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British North America: from1783

The treaty of Paris in 1783, recognizing the independence of the thirteen British colonies, restricts Britain's territories in America to Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and that part of the vast province of Quebec which has not been ceded to the American colonists. These regions, along the St Lawrence and above the Great Lakes, now become known as British North America.

The new international border on this east-west axis brings into political existence the eastern part of modern Canada. It also sets the scene for what will become a lasting feature of the region - the coexistence of a British majority and a strongly self-aware French minority which has prior claims in this territory.

The first major immigration of British people into Canada occurs as a result of the American Revolution. The Loyalists, who have taken Britain's side in the war, have no future in the newly independent United States. In the years up to 1783 about 40,000 flee north into Canada. The majority (among them 1000 freed slaves) go to Nova Scotia, where there has been a British presence for several decades. About 10,000 choose the province of Quebec.

From 1784 Britain reorganizes her remaining north American colonies on a more practical basis. Because of the sudden influx of Loyalists, Nova Scotia is divided into three separate colonies by the formation of New Brunswick and Cape Breton (the latter is reunited with Nova Scotia in 1820).

More significant are the changes brought about by the Canadian Constitutional Act of 1791. This divides the province of Quebec into two halves - Upper Canada (equivalent to modern Ontario) and Lower Canada (modern Quebec). These two provinces are at the same time given a new constitution, with power shared between the governor (representing the crown), an appointed legislative council and an elected legislative assembly.

Lower Canada is the province with by far the highest proportion of French inhabitants. It soon becomes, and remains, the centre of French political aspirations within British North America.

Northwest Canada:1789-1793

The four years from 1789 bring much new knowledge about northwest Canada, particularly from two great journeys carried out by a Scottish fur trader, Alexander Mackenzie. By the 18th century Canada has already been well explored, mainly by fur traders, to some considerable distance west of the Great Lakes and Hudson Bay. Mackenzie has been living for some years at the extremity of the known region, with his base at the Indian trading post of Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca.

A great river flows northwest out of Lake Athabasca. In early June 1789 Mackenzie sets off with a small party in birch-bark canoes to discover where it leads.

A week brings them to the Great Slave Lake, which they find covered in ice too solid for their canoes but too fragile to walk on. They carry the canoes round its edge until they come to a river (now the Mackenzie) emerging from its western extremity. They follow this to its outlet, at Mackenzie Bay, into the Beaufort Sea - a part of the Arctic Ocean beyond the as yet undiscovered northwest passage. Mackenzie and his party are back in Fort Chipewyan in mid-September, having canoed about 3000 miles in not much more than three months.

With an unsated appetite for adventure, Mackenzie sets off again from Fort Chipewyan in 1792 on an even more ambitious undertaking - to reach the Pacific.

There has as yet been no recorded crossing of the continent north of Mexico, and it is unlikely that any unknown American Indian was ever tempted by the task which Mackenzie undertakes in July 1792. From Fort Chipewyan he travels along and between a succession of rivers, and then through the Canadian Rockies, to reach the coast at the mouth of the Bella Coola river in June 1793.

Mackenzie is unaware of it, but another explorer is in the region at exactly this same moment. Mackenzie reaches the sea about 100 miles north of Vancouver Island, named after George Vancouver who is spending two years surveying the coast from California to Alaska. In 1792 he becomes the first captain to sail round Vancouver Island.

Vancouver has begun his career as an able seaman on Captain Cook's second voyage (1772-5) and has graduated to midshipman for the third voyage (1776-80). Now, leaving Britain in 1791 in command of his own expedition to the Pacific, he takes pride in applying Cook's high standards of surveying and cartography. Indeed on occasion there is a humorous delight in upstaging the master. On the chart for Dusky Bay in New Zealand where Cook, lacking time to investigate, has written 'Nobody knows what', Vancouver now fills in the coastline and the words 'Somebody knows what'.

Thanks to Mackenzie and Vancouver, by 1793 somebody knows a great deal more than before about northwest Canada. The next question is who will develop and govern the region.

North West and Hudson's Bay companies: 1783-1821

Alexander Mackenzie, whose explorations open up northwest Canada, is an employee of the North West Company. This is an enterprise founded in 1783 by traders in Montreal to develop the French fur trade, the profits of which can now accrue in British hands after France's loss of her American empire.

For more than a century the Hudson's Bay Company, trading furs from northern Canada by the sea route from Hudson's Bay, has competed with French traders sending their furs to Europe through Montreal and down the St Lawrence river. Now this same competition continues, often with considerable violence, between two British enterprises.

Of the two the North West Company is the more vigorous, opening up the western territories after Mackenzie's initiative. It derives a considerable advantage during the 1812 war between Britain and America, of which one casualty is the American trading post of Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia river.

Astoria is the creation of John Jacob Astor, son of a butcher from Waldorf in Germany, who has arrived in America as a 20-year-old immigrant in 1783. Specializing in the fur trade between the Great Lakes and the Pacific, he soon makes the first of many Astor fortunes. In 1811 he establishes Astoria so as to extend his trade across the Pacific to China.

Astor's timing is for once unfortunate. British blockades in the war of 1812 make Astoria useless to his American Fur Company, but by the same token of considerable interest to the North West Company. Astor sells them his new trading post in 1813.

This gives the North West Company's members (known as the Nor'Westers) a virtual monopoly of the rich fur trade in the western half of British America. The problem is that their line of communication with the Atlantic ports is now overstretched, as well as seeming to be threatened by a new initiative of their Hudson's Bay rivals in 1811.

In this year the Hudson's Bay Company brings in Scottish immigrants to establish an agricultural colony on the Red River in the region of modern Winnipeg. The site is close to Fort Gibraltar, built in 1804 by the North West Company to protect their trade route east to Montreal.

Employees of the North West Company attack the Red River Settlement in 1816, killing its governor and nineteen of his men. The Hudson's Bay Company retaliates by seizing and destroying Fort Gibraltar (which they subsequently rebuild as Fort Garry). This unseemly war between two British companies leads eventually to a merger, imposed by the government in 1821.

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