Virtually every American I keep in touch with has, at some point, asked me this question. American history classes do a very poor job of explaining how one region of mainland North America colonized by the United Kingdom became one country and the next region over became a different country, and tend to pretend Canada isn’t even on the map most of the time. I certainly faced this question with confusion prior to moving to Canada and being confronted with its reality.
As it happens, though, the events that led to these two settler states to emerge as separate entities are fairly interesting, and tied into the events that started the Thirteen American Colonies thinking of independence.
1712 Status Quo and the Treaty of Utrecht
The events relevant to this discussion begin in 1712. In 1712, England’s holdings in North America consisted of the Thirteen Colonies and the lion’s share of the islands in the Caribbean Sea, including Jamaica and the Bahamas. England also succeeded in maintaining a sphere of influence in the Central American territory of Belize, despite Belize’s nominal allegiance to Spain. At this time, the United Kingdom was still in the process of uniting after the first Act of Union in 1707, and it did it control mainland North America north of the St. Lawrence River.
England’s imperial rival France controlled a much vaster territory in North America, including Louisiana (a gigantic swath of inland territory leading upriver from the mouth of the Mississippi), Canada (a territory surrounding the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River and extending west as far as modern Alberta), Hudson Bay (the region surrounding Hudson Bay, as far north as Baffin Island), Acadia (a region between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and what is now the US state of Maine), Newfoundland (a large island between Hudson Bay and Acadia), and a group of Caribbean islands. Modern Canada consists primarily of territory that was, at this time, either unclaimed by European powers or part of these French holdings.
In 1713, one event reshaped the European-claim landscape in North America. The Treaty of Utrecht punished France severely for its role in the War of Spanish Succession. The United Kingdom seized the aforementioned Canada, Acadia, Newfoundland, and Hudson Bay (with the exception of tiny St. Pierre and Miquelon) from France. This different process of acquisition and lack of historical economic links with the Thirteen British Colonies to their south led to these regions developing separately from the colonies that would become the United States, and for many years, from each other.
The majority of French settlement in the territories remanded to the United Kingdom took place in Canada, along the banks of the St. Lawrence River. This region did not take well to British rule. Similarly, the UK permitted a steady influx of English and Scottish colonists to migrate to Acadia, which it renamed Nova Scotia. Its location immediately to the north of the Thirteen Colonies led to closer links between it and its southern neighbors than the rest of the former French possessions experienced.
Britain sold the Hudson Bay territory to the Hudson Bay Company, a trade consortium specializing in the extraction of natural resources such as lumber and fur. It became known as Rupert’s Land. Rupert’s Land would eventually grow to encompass most of what is now Canada, frequently expanding to absorb adjacent lands newly brought to the United Kingdom’s attention.
Newfoundland had few permanent European-descended residents in the 18th Century, as Great Britain found its interests in the area served with a largely transient settler population. Newfoundland served as a way station between the Thirteen Colonies, the English Caribbean, and Great Britain, and became relatively wealthy from this trade. Its links to the former French territory of Canada were tenuous at best.
In 1733, Russia established the colony of Russian North America in what is now Alaska.
The Seven Years’ War and the Quebec Act
The UK and France again came to blows in 1756, a conflict known in the United States as the French and Indian War and elsewhere as the Seven Years’ War. As a consequence of this war, France was forced to cede Louisiana to the UK and Spain. The UK kept the portion of Louisiana east of the Mississippi River, and Spain received the western portion. This territory was enormous and largely un-settled by the French during their dominion. The UK felt that extending a military presence to defend hypothetical colonists this far inland would not be a sound use of resources, and additionally had not yet worked out exactly how it wanted to treat the indigenous people of these lands or their territories. With that in mind, it imposed the Proclamation of 1763 forbidding settlement past the previous colonial boundaries. The denizens of Acadia and the Thirteen Colonies regarded this as a grave insult, given that colonial militias featured prominently in the effort to take this land from France.
The United Kingdom considered the French Acadians still residing in Nova Scotia a hazard and a threat, doubting their loyalty to the British Crown. The Acadians themselves did little to alleviate this concern, not having consented to being handed to a new imperial power. The United Kingdom imposed a cruel ultimatum on the Acadians: submit to a British-based legal system and the English language in Nova Scotia, or relocate to New Orleans. The majority of the Acadian population then migrated southwest, to a port the British then considered far less strategic, and became the Cajuns of the modern state of Louisiana. This expulsion reduced anti-British sentiment in Nova Scotia, a fact that would matter during the American Revolutionary War. In 1769, the United Kingdom established a separate administration for Prince Edward Island, north of mainland Nova Scotia, splitting the colony.
