The First Peoples, thriving Native American and Inuit groups, have inhabited parts of what is now called Canada for at least 10,000 years. The name Canada probably comes from the Iroquois word kanata-kon, meaning “to the village.” The first Europeans to arrive were probably the Vikings, who are thought to have sent several expeditions to northern areas of the North American continent around 1000 B.C.E. Archaeological evidence of a settlement was found at L’Anse aux Meadows (from the French, meaning “Jellyfish Cove”) in 1960, a site on the northernmost tip of the island of Newfoundland. There the remains of a Viking village were discovered, including dwellings, tools, and other implements that positively identified it. The Viking settlement dates back to more than 500 years before Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) and has the earliest European structures found in North America. The Vikings may have sailed there and fished there centuries earlier, and English explorer John Cabot had spotted Newfoundland in 1497, but it was the French who began to settle the territory they called “New France.” When French explorer Jacques Cartier (1491–1557) sailed to the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1534, he claimed the land he found for France. The earliest French settlements were established at Quebec City (1608) and Montreal (1642; originally called Ville Marie). Many of the early French settlers worked in the fur trade, forming lucrative economic alliances with Native American groups. Others hoped to find their fortune in gold and silver or by discovering new trade routes to Asia. The territory was sparsely populated, though, and British settlers to the south began encroaching on French territory. The Maritime Provinces, including Acadia (now eastern Quebec, the Maritime Provinces, and northern New England), were particularly contested during the 18th century, and France and England fought a series of wars that involved Canada, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, beginning in the late 17th century. By the end of the French and Indian War in 1763 Britain had won nearly all of New France. The French population of Quebec, however, retained the rights to their own language, religion, and civil law. During the American Revolution many colonists loyal to Britain, called “United Empire Loyalists,” moved north to Canada, increasing the British presence in the area. Fur traders and explorers continued westward until, in 1793 Sir Alexander Mackenzie (1822–92) reached the Pacific Ocean. In 1839 Britain combined the territories of Upper Canada (Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec) as their Canadian colonies. These colonies gained the right to internal self-government in 1840, although Britain continued to decide Canadian foreign policy until 1931, and Canada did not technically reach complete independence until 1982, when it obtained the right to amend its constitution. On July 1, 1867, Britain’s North American provinces were united as the Dominion of Canada in the British North America Act (BNA). This event is marked each year on the national holiday of Canada Day. The British sovereign continues to be the nominal head of Canada’s government, although all political power is held by the nation’s parliament and prime minister. Canada’s recent history has been marked by disputes over the continued French character of the province of Quebec, where 80 percent of the population is of French descent. On June 3, 1987, the Meech Lake Agreement was signed. It would have given Quebec constitutional protection to maintain its French language and culture within an otherwise English-speaking nation. However, the agreement was subject to ratification by the nation’s other provinces, and, as critics complained that it did not offer similar protections to other minority groups and appeared to give Quebec the right to override elements of the country’s constitution unilaterally, the measure failed. This sparked the rise of a powerful separatist movement in Quebec. In a referendum on October 30, 1995, a proposition to secede from Canada was defeated, but only barely, by the voters of the province. Canada has worked to make amends to the Native American groups who lost their land and independence as French and British settlers took over their territory. On January 7, 1998, the government formally apologized to the groups for 150 years of abuse and, on April 1, 1999, the vast territory of Nunavut (“Our Land”) was carved out of Canada’s Northwest Territories province as a homeland for the Inuit nation.
Canada is bordered by the Arctic Ocean to the north, Alaska and the Pacific Ocean to the west, the North Atlantic Ocean to the east, and the United States to the south. It is the world’s second largest country in terms of area but has only one-tenth the population of the United States. Almost three-quarters of all Canadians live within 100 miles of its southern border, because much of the rest of the country has harsh terrain and a severely cold climate. The Rocky Mountains and dense forests in the west make that region a tourist destination. Vast prairies and fertile fields of wheat and other grains characterize the nation’s midsection. The largest cities and major industrial centers lie near the Great Lakes, and, to the east, fishing villages and beaches line Canada’s Atlantic coast. The massive territory of the north is largely an Arctic wilderness. As befits a country that is so large, the climate varies greatly, from the bitter cold of the north, where some islands have permanent icecaps and summers are short and cool, to the more temperate conditions of southern Canada’s wheat fields, and the generally humid weather of the southeast.
Canada has a free market economy led by service industries and manufacturing, although the occupations of its colonial settlers—farming, fishing, logging, and fur trapping—continue to provide valuable exports. The country’s main stock exchange is in Toronto. Canada is a major producer of oil, natural gas, and hydroelectric power, as well as a mining center, exporting minerals including copper, gold, iron ore, nickel, potash, uranium, and zinc, as well as diamonds, which have been found recently in the far north. Canada is also a leading lumber and paper producer and wheat exporter. Manufacturing cars, planes, and other transportation equipment is another important economic area. The government has an active role in Canada’s economy; for example it provides free health services to all workers. Provincial governments own utilities and broadcasters. Foreign investment and ownership of Canadian businesses is widespread, especially from the United States, but also from Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom. On January 1, 1994, Canada, Mexico, and the United States entered the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), eliminating tariffs (taxes on imports) in the region. The United States is Canada’s largest trading partner by far, although many citizens worry about its neighbor’s outsize influence on its economy and culture.
