Aboriginal tradition holds that the First Peoples inhabited parts of Canada since the dawn of time. Archaeological studies support a human presence in northern Yukon from 26,500 years ago, and in southern Ontario from 9,500 years ago. Europeans first arrived when the Vikings settled briefly at L'Anse aux Meadows circa AD 1000.
The next Europeans to explore Canada's Atlantic coast included John Cabot in 1497 for England and Jacques Cartier in 1534 for France. French explorer Samuel de Champlain arrived in 1603 and established the first permanent European settlements at Port Royal in 1605 and Quebec City in 1608. Among French colonists of New France, Canadiens extensively settled the St. Lawrence River valley, Acadians settled the present-day Maritimes, while French fur traders and Catholic missionaries explored the Great Lakes, Hudson Bay and the Mississippi watershed to Louisiana. The French and Iroquois Wars broke out over control of the fur trade.
The English established fishing outposts in Newfoundland around 1610 and colonized the Thirteen Colonies to the south. A series of four Intercolonial Wars erupted between 1689 and 1763. Mainland Nova Scotia came under British rule with the Treaty of Utrecht (1713); the Treaty of Paris (1763) ceded the northern portions of New France to Britain following the Seven Years' War. (The western portion, Louisiana, was ceded to Spain, briefly.)
The Royal Proclamation (1763) carved the Province of Quebec out of New France and annexed Cape Breton Island to Nova Scotia. It also restricted the language and religious rights of French Canadians. In 1769, St. John's Island (now Prince Edward Island) became a separate colony. To avert conflict in Quebec, the Quebec Act of 1774 expanded Quebec's territory to the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley, and re-established the French language, Catholic faith, and French civil law in Quebec; it angered many residents of the Thirteen Colonies, helping to fuel the American Revolution. The Treaty of Paris (1783) recognized American independence and ceded territories south of the Great Lakes to the Unites States. Approximately 50,000 United Empire Loyalists fled the United States to Canada. New Brunswick was split from Nova Scotia to recognize Loyalist settlements in the Maritimes. To accommodate English-speaking Loyalists in Quebec, the Constitutional Act of 1791 divided the province into French-speaking Lower Canada and English-speaking Upper Canada, granting each their own elected Legislative Assembly.
Canada was a major front in the War of 1812 between the United States and British Empire. Its defence contributed to a sense of unity among British North Americans. Large-scale immigration to Canada began in 1815 from Britain and Ireland. The timber industry would also surpass the fur trade in importance in the early 1800s.
The desire for Responsible Government resulted in the aborted Rebellions of 1837. The Durham Report (1839) would subsequently recommend responsible government and the assimilation of French Canadians into British culture. The Act of Union (1840) merged The Canadas into a United Province of Canada. French and English Canadians would work together in the Assembly to reinstate French rights. They later established responsible government in 1849, as would all British North American colonies.
The signing of the Oregon Treaty by Britain and the United States in 1846 ended the Oregon boundary dispute, extending the border westward along the 49th parallel, and paving the way for British colonies on Vancouver Island (1849) and in British Columbia (1858). Canada launched a series of western exploratory expeditions to claim Rupert's Land and the Arctic region. The Canadian population grew rapidly because of high birth rates; British immigration was offset by emigration to the United States, especially by French Canadians moving to New England.