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Canada was exclusively populated with Metis and Inuit until the seventeenth century. These are the First Nations people of Canada.  The Vikings had dropped by in the early years of the eleventh century, but had been fought off by the native people. Things had remained “quiet” till an Italian named Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot) dropped by in 1497, along with 18 or so other men, aboard a ship called the Matthew. He had been on a mission on behalf of King Henry VII of England who had asked Caboto to find a faster route to Asia. The Italian had found himself on the east coast of what we now call Canada. Heading back to England, Signor Caboto informed the folks there about his “new found land.” The king gave him ten pounds sterling as compensation for his troubles, said to have been equivalent to 24 months pay for a labourer.

Stich, Abbildung, engraving, gravure : 1890
First Nation Canadian

The next European visitor of note was Jacques Cartier, a Frenchman who dropped by in 1534 on behalf of King Francis of France. He is credited with being the first person to document the name Canada, derived from the Huron-Iroquois word “Kanata”, meaning village. The Frenchman had heard the native people use it in reference to Stadacona, a settlement at present-day Quebec City. In total, he made three voyages on behalf of the French king and claimed a fair bit of territory for France.

MacDonald, Sir John Alexander
Sir John A. MacDonald

Following the Seven Years War, France ceded its North American possessions to England in 1763.  There followed a period of insurrections and resistance to non-democratic government, complete with armed response by the colonial rulers. However, democracy prevailed and the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia formed a confederation that became the Dominion of Canada on Monday July 1, 1867.

The first prime minister was Sir John Alexander MacDonald (1815-1891), perhaps the most revered Canadian to this day.  He served as prime minister twice (1867-1873 and 1878-1891.)

The province of Manitoba joined Canada in 1870, then British Columbia in 1871, Prince Edward Island in 1873, Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1805 and Newfoundland and Labrador in 1949.  The North West Territories became part of Canada in 1870, Yukon in1898. Nunavut was separated from the North West Territories in 1999.

The Maple Leaf flies proud

From 1867 to 1965, the Union Jack was Canada’s official flag. However, from 1868 to 1965, Canada went through 3 unofficial flags that indicated its distinctness from the United Kingdom. On February 15, 1965, Canada adopted its present flag, which is unofficially called The Maple Leaf.

The story of the Canadian flag is a fascinating example of the passions that have engaged the nation’s leaders and citizens over the last 150 years, and how they have almost always resolved them the democratic way. Alistair B. Fraser’s essay on A Canadian Flag for Canada is as entertaining as it is informative.

Meanwhile, the British Parliament retained the power to legislate for Canada until the patriation of the Canada Act in 1982, midwifed by Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, which to many marked this country’s final independence from Britain. However, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II remains Queen of Canada.

Grave of Louis Riel at St. Boniface Cathedral, Winnipeg, Manitoba

Canada is a very peaceful country, one where an isolated incident of violence shocks and deeply dismays the citizens. However, things were not always so. The pre-confederation history of Canada was a series of battles, skirmishes, raids and full scale wars that were typical of the time. The post-confederation period was no better, with more than a dozen documented battles before the end of the 19th Century.

Two rebellions of the Metis people (offspring of unions between European men and Native Canadian women), led by Louis David Riel, in 1871 and 1885 stand out because of their long lasting effects on Canada’s politics.  Riel and his colleagues sought to preserve Metis’ rights and to protect their people’s culture from erosion by the European settlers.  However, they used violence as part of their struggle.

On the orders of Prime Minister MacDonald, Riel was hanged for treason, an event that soured relations between the Francophone and Anglophone Canadians. Today, Riel is a revered hero of French Canadians, many Roman Catholics and Native rights activists. His name features high in the long-running tribal tensions between French and English Canadians that have brought the country to the brink of breakup on two occasions. The Quebec separatists invoked Riel’s name as they forced referenda seeking the breakup of Canada, the first in 1980 and the second in 1995. The separatists came very, very close to winning the second referendum.

Time has forced a reassessment of Riel. Many streets, buildings and schools are named after him. His statues adorn high places of honour. He is officially recognized as the founder of Manitoba, and Louis Riel Day is an annual public holiday in that province.  In a sense, MacDonald and Riel are reconciled in death.

The  20th century saw very few internal battles, but had its fair share of riots, for the most part due to grievances over social, racial and economic injustice.  However, the two major incidents of terrorism that stand out were the 7-year long insurgency by the Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ) and the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau

The FLQ engaged in a terror campaign that culminated in the October Crisis of 1970 when they kidnapped and murdered Monsieur Pierre Laporte, a Quebec provincial cabinet minister. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, a French Quebecor himself, invoked the War Measures Act, deployed the Canadian Army in Quebec, but only in support of the civilian authorities. The FLQ was defeated, but not without a further hardening of the separatist movement in that province.

The bombing of Air India Flight 182 on June 23, 1985 was an act of terrorism that killed 329 people, 268 of whom were Canadian citizens.  Canadian authorities determined that this was  the work of a Sikh group that had brought their fight against India to these peaceful shores.

Notwithstanding the many crises that Canada has faced, the central principle underlying the state’s responses has been the rule of law and upholding of civil liberties. Where this has been infringed upon, the state has come under censure by the citizens and corrective measures have been implemented.

Canada has been a major defender of international liberty through its direct role in World War I and World War II, and its indirect role as a peacekeeper in many conflicts over the last 100 years. Canada was also a key player in the fight against Apartheid, with Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney taking sides with the cause of freedom and locking horns with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher when the Iron Lady was firmly on the side of the racist regime in South Africa.

Canada’s social and economic history is even more fascinating. We shall have occasion to share highlights in the future. It is a story of sacrifice and innovation. It is a story of many firsts, including the discovery of insulin in 1921 by Dr. Frederick G. Banting, an orthopedic surgeon, and Charles H. Best, a medical student. When the 1923 Nobel Prize for medicine was awarded to to Banting and J.J.R. Macleod, head of the Department of Physiology at the University of Toronto, an infuriated Banting briefly threatened to reject it because of the injustice against Mr. Best. He relented but gave half of the cash prize to his younger colleague. So it became the story of humility and fairness against academic pride, exploitation and injustice.

Best with Bantin
Charles H. Best with portrait of Frederick G. Banting in 1955 (photographer unknown)
Ugandan Asians expelled by Amin
Uganda’s loss, Canada’s gain – 1972

Canada’s is a story of immigration – not an always happy and proud one, but one that has evolved from rejection of refugees to acceptance and accommodation of many in need. Approximately 8,000 Ugandan Asians were welcomed to Canada in 1972 after their expulsion from their homeland by Gen. Idi Amin Dada.  Tens of thousands of other East Africans have since made Canada their home, and feel at home as part of the mosaic of a country, formed by two conquering European nations (French and English), that became a multicultural home with nearly every nationality on Earth represented.

Harjit Sajjan, Canada’s Minister of Defence congratulated by David Johnston, the Governor General in November 2015

Canada’s story is that of tolerance for and celebration of differences. It is a story of social justice and volunteerism, of caring about one’s neighbour, of sharing the country’s vast wealth to uplift the less fortunate and of lending a sincere hand to those in need at home and abroad. Canadians do so because it is simply the right thing to do.

It is a story of an imperfect nation whose people are always seeking to make tomorrow better. For everyone.


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