Canadian culture is an uneasy blend of influences. Forty percent of Canadians trace their ancestry to the British Isles, while almost a third descend from Britain’s historic rival France. Most of the French descendants reside in Quebec, where French is the official language. The Quebec legislature has passed several laws mandating the use of French in government and business. Court challenges and other rulings have changed those laws, but the province still requires French lettering to be larger than English on all bilingual advertisements. Influences of both cultures dominate the Canadian way of life, although the country’s government has worked to recognize all cultures within its borders, including Indian and Pakistani, Chinese, African, and West Indian, as well as Inuit and other First Nations people. Almost two-thirds of Canadians are Christians (45 percent of the population is Roman Catholic). Other groups include Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs, and an impressive 16 percent report they have no religious affiliation. Winter sports such as hockey and skiing are popular with many Canadians, as is lacrosse, which was played by First Nations people long before the Europeans arrived. The government has preserved wide stretches of territory as national parks for wilderness preservation as well as vacationing and recreation. The nation also has extensive networks of libraries and museums. Literature thrives in both French and English, and Canada has also become a center for film production. The Canadian calendar includes many secular and religious holidays and festivals, when people can take time off from work and join their families in celebration of their history and culture.
Beef is a staple of the Canadian diet, with steak and roast beef both popular dishes. Chicken, lamb, pork, and fish and other varieties of seafood are also popular. Lobsters are harvested along the Atlantic shore of Nova Scotia, fresh cod comes from the Grand Banks, and salmon are caught off both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. As residents of a wheat-producing nation, Canadians eat bread at most meals. Potatoes, beans, carrots, lettuce, and peas are common vegetables, as is hot soup. Canadians enjoy drinking coffee, tea, milk, wine, and beer. Favorite desserts include pies—apple, blueberry, peach, and rhubarb—and maple syrup finds many culinary uses. On major holidays such as Christmas and Thanksgiving families traditionally sit down to a turkey dinner. On Christmas in Quebec, where French cuisine predominates, many families share a meat pie known as tourtière. BIRTH
Canadian families of different faiths welcome their children into their religions in different ways. Roman Catholics and other Christian faiths christen infants in the church through the ritual of baptism, a symbolic washing with water that signifies the child’s entry into the religion. At these ceremonies children are also formally named, although in practice most children receive their names before the ceremony. Other denominations such as Baptists do not baptize infants because they believe that baptism must always involve a public statement of faith by the person to be baptized. Jewish boys are circumcised, usually on their eighth day of life, in a ceremony known as the Brit (or Bris) Milah. The ceremony can take place in a synagogue but often occurs in a family’s home and is performed by a person called a mohel (also moyel). The circumcision is considered a sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people established with the patriarch Abraham. Muslim families also circumcise infant boys.
When Jewish boys reach the age of 13, many take part in a ritual known as a bar mitzvah. Some denominations hold a similar ceremony for girls called a bat (or bas) mitzvah. The name literally means “son (or daughter) of the law,” and the event marks a young person’s entry into the adult community, including his or her responsibility for following all of the commandments of the religion. While no ceremony is required, many young people spend months studying a passage from the Torah that they will read in Hebrew in the synagogue on the day of their bar/bat mitzvahs. Families typically throw large parties after the bar/bat mitzvah. Some Jews believe that these parties have become a conspicuous display of wealth that overshadows the spiritual aspects of the day. In a similar vein many Christian young people take part in a ceremony called a “confirmation,” which usually involves the rites of baptism. For Roman Catholics confirmation brings the grace of the Holy Spirit; for Protestants, it reinforces the entry into the faith promised at baptism. In many churches, such as the Roman Catholic and Lutheran, confirmation for young people also represents the culmination of several years of religious study.
Weddings are important legal and religious events for Canadian couples. Almost 150,000 couples get married in Canada each year, although about 70,000 couples end their marriage each year through the legal process of divorce. While some immigrant cultures retain the practice of arranged marriage, almost all Canadians choose their own spouses. Like other Western nations Canadians have debated laws permitting same-sex couples to marry and take on the legal benefits and responsibilities and benefits of marriage. Most laws pertaining to marriage in Canada are set at the provincial level, where marriage licenses are issued. In 2005 Canada’s parliament legalized same-sex marriage, even though several provinces were already allowing it. While some Canadians choose to be married in civil ceremonies, marriage is an important religious ceremony for followers of most of the world’s religions. Christian and Jewish couples are married by either a priest, minister, or rabbi, and all these faiths’ ceremonies involve a public declaration of commitment to the marriage, the presence of witnesses, and the exchange of rings, the latter a custom dating back at least to Roman times. Many couples write their own vows as substitutes or additions to traditional wedding liturgy. Roman Catholic weddings take place during Mass, and the couple receives Communion.
Canadian death customs share many elements with customs from around the world, such as the public announcement of a death, a funeral ceremony, and a burial. These long-standing customs are designed to show respect and pay tribute to the dead, and to offer comfort to survivors. Canadian funeral directors usually prepare bodies for burial through the embalming process, because funerals often take place several days after a death. However the Jewish funeral preparation differs, since tradition requires burial no more than two nights after a death and forbids embalming. In advance of a funeral many families hold an all-night vigil beside the corpse. Christians call this custom a “wake”; other religions use different names for similar practices. Most Canadian funerals involve a public ceremony at a funeral home followed by the public burial of the deceased in a coffin at a cemetery. Cremation has gained in popularity in Canada in recent years. Cremation is the traditional practice of Buddhists and Hindus, although Judaism and some Christian denominations discourage it. In the case of burials, a second, shorter graveside ceremony is often held in advance of the burial, after which many families return to a relative’s home to share a meal.