, Canada was considered the Promised Land due to the huge proclamation of one guy.
Sir John Graves Simcoe, the Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, abolished slavery in 1793 long before it was abolished in the British Empire.
Fugitive slaves followed the North Star into the Underground Railroad, which was an intricate clandestine network of abolitionists who ferried slaves safely across the U.S. border into Canada.
An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 fugitive slaves arrived in Upper Canada (Ontario) and the Province of Canada.
Some of the heroes in the fight against slavery who found a new life in British North America became America’s legendary freedom fighters.
See the homestead and settlement known as Dawn, home to the Reverend Josiah Henson (1796 to 1883) whose life inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe to pen the controversial best-seller, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
A National Historic Site, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is located outside a small farming community of Dresden, Ontario. Watch Ilona’s interview with Josiah Henson’s great-great grand daughter.
Another way to pay homage to history is to retrace the Niagara Freedom Trail in Niagara. Find out about Harriet Tubman, the renowned conductor of the Underground Railroad, who was a member of the BME Church Salem Chapel and a resident of St. Catharines, Ontario.
9The Rebellions of 1837
Plenty of skirmishes, gun slinging and raids happened decades before Confederation.
One of the most significant moments that caused Britain to finally throw their hands in the air and decide they had to do something about those colonies (like unite them) happened in 1837. It was called the Rebellions of 1837.
The government was being attacked by ‘rebels’ on both sides in uprisings held in Upper and Lower Canada (now Ontario and Quebec).
The French uprising leader was Louis-Joseph Papineau and the English uprising leader was William Lyon Mackenzie (his great grandson William Lyon Mackenzie King later became Canada’s 10th Prime Minister).
The Brits had to bring in forces to quell the masses. But through negotiations, meetings and compromises, the solutions to the grievances led to another historical moment…
10Lord Durham’s report
The Act of Union, also known as the British North America Act in 1840, united Upper and Lower Canada under one government. They became Canada West and East respectively and were part of the Province of Canada, with Kingston as its capital.
What was the inspiration? A report by a British nobleman, John George Lambton, the First Earl of Durham, who spent five months in British North America.
He drafted the ‘Lord Durham’s Report’ on Canada, drawn up after learning the causes that led to the Rebellions of 1837.
His nickname was ‘Radical Jack’ due to his progressive political views. Five days after the Act of Union became law in July 1840, Lord Durham died at his residence in the Isle of Wight, England. He was 48.
Across Canada, you’ll find plenty of Lord Durham and Lambton references on buildings, street names, schools and sites.
Visit the historic Durham Region County in Ontario which albeit wasn’t named for the Lord but it makes a fabulous day trip from Toronto or a pleasant weekend getaway.
For more cool things to see and do in Canada read these next:
3 lesser known places to explore in Canada
10 Spectacular Places in British Columbia You’ve Probably Never Heard Of
Find out more about what to see and do in Canada explore-canada.com.au