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Well before Columbus 'discovered' America in 1492, prehistoric tribes from Asia had come across the Bering Strait; and around AD 1000, the Vikings, the first European vistors, had tried to settle in northern Newfoundland. By the time subsequent Europeans arrived, Canada's Indian tribes had already developed a multitude of languages, customs, religious beliefs, trading patterns, arts and crafts, laws and governments. Although a number of European countries were interested in establishing settlements in the Americas, it was French explorer Jacques Cartier who made the first claim on the area surrounding the St Lawrence River in 1534.

Another French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, founded Quebec City in the early 1600s. In 1663 Canada, now home to about 3000 French settlers, became a province of France. Just as the French started to thrive on the fur trade, the British entered the scene, founding the Hudson's Bay Company in 1670 to add a bit of 'friendly' competition. For a while, the two European cultures coexisted peacefully. Then, in 1745, British troops captured a French fort in Nova Scotia - the struggle for control of the new land was on. The turning point in what became known as the Seven Years' War arrived when the British defeated the French at Quebec City in 1759. At the Treaty of Paris in 1763, France handed Canada over to Britain.

By the end of the American Revolution (1775-83), a migration of about 50,000 British 'Loyalists' from the USA created a more even balance between the French and British populations. After the War of 1812 - the last war between Canada and the USA, in which Canada was victorious - Britain, fearful of losing Canada as it had the American Colonies, proclaimed the British North America Act (BNA Act) in 1867. The Act established the Dominion of Canada and became Canada's equivalent of a constitution. By 1885 the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway - one of Canada's great historical sagas - joined the country's east and west coasts. By 1912 all provinces had become part of the central government except Newfoundland, which finally joined in 1949.

After WWI Canada grew slowly in stature and prosperity, becoming a voluntary member of the Commonwealth in 1931. With the onset of WWII, Canada once again fought alongside Britain against Germany, though this time it also entered into defense agreements with the USA, declaring war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

In the years after WWII, Canada experienced a huge wave of European immigration, with a further influx of Asians, Arabs, Indians, Italians, Hispanics and Caribbeans arriving in the 1960s. The postwar era was a period of economic expansion and prosperity. In 1967 Canada celebrated its 100th anniversary with Expo, the World's Fair in Montreal, as one of the highlights. Since 1975, a series of land rights agreements has been signed with Canada's native peoples, giving them some control over vast swathes of the northern portion of the country.

The social upheavals of the 1960s brought to the surface the festering resentments that French-speaking Quebec had with English-speaking Canada. In 1976 the Parti Quebecois (PQ), advocating separatism, won the provincial election in Quebec, though sentiments on the issue have since waxed and waned. In the 1980 sovereignty referendum, the separatists were defeated by 60% of the vote. In October 1995, the vote was extremely close, with Canada coming within a few thousand votes of breaking up. The prime minister, Jean Chrétien, has since attempted to appease the Quebeckers by recognising the province as a 'distinct society'.

In 2000, Chrétien held an early election and secured his third consecutive term. Meanwhile, the passing of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau continues to be mourned, and disappointment over the nation's failed bid to hold the 2008 Olympics (losing to Beijing) is only slowly waning. Other issues of concern in the early years of the new millennium include maintaining social programs, high taxes and national security in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the USA.


Among the foundations of Canada's cultural identity are the traditions of its native peoples. Arguably the country's most distinctive art is that of the Inuit of the north, particularly their stone and bone sculptures and carvings. Native Indian artists also excel at printmaking, basketry and carving.

In the past Canadians have struggled with their cultural identity, the cultural infusion from their southern neighbour being particularly overwhelming. During the past three decades this sense of unease has produced a torrent of great writers, including Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Michael Ondaatje, Mordecai Richler and Réjean Ducharme, as well as a swag of world-renowned musicians, such as Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, kd lang, the Cowboy Junkies and Diana Krall.

English and French are the country's two official languages, though the province of New Brunswick is the only officially bilingual area in the country. You will, however, notice both languages on maps, tourist brochures and product labels. The French spoken in Canada is not, for the most part, the language of France. In Quebec, where the majority of the population are of French descent, the local tongue is known as Quebecois. Most Quebeckers, however, will understand formal French.

The differences between Quebec and English Canada don't just apply to language. The French influence of Quebec can be seen in architecture, music, food and religion. With little in common culturally, it is not difficult to understand how relations between French Quebec and English Canada have often been problematic at best.

In terms of formal religion, the population is overwhelmingly Catholic, with a multicultural mix of Protestant, Jewish, Hindu, Islamic, Buddhist and Native Indian spiritual communities also. In reality, attendance at church is an ever-diminishing occurrence across all faiths.

Gastronomy in English Canada was long based on the British 'bland is beautiful' tradition, but while there are no distinctive national dishes or unique culinary delights, good food is certainly plentiful. In most cities it is not difficult to find decent Greek, Italian, East Indian or Chinese restaurants. In Quebec, however, there are some extremely idiosyncratic dishes worth sampling: French pea soup, tourtières (meat pies) and poutine (French fries covered with gravy and cheese curds). In the Atlantic provinces the Acadian French make rapie pie (paté à la rapure) - a type of meat pie (meat, chicken or clam) topped with grated paste-like potato from which all of the starch has been removed. Quebec is also notable as the world's largest producer of maple syrup, produced from the boiled sap of sugar-maple trees. Canada produces some very good cheeses, cheddars in particular. On both coasts, seafood is plentiful, delicious and affordable.

There are a range of laws and regulations governing the sale of alcohol in Canada: as a general rule it must be bought at government stores (except in Alberta, where there are private retailers, and in Quebec, where beer and wine can be bought at local convenience stores called dipanneurs), which in some cases are closed at night and on Sunday (except in Ontario) and always during holidays.

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