In 1774, the British government passed the Quebec Act, creating the Province of Quebec out of much of the former Canada and Louisiana. Within this province, the colonists, mostly Frenchmen living near the St. Lawrence River, could use French customary law alongside British law and could continue speaking French without reprisal. The Quebec Act also asserted the primacy of the Catholic Church, rather than the Church of England, within the province. This much more generous deal than the Acadians of Nova Scotia received continues to affect the politics of Canada.
Image: < http://www.ushistory.org/us/images/00034911.gif > from http://www.ushistory.org/us/9a.asp.
The American Revolution
Revolutionary sentiment was not confined to the Thirteen Colonies in the years leading up to the Declaration of Independence in 1776. However, the other British North American territories were far less enthusiastic about the prospect of forming a new nation with the rebellious colonies, for a variety of colorful reasons. The American Revolution, therefore, did not expel the United Kingdom from North America altogether, but only from specific colonies.
British West Indies
As discussed in this even more detailed article, the British-controlled islands in the Caribbean Sea had no real chance at revolt. The Caribbean islands were not run in a way that would have enabled them to survive a British naval blockade. These islands’ economies were designed to be parts of a grander imperial scheme, and were critically dependent on food, enslaved manpower, and trade goods from elsewhere in the British Empire. Joining the Thirteen Colonies in their revolt would have meant near-instant bankruptcy and de facto siege. Furthermore, the majority of the islands’ population was enslaved Afro-Caribbeans, with most of the land held by British-born landowners alongside a tiny free population actually born on the islands, influencing the loyalties of those who could have made the decision to revolt. Alongside the fact that many of the islands had experienced decades of relatively frequent shifts of control between European powers, and knowing that the UK would have fought hard to keep them, interest in leaving the British Empire was minimal.
The British West Indies remain associated with the United Kingdom as overseas territories or Commonwealth nations to this day.
Rupert’s Land was not a political unit, but words on a map and a contract between the British government and the Hudson Bay Company. Virtually its entire population was Cree and Inuit, nations who had no vested interest in, and little ability to interfere in, the conflict to the south. The American Revolution was, simply, not their fight. The region would eventually be purchased by sovereign Canada shortly after the country’s confederation, in defiance of indigenous desires.
The former Canadian territories of Canada and Louisiana had little love for Britain, but neither did they see much to gain from an alliance with the rebellious colonies. Louisiana continued to be inhabited mostly by indigenous people with little interest in this war, far from its primary battlefields, in addition to exiled Acadians. The Quebec Act had assured that the French-descended people of the St. Lawrence valley would keep their culture, language, and religion and not be forced into British norms if they remained loyal to the British crown. The Québécois population suspected that they might lose all three if they formally aligned with the culturally British, majority-Protestant colonies. In effect they did not break with Great Britain in 1775 because they did not wish to become more British.
That being said, the American revolutionary forces made an attempt in November of 1775 to capture the major cities of Quebec, both to add them to the growing nation and to keep them from serving as staging grounds for British efforts. Led by the famous generals Richard Montgomery and Benedict Arnold (prior to Arnold’s defection), this effort captured Montréal and a handful of smaller cities along the St. Lawrence River, ending in a siege at Québec City, at the mouth of the river. The American forces suffered a number of setbacks during the attack, but due to support from within and around the city, managed to hold it until the following spring. The support that the American forces received in Québec was not sufficient to prevent the British from retaking the city, or the rest of the American-held cities in the province, once the weather improved and reinforcements arrived. The British Army expelled the American forces and many of their sympathizers and punished those who stayed behind, quieting any expressions of revolutionary sympathy that may have otherwise erupted later.
To this day, the province of Québec (now much more narrowly defined than in the 18th century) uses a legal system based on French civil law rather than British common law (as in the rest of Canada), among other aggressively-guarded efforts to keep its French history current.
Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island
Unlike the other British colonies that did not ultimately join the Thirteen Colonies to become the United States, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island were genuinely ambivalent about becoming part of the United States. Those colonists that had been born in the area were often sympathetic to the revolutionary cause, especially since Britain’s tax policies and the Proclamation of 1763 hit them just as hard as they hit the lower thirteen. However, the two colonies had seen a large influx of English and Scottish colonists who still regarded themselves as citizens of the United Kingdom. The Thirteen Colonies, never to be outdone, attempted to bring down the pro-British colonial administration of Nova Scotia and galvanize the separatist sympathizers within the region with an attack on a British fort deep in the colony. Success would deny the British access to the strategically important port of Halifax and append old Acadia’s abundant natural resources to the United States’s future fortunes.
The Battle of Fort Cumberland in late 1776 looked poised for success. The fort was located in a portion of the colony where revolutionary sympathy was high, which prevented the pro-British government from convincing the locals to keep the fort in good repair. The militia team gathered strength as it moved from Maine to Nova Scotia, and even managed to capture two of the ships in the nearby harbor and keep word of the attack from leaving the area. The revolutionary leader tipped his hand by sending a letter to the fort garrison requesting its surrender, which prompted the garrison leader to send another messenger, which the revolutionary forces could not stop. Thanks to the garrison leader’s tactical acumen, the revolutionaries could not take the fort before trust in the strike leader’s ability crumbled, reinforcements arrived from elsewhere in Nova Scotia, and his forces were scattered.
As in Quebec the year before, the pro-British administration captured and punished revolutionary sympathizers. Many chose to leave the colony, solidifying Britain’s hold and swelling the ranks further south.
A peculiar group of islands, Bermuda is most famous for being the northern- and easternmost corner of the Bermuda Triangle, and for convincing numerous amateur geographers that it’s in the Caribbean. Its central location made it an ideal port for vessels transporting salt from the Turks and Caicos Islands and fish from Newfoundland, giving it wealth disproportionate to its size. Unlike the similarly situated Newfoundland, Bermuda was established by the same company that established the Virginia colony and had numerous familial and business ties with the Thirteen Colonies. Those ties might have made Bermuda join the Thirteen Colonies in rebellion, but Bermuda’s position in the Atlantic Ocean left it subject to a total naval blockade by the British. Severed from the previously lucrative colonial trade, Bermuda became a base for privateers attacking American shipping and for trade with the Caribbean colonies. By the time relations between Britain and the United States normalized, the situations of the new nation and the island colony had diverged too far for a union to remain a political possibility.
Due to its small, largely transient population, Newfoundland had little revolutionary sympathy. The colonists grew to regard the island both as a threat and as a means to attack Great Britain’s economic interests.
In 1775, Great Britain issued the Restraining Act, among whose provisions were a dramatic restriction of Thirteen-Colonial trade with Britain and loss of access to Newfoundland’s abundant fishing banks. The Thirteen Colonies responded in kind, cutting Newfoundland off from access to their trade. Newfoundland suddenly found itself without access to all manner of colonial goods, including food, which it was not equipped to produce for itself. The Newfoundlanders attempted to solve the crisis with goods from the United Kingdom, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and other British holds, but found that none of these avenues could make up the difference in time. They fled in droves, mostly back to Britain, but some remained and began farming.
Historians differ on the exact reasons for Newfoundland’s continued loyalty to the UK. Certainly, being threatened with starvation by the revolutionaries did not help, but the Newfoundlanders largely solved that problem without Britain. The high Irish-descended fraction of the settler population should have driven them to take the opportunity to break with Britain, if anything. More likely, the fact that colonial Newfoundland’s administration was largely handled from Great Britain, rather than through a local assembly, prevented any local authority from becoming the focus of anti-British sentiment or from organizing the locals into a revolutionary militia.
Perhaps more importantly, the war created a situation where Newfoundlanders could profit immensely from remaining aligned with Great Britain. Newfoundland’s access to the Grand Banks fishery and the sugar colonies of the Caribbean, which were forbidden to the rebelling colonists, made the Newfoundlanders disproportionately wealthy. This wealth would become stressed in 1778 when American privateers and Spanish naval vessels began targeting the supply ships leaving Newfoundland for Europe and the Caribbean. Their efforts were so successful that Newfoundland’s local economy grew to largely replace the riches they gained from outside, inculcating in the settlers of Newfoundland a unique identity of their own, distinct from American and British alike.
