This textbook considers the history of what becomes Canada in 1867. It is what is called a “survey text,” in that it provides a framework of the larger storylines rather than examine in detail some particular aspect of Canadian history.

The thing is, what we survey is inevitably selective. Indeed, framing the story as something that leads to — or terminates at — Confederation is to suggest from the outset that there is a trail blazed from European arrival in North America to the creation of Canada. Telling the story that way is essentially flawed, from a historian’s perspective. It funnels the story to an outcome — to one outcome — as though there were no others along the way, or that other events — the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the War of 1812, the Rebellions of 1837 —  wouldn’t work just as well as a bookend. And, obviously, when the terminus we choose happens to be a constitutional accomplishment of one group of Canadians — that is, those Canadians of European origin — we are implicitly overlooking the ongoing arc of the Aboriginal peoples’ story. It must be conceded that new political experiments are important, but one might as reasonably bring the tale to a pause with the onset of urbanization and industrialization, a social and economic process that redefined the lives of North Americans in the mid-19th century.

Canadian History: Pre-Confederation attempts to keep in view those other stories while visiting — and sometimes revisiting and reconsidering — familiar territory associated with the construction of what we call “Canada.” The text was conceived with an awareness of typical learner goals in undergraduate intro Canadian courses, an understanding that many student/users are likely to be newcomers to Canada and thus may not share in some common narratives, and a commitment to critical approaches. It is not a device intended to produce patriots or better citizens; it exists to acquaint people with issues in the past, to engage them with the experiences of others, to develop critical faculties, to become knowledgable about events and societies in North America, and to develop some of the skills of a historian. The foremost of these is empathy.


The text is organized in a roughly chronological fashion. Chapter 1 “When was Canada?” addresses historical methods and issues and then the text turns to communities and events and people in the past. The chronological approach is detoured beginning with Chapter 8 “Rupert’s Land and the Northern Plains, 1690-1870.” Chapters 9-11 consider, each in turn, the period from 1818 to ca. 1860 in terms of economic, social, and political histories. Chapter 12 “Children and Childhood” explores an aspect of social history from before the arrival of Europeans to the industrial age. Chapter 13 “The Farthest West” considers the territories west of the Rockies, much of which is now British Columbia; this chapter, too, plunges back in time to the mid-18th century. Chapter 14 “The 1860s: Confederation and Its Discontents” caps the chronological saga with an exploration of the processes that led to a federal union of colonies in July 1867. Confederation is a watershed: not only does it mark the beginning of a colonial nation-building exercise, it signals the transfer of authority over territory and peoples from London to Ottawa. While it is the case that international policy remained a matter for Westminster, from 1867 on Canada was setting its own diplomatic course with the other nations of North America, apart from the USA. Those “other nations,” of course, being the First ones. These and other themes are pursued in the companion text, Canadian History: Post-Confederation.

Each chapter consists of several parts. These ‘subchapters’ are meant to facilitate the addition and subtraction of material from the OpenText format. Most are linked narratively, but not so much that one cannot be omitted or replaced without dire consequences.

Pedagogical Tools

Canadian History: Pre-Confederation includes several learning/teaching instruments. The first section (the x.1 of each chapter) includes Learning Objectives. These are, I think, consistent with what most introductory Canadian History courses hope to accomplish.

Almost all of the subchapters (apart from the Summary subchapters) conclude with a list of Key Points that are intended to help you identify themes that have overarching importance. But they are not exhaustive. There’s more in each section and it would be a mistake to think that the Key Points are all that matters.

The Summary sections conclude with three features: Key Terms, Short Answer Exercises, and Suggested Readings. Not all Key Terms are defined in the text body, but all words that are marked as bold in the body of the text are included in the Key Terms box. A Glossary at the very end of the text collects all of the Key Terms in one place. As regards the Suggested Readings, an effort has been made to ensure that everything listed is available online through your university library.

Clearly the definition of what constitutes a “key term” or a “learning outcome” is subjective. Choices have been made. The advantage of the OpenText format is that an instructor is encouraged to make different choices.

