Covering most of the northern part of the North American continent and with an area larger than that of the United States, Canada has an extremely varied topography. In the east, the mountainous maritime provinces have an irregular coastline on the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Atlantic. The St. Lawrence plain, covering most of southern Quebec and Ontario, and the interior continental plain, covering southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan and most of Alberta, are the principal cultivable areas. They are separated by a forested plateau rising from Lakes Superior and Huron.
Westward toward the Pacific, most of British Columbia, the Yukon, and part of western Alberta are covered by parallel mountain ranges, including the Rockies. The Pacific border of the coast range is ragged with fjords and channels. The highest point in Canada is Mount Logan (19,850 ft; 6,050 m), which is in the Yukon. The two principal river systems are the Mackenzie and the St. Lawrence. The St. Lawrence, with its tributaries, is navigable for over 1,900 mi (3,058 km).
Canada is a federation of ten provinces (Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, and Saskatchewan) and three territories (Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Nunavut). Formally considered a constitutional monarchy, Canada is governed by its own House of Commons. While the governor-general is officially the representative of Queen Elizabeth II, in reality the governor-general acts only on the advice of the Canadian prime minister.
The first inhabitants of Canada were native Indian peoples, primarily the Inuit (Eskimo). The Norse explorer Leif Eriksson probably reached the shores of Canada (Labrador or Nova Scotia) in 1000, but the history of the white man in the country actually began in 1497, when John Cabot, an Italian in the service of Henry VII of England, reached Newfoundland or Nova Scotia. Canada was taken for France in 1534 by Jacques Cartier. The actual settlement of New France, as it was then called, began in 1604 at Port Royal in what is now Nova Scotia; in 1608, Quebec was founded. France's colonization efforts were not very successful, but French explorers by the end of the 17th century had penetrated beyond the Great Lakes to the western prairies and south along the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, the English Hudson's Bay Company had been established in 1670. Because of the valuable fisheries and fur trade, a conflict developed between the French and English; in 1713, Newfoundland, Hudson Bay, and Nova Scotia (Acadia) were lost to England. During the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), England extended its conquest, and the British general James Wolfe won his famous victory over Gen. Louis Montcalm outside Quebec on Sept. 13, 1759. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 gave England control.
Canada Wins the Right to Self-Government and Welcomes English-Speaking Immigrants
At that time the population of Canada was almost entirely French, but in the next few decades, thousands of British colonists emigrated to Canada from the British Isles and from the American colonies. In 1849, the right of Canada to self-government was recognized. By the British North America Act of 1867, the dominion of Canada was created through the confederation of Upper and Lower Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. In 1869, Canada purchased from the Hudson's Bay Company the vast middle west (Rupert's Land) from which the provinces of Manitoba (1870), Alberta (1905), and Saskatchewan (1905) were later formed. In 1871, British Columbia joined the dominion, and in 1873, Prince Edward Island followed. The country was linked from coast to coast in 1885 by the Canadian Pacific Railway.
During the formative years between 1866 and 1896, the Conservative Party, led by Sir John A. Macdonald, governed the country, except during the years 1873–1878. In 1896, the Liberal Party took over and, under Sir Wilfrid Laurier, an eminent French Canadian, ruled until 1911. By the Statute of Westminster in 1931 the British dominions, including Canada, were formally declared to be partner nations with Britain, “equal in status, in no way subordinate to each other,” and bound together only by allegiance to a common Crown.
Newfoundland became Canada's tenth province on March 31, 1949, following a plebiscite. Canada also includes three territories—the Yukon Territory, the Northwest Territories, and the newest territory, Nunavut. This new territory includes all of the Arctic north of the mainland, Norway having recognized Canadian sovereignty over the Sverdrup Islands in the Arctic in 1931.
The Liberal Party, led by William Lyon Mackenzie King, dominated Canadian politics from 1921 until 1957, when it was succeeded by the Progressive Conservatives. The Liberals, under the leadership of Lester B. Pearson, returned to power in 1963. Pearson remained prime minister until 1968, when he retired and was replaced by a former law professor, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Trudeau maintained Canada's defensive alliance with the United States but began moving toward a more independent policy in world affairs.
French-Speaking Contigent Gains More Political Power
Faced with an increasingly violent separatist movement in the predominantly French province of Quebec, Trudeau introduced the Official Languages Bill, which encouraged bilingualism in the federal government; he also gave an economic portfolio to a French-speaking minister, Jean Chrétien. Both measures increased the power of French-speaking politicians in the federal government.
In 1976, the Parti Québécois (PQ) won the provincial Quebec elections, and René Lévesque became premier. The Quebec government passed Bill 101 in 1977, which established numerous rules promoting the French-speaking culture; for example, only French was to be used for commercial signs and for most public school instruction. Many of Bill 101's provisions have since been amended, striking more of a compromise; commercial signs, for example, may now be in French and English, provided that the French lettering is twice the size of the English. Quebec held a referendum in May 1980 on whether it should seek independence from Canada; it was defeated by 60% of the voters.
Resolving a dispute that had occupied Trudeau since the beginning of his tenure, Queen Elizabeth II signed the Constitution Act (also called the Canada Act) in Ottawa on April 17, 1982, thereby cutting the last legal tie between Canada and Britain. The constitution retains Queen Elizabeth as queen of Canada and keeps Canada's membership in the Commonwealth. This constitution was accepted by every province except Quebec.
Conservative Government Signs Free-Trade Pact with the United States
In the national election on Sept. 4, 1984, the Progressive Conservative Party scored an overwhelming victory, fundamentally changing the country's political landscape. The Conservatives, led by Brian Mulroney, won the highest political majority in Canadian history. The dominant foreign issue was a free-trade pact with the United States, a treaty bitterly opposed by the Liberal and New Democratic parties. The conflict led to elections in Nov. 1988 that solidly reelected Mulroney and gave him a mandate to proceed with the agreement.
