Canada — History and Culture
French speaking Canadians are justifiably proud of their long standing ability to preserve their unique culture and language while being surrounded by a sea of English in both the United States and the majority of Canada. However, even English speaking Canadians are often quick to point out the surprisingly large amount of differences between their own culture and that of their southern neighbors - spelled with an extra ‘u’ north of the border.
For better or worse, Canada’s history has always been intertwined with that of the United States, even long before Europeans laid eyes on either country. The descendants of Canada’s Inuit and First Nations first entered this vast country from northern Asia across the Bering Straits.
Viking Bjarni Herjolfsson became the first known European to set sight on Canadian territory in AD 986, and the Vikings established Canada’s first known European community near present day L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. After the colony was abandoned, Canada remained unknown to Europeans until Italian explorer John Cabot discovered Newfoundland’s abundant cod fishery in 1497.
Although French explorer Jacques Cartier first discovered Québec’s St Lawrence River in 1535, Canada’s first permanent European community was not established until 1604. Samuel de Champlain founded both Port Royal in present day Nova Scotia in 1604 and present day Québec City four years later. Québec City became the capital of the New France colony.
Henry Hudson became the first Englishman to lay claim to part of Canada after discovering the Hudson Bay in 1610. Sixty years later, the Hudson Bay Company was established to trade furs and skins with the First Nations. A century and a half of conflict between the British and French came to a head during the Seven Year War, when the French surrendered all of their North American territory to Great Britain. The Plains of Abraham (835 Laurier Avenue, Québec City), one of the war’s most significant battle sites, is now a peaceful park used for sporting and other public events.
The 1774 Québec Act allowed New France’s French speaking population to preserve their language, Catholic religion, and civil law code, all of which continue to flourish in Québec to this day, despite the influx of American Loyalists who fled the US for eastern Canada after the American Revolution. Many of these Loyalists settled in Upper Canada, or present day Ontario, while most French speakers remained in Lower Canada, what is now Québec. Ontario, Québec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia became Canada’s first four provinces after the 1867 formation of the Dominion of Canada, which had a stronger central government and closer ties to Great Britain than to the United States.
Isolated British Columbia and tiny Prince Edward Island became part of Canada shortly afterwards, and the 1885 Canadian Pacific Railway completion officially connected the vast country from coast to coast. Eastern European immigrants helped farm and populate the largely uninhabited Prairie Provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.
Between 1951 and 2011, Canada’s population more than doubled from 16 to 34 million, largely due to the steady flow of immigrants from virtually every corner and country on Earth. Today, Canada remains one of the most prosperous developed nations during these tough economic times. Visitors to the Museum of Civilization (100 Laurier Street, Gatineau), just across the Ottawa River from Canada’s capital, can see just how far Canada has come since its earliest recorded history.
One of the most obvious differences between Canadian and United States culture is how the country’s respective immigrant groups have integrated into their new homelands. While American immigrants were encouraged to assimilate into the ‘melting pot’ of United States culture, their Canadian counterparts were encouraged to preserve their own native cultures as they created a multicultural mosaic. Vancouver and Victoria’s Chinese communities host their own dragon boat festivals each summer, while the Scotiabank Toronto Caribbean Carnival is one of the largest street festivals in North America.
However, no group has successfully preserved its own unique culture for as long as the French speaking population of Québec, who celebrates its own national holiday, St Jean Baptiste Day, with just as much fervor as Canada Day. Canada’s far northern Inuit population has also managed to keep its culture more intact than most First Nations because of its homeland’s geographic isolation and harsh winter weather. Inuit soapstone carvings are popular souvenirs.