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Europeans and natives


Indigenous groups in Canada
Indigenous groups in Canada

Whale oil, cod, and furs brought a steadier, less publicized stream of European sailors to Canada. From the early 1500s until after 1600, Basques, people from southern France and northern Spain, came each year to Labrador and the Gulf of St. Lawrence to hunt whales. English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese fishers came to catch cod on the shallow, bountiful Grand Banks off the Atlantic coast, often drying the catch on the shores. The fishing industry led to several attempts to start colonies in Newfoundland and elsewhere. Few endured, although the fishing season regularly brought a throng of fishers to some harbors. In 1583 English adventurer Sir Humphrey Gilbert arrived at busy St. John’s Harbour in Newfoundland and found it crowded with boats. Although Spanish and Portuguese boats shared the harbor with the English, Gilbert claimed Newfoundland for England. In the 1600s, after the Spanish and Portuguese quit fishing in the Grand Banks, permanent English communities grew up around Newfoundland’s Avalon peninsula, and French communities grew up on the island’s south coast.

About the same time, whalers and fishers began to develop a trade in furs with indigenous nations they met along the coasts. Europe’s hatters discovered that beaver hair, when shaved and matted into a stiff felt, was the finest hat-making material available. The Canadian fur trade, destined to be the backbone of the economy for some 200 years, was born.

For several hundred years, there were few European settlers across much of Canada, and thus there were few conflicts between them and the indigenous peoples over control of the land. Trading relations, rooted in the fur trade that eventually spread across the continent, were often more important. The fur trade changed indigenous societies by adding new European goods to their way of life, encouraging them to concentrate on trade with the newcomers, and often leading them into new alliances or conflicts based on trade. But trade rarely put the indigenous nations under European domination. Missionaries, who often accompanied the early traders, tried to convert the indigenous peoples to Christianity but were frequently disappointed by their lack of success. So long as the indigenous societies remained independent, they rarely showed great enthusiasm for European religions. For centuries after the arrival of Cabot, most of them retained control over their contacts with Europeans.

In these early years, disease was the greatest effect of European contact. The Europeans brought with them diseases that were unknown in North America, and the indigenous people lacked immunity to them. The result was devastating epidemics that ran through the Americas long before any Europeans moved inland to report them. The population began to decline as soon as the Europeans arrived. Some scholars have estimated that the Mi’kmaq lost 90 percent of their population between 1500 and 1600. As contact moved gradually north and west, so did epidemics. Great Plains nations suffered devastating epidemics in the late 1700s; the Pacific Northwest suffered similar catastrophes in the mid-1800s; and many Inuit groups were hard hit by illnesses as they came into regular contact with Europeans in the 20th century. Indigenous populations in Canada declined continuously from about 1500 to about 1930. "Canada" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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