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 A.D. 1000, when Norse settlers arrived in what is now Newfoundland. But the age of Canadian colonization didn’t start until 1497, when John 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 Great Britain, they could have claimed the land, too. However, Britain 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.
A fight for the future of Canada’s colonies
Great Britain'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 Great Britain 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, Great Britain 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 Great Britain through the Treaty of Paris.
An age of British rule
Now Great Britain 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 Great Britain'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, Great Britain'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 Great Britain itself found that governing and financing its far-flung colonies was expensive and burdensome.
For those reasons, Great Britain 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.
A self-governing country
In 1931, the U.K. put Canada on equal footing with other Commonwealth countries through the Statute of Westminster, which essentially gave its dominions full legal freedom and equal standing with Great Britain and one another. However, Britain still had the ability to amend the Canadian constitution, and Canada took time to cut its legal ties to Great Britain. 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. Charles III is King of Canada. However, his role is essentially ceremonial, and he does not interfere in Canadian self-governance.