Scattered throughout the text are Exercises. These are intellectual tasks that are meant to help you develop a historians’ sensibility and awareness. They are not assignments (although they might be); they are opportunities to break from the narrative, to look up for a moment, and to see History around you. The are exercises meant to discipline and sharpen your mind just as push-ups improve your body. (Incidentally, it is a little known fact that all Canadian historians have six-pack abs.)


The names we use for people-groups in the past change over time. Sometimes that’s a result of changes in jurisdictions and borders or a constitutional change. Take “England” before 1701: it’s really England and Wales but it doesn’t include Scotland, which was a separate country; after 1707 “Britain” refers to all three together (along with Ireland) — the distinction is important. To take another example, New Brunswickers and Nova Scotians went to bed on 30 June 1867 and woke up the next morning in Canada. In this text an effort has been made to be consistent with identities as they were at the time. There’s no way that anyone at the forks of the Thompson and Fraser Rivers in 1808 could know that they’d be “British Columbians” fifty years later and it’s a fair bet that they would have been unhappy at the prospect as well. Even in 1858 very few British Columbians would have imagined that thirteen years later they would be “Canadians.” To push those labels backwards in time is to imply that people in history mysteriously knew an outcome that was not yet on the cards.

Names change, too, for political and cultural reasons. This is most obviously and importantly the case when it comes to Aboriginal group names. Almost universally in North America the names that people of European descent use to identify Aboriginal groups are not the ones First Nations themselves prefer. This situation began changing about thirty years ago and this text contributes to that process by employing nomenclature preferred by Aboriginal peoples. Why is it important to do so? Because most of those European-devised names are artifacts of colonial power or terms of disrespect. “Thompson Indians” is obviously not the name that the Nlaka’pamux gave to themselves. Some Aboriginal names, such as “Eskimo” in fact derive from negative, xenophobic epithets used by their neighbours and rivals. The term “Indian” itself is evidence of European confusion and ignorance, a reminder that 15th century travellers were hoping to reach India and not the Americas.

As a rule, then, the current nomenclature officially endorsed by the people themselves is used here. In the first usage (and where it seems appropriate to do so) the most well-known alternative is presented as well. For example:  Anishinaabe (aka: Ojibwa); Wendat (Huron), Heiltsuk (Bella Bella). Some nomenclature offers several options and some of those are too useful to abandon.  For example, the Haudenosaunee (aka: Five Nations Iroquois) are also known as the League of Five Nations, which works rather well in its own right.

Exceptions are made to these rules throughout the text for the Cree. The term “Cree” derives from French terms (Kristineaux , Kiristinous , Kilistinous) which may, themselves, be descended from names given them by their Aboriginal neighbours. The Cree in the pre- and proto-contact eras can be described as three cultures: Swampy, Woodland, and Plains. Each of these had a variety of alternate names.  The Swampy Cree, for example, appear in European documents as West Main Cree and Lowland Cree and they describe themselves as Maskiki Wi IniwakMushkegowuk, from which we derive Muskegon. There are eastern and western divisions within the Swampy Cree, which further complicates matters, as does migration across those two divisions. The Woodland Cree are similarly divisible between the Woods and the Rocky Cree, and nomenclature divides in this case between Sakāwithiniwak and Nîhithaw. The Plains Cree refer to themselves as nêhiyawak. Given the enormous territory in which the historic Cree were dominant — from the Rocky Mountains to Labrador — it is unsurprising to find significant differences in identities among these Algonkian-speakers, even at the dialect level. There is, however, a historic and pre-contact continuity across the Cree range and for that reason and to avoid confusion, the decision has been made to perpetuate the mis-label, “Cree.” For the purposes of understanding the different experiences of the fur trade in different eco-systems, the established modifiers survive as well: Swampy, Woodland, and Plains. 

Think Like a Historian

The past doesn’t explain the present. For the most part the past doesn’t even care about the present. What history reveals is complex and competing values and needs. How people dealt with those wrinkles and puzzles in the past demonstrates both their genius and their frailties. Those are the things we learn from the past and mostly they have to do with what it means to be human.


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Canadian History: Pre-Confederation Copyright © 2015 by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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