After the Revolution
The American Revolution ended with the Thirteen Colonies, but not the other British colonies, united as the United States of America, a new sovereign entity. As the first revolution of its kind in the world, it would serve as a template for future wars of independence in the Caribbean, Latin America, and Europe, as well as the French Revolution.
The treaties that followed the end of the war in 1783, the Treaty of Paris and the Jay Treaty (1794), settled the boundaries of the new nation and established a number of other provisions. In particular, the United States claimed the land between the Thirteen Colonies’ previous borders and the Mississippi River (the British portion of the former French Louisiana) and expelled the remaining British military presence from the region, claiming the Great Lakes forts for themselves. A number of questions remained unresolved, and would flare up again in the War of 1812.
As a response to the American victory, the British divided the Province of Quebec into the new colonies of Upper Canada (west of the Ottawa River) and Lower Canada (east of the Ottawa River), though they remained in most ways one unit. They also divided Nova Scotia into New Brunswick (west of the Isthmus of Chignecto) and Nova Scotia proper. Upper Canada and New Brunswick were opened up to settlement by Crown loyalists fleeing the newly independent United States, further cementing the British colonies’ desire to remain associated with their parent country rather than the United States.
In 1800, Spain sold its share of the former Louisiana back to France. In 1803, after losing the Haitian Revolution and depleting his treasury, Napoleon sold the territory to the United States, dramatically increasing the young nation’s size and starting the US’s quest to claim all of the land between its borders and the Pacific coast. With France’s holdings in North America reduced to a handful of small Caribbean islands and St. Pierre and Miquelon, it was effectively removed from further relevance to the continent.
The War of 1812
Britain’s latest war against France, instigated by Napoleon in his bid to conquer Europe, along with a lingering disdain for the new nation, led the British to pursue a number of policies that the people of the United States found offensive. Chief among these was Britain’s policy of considering anyone born in Great Britain but serving in the US Navy or merchant marine to be a deserter and impressing them into the British Navy for use against Napoleon’s forces. In effect, Great Britain disregarded the concept of naturalized citizenship for Americans and continued to treat the United States as a source of resources—that is, as a colony.
The United Kingdom was also arming the indigenous people of the Northwest Territory, as the United States called the land it received in the Treaty of Paris. Enabling the indigenous people to defend their territory meant that Americans could not effectively steal it, which the American government and people took as a provocation. The United States knew that the weapons were being delivered via Canada, and also that Canada supplied food to the UK’s treasured Caribbean islands, and thus focused many efforts during the War of 1812 on capturing Upper and Lower Canada.
Contrary to American fantasies of a weak, easily cowed country, however, Canada defied invasion. The majority of 1812 Canadians had fled to Canada during the Revolutionary War in order to remain loyal to the Crown, so American invaders found little sympathy. Worse, the American military had not yet come into its own, having made it out of the Revolutionary War in large part due to French aid. American forces suffered many sound defeats at the hands of British regulars, Canadian militiamen, and armed indigenous groups led by Tecumseh, at the cities of York (now Toronto), Sandwich (now part of Windsor), Montreal, and Niagara Falls, despite capturing some Canadian territory. This renewed aggression from the United States helped cement Canada’s desire to remain separate from its southern neighbor. Canadian ill will toward the United States culminated in the Burning of Washington, during which the White House was razed, the only successful invasion of American soil to date.
The War of 1812 ended with the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, after Napoleon abdicated his position as emperor of France and France and the UK became allies. Without the Napoleonic Wars to test their position, the UK abandoned many of the policies that had provoked its war with the United States. Tecumseh’s death and the terms of the treaty dissolved any hope of a British-sponsored indigenous state south of the Great Lakes, and the UK ceased to direct arms shipments to them. The Treaty of Ghent and the subsequent Treaty of 1818 established the 49th Parallel as the border between the United States and British North America west of the Great Lakes, which remains to this day. The details of this border at the Pacific coast were not resolved until 1846, with the division of British Columbia and Vancouver Island (new colonies under the de facto control of the Hudson Bay Company and separated from one another in 1849) from the Oregon Country, which would later become several US states.
Manifest Destiny and Confederation
Relative peace reigned between the United States and United Kingdom, including its North American holdings, for decades, called the Era of Good Feelings. This ended when the American Civil War began in 1861. Some Americans perceived that the British were subtly favoring the South, and at the conclusion of the war in 1865 rescinded trade privileges given to Canada. This served as a reminder that the two regions were distinct and always had the possibility of hostilities in the future. Coupled with the emerging American doctrine of Manifest Destiny, which impelled the United States to expand its hold over more and more of North America, the people of British North America felt a greater need to present a united front to their southern neighbor, especially since Great Britain simultaneously felt less and less need to defend them militarily.
In 1864, delegates from the colonies of Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Upper Canada, and Lower Canada met in Charlottetown, PEI to discuss a union. The proposed union was a more difficult sell than it could have been, because the various colonies had not been nearly as economically integrated as the Thirteen Colonies south of them had been, and rail connections between the various colonies were minimal. The promise of greater integration between the colonies, of greater autonomy and cohesion for British North America under a single regional government, and of being able to repel any further American invasions via their own military appealed to the delegates, though the exact details would require tremendous negotiations. Newfoundland was included in later meetings, but both Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island emerged disappointed, and would not join with the other colonies until many years later.
Confederation and the West
The establishment of the Dominion of Canada, uniting Upper Canada (renamed Ontario), Lower Canada (renamed Québec), New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia was formalized in 1867, the same year Russia sold its Alaska colony to the United States, after Britain declined an earlier offer of sale. This occasion is celebrated as Canada Day every July 1st, with a particularly enthusiastic 150th anniversary on July 1st, 2017.
The colonies of British Columbia and Vancouver Island strongly considered joining the United States at this time, since their economies depended heavily on California. Indeed, President Polk had purchased Alaska with the future annexation of British Columbia in mind, hoping to gain the entire Pacific coast north of Mexico for the United States. When the Gold Rush collapsed in 1870, however, their interests turned eastward, and they joined the Dominion of Canada as the province of British Columbia in 1871. (If Britain had purchased Alaska, it would almost certainly have become part of Canada at or near this time.)
Canada organized its federal-level politics with an eye toward the British parliamentary model, rather than the American model, reinforcing the idea that they were not unifying out of a desire to be separate from the Crown.
Division and Growth
Rupert’s Land was purchased from Great Britain and renamed the Northwest Territories (not to be confused with former American Northwest Territory) in 1870. It would eventually be divided into three new provinces (in 1870 and 1905) and have two new territories carved from its expanse (in 1898 and 1999). As this division proceeded, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland decided that remaining separate from the Dominion of Canada was not in their interests, and also joined (in 1873 and 1949). Like the United States, Canada spent a long time between 1861 and the present sorting out internal borders and more fully incorporating its western lands into the nation as a whole.
In 1931, Canada gained large-scale autonomy from Great Britain, retaining only the ceremonial ties of the Queen, the Governor General, and status as a British Commonwealth Nation. Canadian independence was not formally acquired, however, until the Canada Act in 1981 and the Constitution Act in 1982, which repatriated the 1837 British North America Act to Canada and gave Canada the ability to amend its own constitution (consisting of the aforementioned act and several other documents), but the above ceremonial ties were and are retained. The Canadian model of independence and confederation served as a template for many British colonies around the world, including the Bahamas, Jamaica, Australia, and New Zealand, just as the American model had served Haïti and Latin America.
The Thirteen Colonies that became the United States were economically and politically integrated with one another, but not with the United Kingdom’s other American territories. The revolution that formed and emerged in the Thirteen did not have equivalents in the United Kingdom’s other North American territories, many of which instead had politics marked by recent acquisition from France. The incipient United States attempted to force these colonies’ hands and claim them for itself, but was repelled each time. These successful defenses contributed to the two regions’ senses of themselves as distinct from one another. Even later, the people of Canada built their society with an eye toward their British origin, feeling far less animosity toward their parent than the United States did. This separation has assured that the two nations have distinct cultures, despite their common heritage and strong trade and diplomatic relations with one another.
It should be noted that the indigenous peoples of North America make minimal contribution to this narrative in both countries. The formation of the United States and Canada is, for the most part, something that happened to the Cree, Choctaw, Anishinabek, Iroquois, and other indigenous groups of North America. While indigenous actors influenced the course of these events and sometimes tried to turn them to advantage, such as Tecumseh’s daring attempt to leverage British aid into European-recognized independence for his people, the colonizers determined that course and controlled the results. This is reflected in the nightmarish brutality and expropriation continuously inflicted on the indigenous peoples of North America, beginning in 1492 and not ending since.
This animated map traces this history from the early days of European colonization all the way to the 21st century.