Canadian History: The First Nations

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First Inhabitants of Canada Crossed Bering Straight Land Bridge

Canadian history is traditionally thought to have begun with the arrival of the first Europeans. Recently more focus has been given to the first inhabitants of Canada

According to archaeological and genetic evidence, North and South America were that last of Earth’s major landmasses to be inhabited by humans. It believed that the first inhabitants of North and South America arrived during that last ice age, as the result of an event known as the Wisconsin Glaciation. The result of large ice sheets that covered much of Canada and the northern United States, the Wisconsin Glaciation caused a severe drop in sea levels. This triggered the formation of a land bridge between what is now Siberia and Alaska.

The Arrival of the First Nations in Canada

Approximately 16,000 years ago, the glaciers began to melt, making migration to the south and east possible. Before this time the First Nations were confined to Alaska, which is thought to have been ice free due to the lack of snow. There are two theories describing how this might have been done. The most commonly accepted theory is that an ice-free corridor opened east of the Rocky Mountains as the glacier melted. A second theory posits that small groups of humans sailed down the west coast of North America in primitive boats. While scientists believe that this would have been possible, it has proven to be a much harder theory to prove for a number of reasons, including a dramatic rise in sea levels worldwide over the past 16,000 years.

Regardless of which theory is correct, however, it is thought that the First Nations settled in Canada roughly 10 to 20,000 years before contact with the Europeans.

Canada’s First Nations

The Arctic

In the Canadian North, groups of Paeleoeskimos popularly referred as the Dorset People have been reliably dated to approximately 500 AD. Based on digs conducted in the Arctic, it is conjectured that the Dorset People were the “Skraelings” encountered by Leif Ericsson, around 1000 AD when the Vikings landed on the eastern coast of North America. It is further believed that they were displaced by the Inuit by 1500 AD. This belief is supported by Inuit legends which describe the expulsion of the “Tuniit” or first inhabitants. It is also supported by archaeological evidence.
Central Canada and the Maritimes

In Canada’s eastern woodlands, two different linguistic groups, the Algonquians and the Iroquois, vied for supremacy. The Algonquian tribes stretched from the plains of Idaho, north to Hudson Bay, south to Virginia and east to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Among the Algonquian tribes were the Mikm’aqs, the Abenaki and the extinct Beothuks. In central Canada, the Algonquians were composed of the Ojibwa, the Ottawa and the Potawatomi tribes.

From 1000 AD onward, the Iroquois were centred in what is now Upstate New York. However, their influence could be felt in southern Ontario and parts of Quebec, particularly around what is now Montreal. According to surviving oral traditions the Iroquois Confederacy was founded in the year 1142 AD. At first, agriculture allowed the Iroquois to expand at the expense of the Algonquian tribes. However, the Algonquians also eventually developed agriculture. When this happened the Iroquois found themselves to be in conflict with the Algonquian tribes.

The Praires and the West Coast

The Canadian Prairies were inhabited mainly by the Sioux and the Cree.

The Pacific coast was inhabited by Athabascan tribes, such as the Salish, the Haida and the Tlingit. Archaeological finds dating from the 1500s indicated that tribes living around what is now the city of Vancouver used primitive stonework and trenches to defend themselves from raiding parties sent by northern tribes.

Impact of European Contact

Archaeological evidence indicates that the First Nations had complex societies and extensive trading networks. Their geographical isolation, minimal development and lack of immunity to European diseases left them vulnerable when they came in contact with Europeans in the 15th and 16th Centuries.

Works Cited

Archaeology in North America, Dorset Culture, University of Waterloo, Ontario

Robert McGhee, Nunavut ’99, Ancient History

Ives Goddard, 1994. “The West-to-East Cline in Algonquian Dialectology.” In Actes du Vingt-Cinquième Congrès des Algonquinistes, ed. William Cowan: 187-211. Ottawa: Carleton University

The History of the Ojibway People, An Excerpt from The Land of the Ojibwe, Minnesota Historical Society, 1973

B.C. Archives, First Nations – People of the Northwest Coast

Bruce Granville Miller, Be Of Good Mind: Essays on the Coast Salish, UBC Press, 2007

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