The issue of separatist sentiments in French-speaking Quebec flared up again in 1990 with the failure of the Meech Lake Accord. The accord was designed to bring Quebec into the constitution while easing its residents' fear of losing their identity within the English-speaking majority by giving it status as a “distinct society.”
Jean Chretien of the Liberal Party Comes to Power
The economy continued to be mired in a long recession that many blamed on the free-trade agreement. Brian Mulroney's popularity continued to decline, causing him to resign before the next election. In June 1993 the governing Progressive Conservative Party chose Defense Minister Kim Campbell as its leader, making her the first female prime minister in Canadian history. The national election in Oct. 1993 resulted in the reemergence of the Liberal Party and the installation of Jean Chrétien as prime minister.
The Quebec referendum on secession in Oct. 1995 yielded a narrow rejection of the proposal, and separatists vowed to try again. Since then, however, the Quebec Liberal Party has replaced the Bloc Québecois as the ruling party.
On April 1, 1999, the Northwest Territories were officially divided to create a new territory in the east that would be governed by Canada's Inuits, who make up 85% of the area's population.
In July 2000, Stockwell Day of the new right-wing Canadian Alliance Party unexpectedly emerged as the leader of Canada's opposition. In Nov. 2000 elections, however, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien of the Liberal Party won a landslide victory for a third five-year term. After the election, the conservatives rapidly lost steam.
Marijuana and Gay Marriage Legalized
In recent years, Canada has introduced some of the world's most liberal social policies. Medical marijuana for the terminally or chronically ill was legalized in 2001; the country began legally dispensing marijuana by prescription in July 2003. In 2003, Ontario and British Columbia legalized same-sex marriage, and more provinces and territories followed in 2004. In July 2005, Canada legalized gay marriage throughout the country, becoming one of four nations (along with Belgium, the Netherlands, and Spain) to do so.
Canada sent 2,000 soldiers to help fight the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, but its relations with the United States were strained when it refused to join Washington's coalition supporting the war in Iraq.
Conservative Stephen Harper Becomes Prime Minister, Striving for a Blow Against Terrorism
In Dec. 2003, Chrétien stepped down and handed the prime ministership to the new leader of Canada's Liberal Party, former finance minister Paul Martin. Chrétien had announced in 2002 that he would not seek a fourth term—conflict between Chrétien and Martin had divided and weakened the Liberal Party in recent years. In June 2004, Martin was reelected prime minister, but the Liberal Party lost its majority in parliament, which it had dominated for 11 years. In 2005, a scandal involving the misappropriation of government funds by the Liberal Party threatened the stability of Martin's government. Martin himself was not implicated in the scandal, but his predecessor came under fire. In Jan. 2006 parliamentary elections, Conservatives won 36% of the vote, ending twelve years of Liberal rule. Conservative leader Stephen Harper became prime minister in February. In June 2006, police arrested 17 suspected Islamist terrorists in Toronto and are believed to have foiled a major terrorist attack on the country. In November, Prime Minister Harper succeeded in passing a motion to recognize Quebec as “a nation within a united Canada.”
In February 2007, Canada's Supreme Court struck down a law that permitted foreign terrorism suspects to be detained indefinitely without charges while waiting for deportation. “The overarching principle of fundamental justice that applies here is this: before the state can detain people for significant periods of time, it must accord them a fair judicial process,” said Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin.
Prime Minister Harper was reelected in October 2008 in elections that were held a year ahead of schedule. His Conservative Party defeated the Liberal Party, 37.6% to 26.2.%. The Conservatives, however, failed to win a majority in the House of Commons and will form a minority government, the third in four years.
In December 2008, in an unprecedented move, Prime Minister Harper suspended Parliament to avoid a no-confidence vote. If the vote had passed, which was likely since two opposition parties joined to form a coalition, Liberal Party leader, Stephane Dion, would have become Prime Minister. Harper created further controversy later in the month, when he quietly appointed 18 Conservatives to Canada's unelected Senate, breaking his promise not to name additional members to Parliament until it became an elected body.
Fourth Election in Seven Years Expands Conservative Party's Hold
In the May 2, 2011 federal election, the Conservative Party won a parliamentary majority by a slim 39.6% of the vote. The New Democrats became the official opposition after the centrist Liberals lose more than half their seats. Bloc Québécois, Quebec's separatist party, was nearly eliminated entirely from Parliament, losing 90% of its seats.
The election shifted the political landscape in Canada. For seven years no party had the majority in the House of Commons. The election was a big victory for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who won a clear mandate for his conservative party. The swing toward the conservative party was a sign that the Liberals' base has decreased in size. This is partly because immigrants, who in the past represented a huge part of that base, have shifted to a more conservative viewpoint.
Attack on Canada's Parliament
A Canadian soldier was shot and killed while guarding the National War Memorial in Ottawa, Canada's capital on Oct. 22, 2014. Nearby, gunfire erupted inside the Parliament building. A gunman, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, was killed as police rushed to evacuate and secure the building. Initially, police searched for at least two more possible gunmen, but came to believe that Zehaf-Bibeau, age 32, acted alone. Zehaf-Bibeau had a criminal record and had been recently designated a high-risk traveler by the Canadian government.
It was the second assault on a member of Canada's armed forces in three days. On Oct. 20, a car struck two people, one in uniform. Police chased Martin Rouleau-Coulture, the driver of the car, who was shot and killed after a confrontation. Authorities suspected that the two incidents could be linked to Canada's support of the campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS).
See also Canada Day and other Canadian holidays.
Fact Monster/Information Please® Database, © 2014 Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.
More on Canada from Fact Monster: