A History of Colonialism


  • Trying to teach the complete history of colonialism in Canada is obviously a bit of an impossible task; however, here is a guide to some of the key moments of colonization in order to explain the legacy of our history as well as its continuing impacts.
  • This is not an exhaustive history nor are any of the events discussed below fully fleshed out. If you wanted to discuss any of the particular moments in more detail, further information can be easily located. This is more of a starting point.
  • In addition, the below history is largely rather negative. We are trying to impart to students the history and its impact. However, you will note that in the sections on specific content we have chosen to celebrate the work of First Peoples and showcase the continued vibrancy of these communities.


Things began to change for First Peoples throughout North America with the advent of the exploration period. In Canada, the exploration period had two movements.

  1. The first occurred in largely the 17th century and was launched by the French. The French movement was largely confined to what is now Quebec and Ontario. Its major impacts were religious, with the Jesuits working to convert whole swaths of First Peoples, and economic, as it marked the beginning of the fur trade.

  2. The second exploration movement continued and expanded on the fur trade and religious conversion. This was carried out by the British and reached its peak in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

If students are interested in this history, they can consult sources such as the Jesuit Relations and explorers' published journals, such as those by Samuel Hearne and David Thompson. The impact of exploration, the fur trade, and settlement upon Indigenous peoples was grave.

  • Prior to colonization, there were an estimated 100,000,000 (hundred million) Indigenous peoples in North America.

  • Diseases, and in particular smallpox, wiped out entire communities.

  • The depletion of resources by colonizers contributed to the decimation of the First Peoples through the ignorance and ethnocentrism of a fledgling government.

  • And, finally, the introduction of European institutions, such as Christianity, caused conflict and disruption amongst all of Canada's original inhabitants. Christianity continues to be a divisive disruption in many Indigenous communities to this day.


Haudenosaunee Two Row Wampum - Gusweñta. A record of the agreement between the Dutch and the Haudenosaunee that each nation would respect the other and not interfere with the other's ways of life.



The period of exploration was followed closely by settlement, first in central Canada, but quickly expanding outwards, both West and East. Settlement meant a need for land and more resources. Enter the various treaties.

Treaties were documents created in agreement between the Indigenous population and the British government, eventually the Canadian government. They were meant to establish the relationship between First Peoples and settlers and set in place rules around land and resource use. Typically the treaties are meant to secure a particular tract of land and protect particular hunting and other resource gathering rights of the First Peoples in the area, as well as provide certain social services and monetary incentives, in exchange for ownership over much of the rest of the land and resources by the settling culture.

  • Pre-Confederation
    A number of treaties were signed pre-confederation, which were a collaboration between Indigenous peoples and English settlers, using a mixture of cultures and languages.

  • Post-Confederation
    A new series of treaties, called the numbered treaties, were signed. The numbered treaties were a series of documents signed between First Nations peoples and the Crown regarding land from Ontario to British Columbia and the Northwest Territories. There are 11 numbered treaties, which were signed between 1871 and 1921. These treaties were created with the goal of allowing the Canadian government to pursue settlement of the land and resource extraction. Unlike the earlier treaties, these ones did not take into account the culture of the First Peoples and were conducted using an entirely British model. The First Peoples did not either linguistically or philosophically have the concept of land ownership; they saw and continue to see themselves as stewards of the land. Moreover, the capitalist system that informs much of British culture, law, and economy, was alien to First Peoples, who instead used trade or bartering. The notion of land ownership and the philosophy of a capitalist culture gave birth to these treaties. As a result, a number of First Peoples feel that these treaties were unfair and that they were coerced into signing them. Moreover, when new resources have been discovered on reserve land, a number of these treaties have been violated leading to First Peoples being displaced or having their soil and/or water supply polluted.

  • Unceded Land
    Of course, a large amount of land in Canada was never subject to any treaties. This means that huge amounts of Canada's population lives on what is unceded Indigenous land. Heritage College, in fact, rests on unceded Algonquin territory, as does most of the Gatineau region. Regardless, settlement meant a large amount of First Peoples were pushed off their land and/or kept from their migratory routes and traditional hunting grounds.

  • Paternalism and the Constitution
    Canada becoming a nation was, unsurprisingly, another key contributor to the disenfranchisement of First Peoples populations. The Canadian Constitution created a paternalist relationship between the Canadian government and First Peoples, primarily through the Indian Act. Basically, the welfare of the First Peoples was the responsibility of the Canadian government, but what that meant in practical terms was that the Canadian government had full control over the law, policies, etc. under which Indigenous populations operated. In other words, these communities were not permitted to be self-determined; in practical terms, this meant First Peoples could not obtain an education or determine its content, own property or, indeed, leave the "reserve," dig a well or make other improvements to their own communities. Essentially, this paternalistic relationship meant that First Peoples were not recognized as human beings. Paternalism led to a number of dangerous policies as we will see below.

Early Rebellion

Another essential building block in the creation of Canada as a nation was the building of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. As the railroad was being built, a number of settlers arrived and began creating communities on what was then First Peoples' land. This settlement led to a series of rebellions by the Metis population (with help from the Cree, Blackfoot, Peigan, and Saultaux) who were being displaced by the both the railroad itself and its connected settlement. Though ultimately unsuccessful, the Red River Rebellion (1869-70) and the North-West Rebellion (1885) are often seen as the first instances of resistance against colonization by First Peoples in Canada.

Racism and Conformity

As Canada worked on developing itself as a nation, racism and conformity reared their ugly heads. A number of policies and laws were enacted by the Canadian government in order to eliminate difference as a way to create a unified citizenry.

Banned Ceremonies

A number of Indigenous cultural ceremonies and practices were banned at various points across the country in the name of cultural unity. For instance, in 1880 an amendment to the Indian Act called the Potlatch Law made any First Person who participated in any activity related to the Potlatch festival guilty of a crime and eligible for imprisonment.

Residential Schools

The most horrific and impactful of these policies was the Residential School system, which began in 1883 under then Prime Minister John A. Macdonald who, as the creator of the Indian Act, suggested that children attending school on reserves were surrounded by "savages" and should, therefore, be removed from their communities.

The Residential School system reached its height in the 1930s. This system was created with the goal of, as it was put at the time, "killing the Indian in the child." The Department of Indian Affairs, under the leadership of Duncan Campbell Scott, believed that the best chance for assimilating its First Peoples citizens would be to reeducate the youngest members in the ways of the European colonizers. The belief was that within a few generations there would be no distinct Indigenous culture left in Canada. These children were forcibly removed from their families and communities and taken to schools that were run primarily by the Catholic Church. Here they were not allowed to speak their native languages or practice any of their culture traditions. The students were given new names, or sometimes numbers, and stripped of any vestige of their cultural identity. They were punished for any display of their Indigeneity and made to feel ashamed of who they were. A majority of the students suffered physical and/or sexual abuse. The students were often malnourished.

They were kept far away from their families, and some became so homesick that they attempted to run away, often dying from exposure on their way back to their own communities. In total, approximately 150,000 First Peoples attended these schools. The TRC has estimated that at least 6,000 of these students died while in the care of the state either from abuse or from attempts to return home. Those 6,000 deaths puts the odds of dying in Canadian residential schools over the years they operated the same as for those serving in Canada's armed forces during the Second World War. The last of these schools closed in 1996.

    St. Paul's Indian Industrial School, Middlechurch, Manitoba. 1901

    Residential School, Fort Resolution, Northwest Territories

    Qu'Appelle Indian Industrial School, Lebret, District of Assiniboia. 1885

    The promise that these schools would prepare their students for mainstream Canadian life through education remained unfulfilled. The students were taught very few skills and largely used for labour, so most students were able to only get low-wage jobs, such as housekeeping, upon completion. These students also were ill-equipped to return to their own communities as they had lost the language and ways of their own people.

    These schools led to a wide range of intergenerational problems and trauma. First, those who attended them were often left with horrible memories and turned to alcohol as a way to numb their pain. Many of these students were left not knowing how to be in a family or a community as they had been taken away from their own too young to learn. So when they went on to have their own children, they often struggled with how to parent, and they felt conflict and shame towards their own parents because they had been taught that their ways were wrong. There was, therefore, a huge schism between generations and a breakdown of many communities due to language loss, trauma, and conflict. The legacy of this system cannot be underestimated, and First Peoples communities are still dealing with its effects and learning how to heal and move forward. To this end, the government of Canada issued an apology and acknowledgement of the impact of these schools and set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to create an extensive report on the history of these schools and on what should be done to recompense the survivors.

    Sixties Scoop

    The Sixties Scoop was an extension of the paternalistic approach the Canadian government took towards Indigenous peoples. During the Sixties Scoop, which took place from the 1960s to the 1980s, a number of Indigenous children from communities across the country were taken from their families and placed in childcare, either fostered or adopted out to non-Indigenous families, often far away from their homes. The assumption was that their own families and communities were not fit to care for these children, but the fall-out of the Sixties Scoop was similar to that of the Residential Schools. Children lost contact with their families, their language, and their culture.

    Recent History

    The relationship between Canada and First Peoples continues to be a fraught one. First Peoples have begun to voice their resistance to many laws and policies; however, to describe Canada as a post-colonial country would be a huge stretch. First Peoples, after all, are still living on reserves and are still, often, living in abject poverty with no opportunity for self-determination.

    Of interest to CEGEP students may be the following resistance movements:

    • Oka Crisis of 1990 over the development of sacred land into a golf course

    • Ipperwash (1995)

    • Caledonia (2006)

    • The ongoing one in Grassy Narrows

    • The Native Friendship Movement

    • Standing Rock, North Dakota

    • Her Braids is a movement created to provide funding for clean drinking water for First Peoples communities

    • A more general movement that is ongoing is the IdleNoMore movement, which seeks a return of power and traditional laws to First Peoples communities.
      • Tied to this movement was the protest of Chief Theresa Spence and others over the deplorable conditions at Attawapiskat and other reserves with nonpotable water. In Canada, roughly 90 reserve communities have boil water advisories in place, including Kitigan Zibi, which is just an hour's north of Gatineau.

    Oka Crisis standoff. Photo: Jacques Nadeau Archives Le Devoir

    Finally, students should be made aware of the disproportionate number of First Peoples women who have been murdered or gone missing and the fact that these instances and the lack of investigation by police forces were, until recently, not seen by the government as a social issue. There is currently a commission on Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls.