History Stories

Despite recent confusion, it wasn't Canadian forces who burned down the White House during the War of 1812. In fact, Canada wasn't yet a country.

Despite recent confusion, Canada did not burn down the White House during the War of 1812—in fact, it wasn’t even a country in 1812. Though the British attack was conducted in response to an American attack on York, Ontario, Canada as we know it didn’t exist at the time.

Canada has been home to people for thousands of years, and was first colonized by Europeans in the 16th century. However, it took over 400 years from European exploration to become an independent nation.

Here’s a breakdown of Canada’s gradual road to independence:

An age of exploration and colonization

First Nations people have lived in Canada for thousands of years, and Europeans made contact with them around 1000 A.D., when Norse settlers arrived in what is now Newfoundland. But the age of Canadian colonization didn’t start until 1497, whenJohn Cabot landed somewhere in Newfoundland.

The land Cabot explored was briefly claimed by both the Spanish crown and the Portuguese Empire, and since Cabot’s voyage was funded by England, they could have claimed the land, too. However, England lagged and while they did so, the French laid claim to territory they called “Canada” in the 1530s, along with land that extended to the eastern Atlantic and up to Hudson Bay.

As France built up its vast colonies, the English got in on the game, too. They established settlements in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Hudson Bay—and developed a taste for Canadian colonialism that would end in war.

John Cabot

John Cabot landing at North America in 1497. (Credit: Corbis/Getty Images)

A fight for the future of Canada’s colonies

England’s Canadian colonies were largely agricultural, and its settlements were much larger than French ones. French colonies were less populous, but they used their resources strategically, developing alliances with Aboriginal Canadians and creating lucrative trading networks.

At the same time, both England and France vied for global supremacy elsewhere, and this pitted Canadian colonists against one another. In an attempt to curb France’s economic power worldwide, British troops focused their efforts on French overseas outposts like Canada. And since France was so vastly outnumbered in Canada, it struggled to defend itself against British attacks.

In 1754, England and France began to duke it out in Canada itself. France allied itself with Aboriginal Canadians to boost its small troop numbers, but it was no match for British forces. By 1759, the British had roundly defeated the French and the French and Indian War (part of the broader conflict called the Seven Years War) ended soon after. In 1763, France ceded Canada to England through theTreaty of Paris.

An age of British rule

Now England controlled all of Canada. In the years that followed, Canadian colonies—now under British rule—expanded their trade networks and built an economy largely supported by agriculture and the export of natural resources like fur and timber.

Though England’s Canadian colonies were far away from England, they fell under British rule and participated in the British Crown’s many conflicts. During the Revolutionary War, Canada became a brief battleground and served as a refuge for Loyalists, and during the War of 1812, U.S. and British forces skirmished along the colonies’ southern border. Meanwhile, an age of territorial expansion saw British explorers pressing ever further north and west.

However, England’s Canadian experiment wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. Colonists worried that the United States might attack again, and faced economic problems due to quick territorial expansion. English- and French-speaking colonists struggled to get along, and England itself found that governing and financing its far-flung colonies was expensive and burdensome.

For those reasons, England united three of its colonies, Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, into the Dominion of Canada in 1867. (Indigenous Canadians were not consulted or invited to participate in the confederation.)  

As a British dominion, the united provinces were no longer a colony, and Canada was free to act like its own country with its own laws and parliament. It also gained financial independence and the responsibility to defend itself. A British governor-general represented British interests within Canada, essentially filling the shoes of the sovereign.

Over time, the Dominion added more provinces and expanded into a confederation that extended from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. However, it was still under British rule and did not have full legal autonomy.

North America Map- United States and Canada

(Credit: Artindo/Getty Images)

A self-governing country

In 1931, England put Canada on equal footing with other Commonwealth countries through theStatute of Westminster, which essentially gave its dominions full legal freedom and equal standing with England and one another. However, Britain still had the ability to amend the Canadian constitution, and Canada took time to cut its legal ties to England. Meanwhile, it adopted its own national symbols, like the Canadian flag, featuring the maple leaf, which debuted in 1965.

An independent nation

It took five decades after the Statute of Westminster for Canada to make its final step toward full sovereignty. In 1982, it adopted its own constitution and became a completely independent country. Although it’s still part of the British Commonwealth—a constitutional monarchy that accepts the British monarch as its own. Elizabeth II is Queen of Canada. However, her role is essentially ceremonial, and she does not interfere in Canadian self-governance.

RELATED CONTENT