With a history that dates back at least 7,000 years, there is much to discover about the events and people that have shaped Ontario.
Artifacts and archaeological excavation that show human habitation of what is today Ontario date back at least 7,000 years. Many distinct native cultures and languages flourished. In the north, Algonquin, Cree and Ojibwa people fished and hunted. The first farmers in the south were the Huron, Tobacco (Petun), Neutrals (Attiwandaron), and Iroquois. The Iroquois Five Nations included the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Mohawk.
Before the arrival of the Europeans, the region was inhabited both by Algonquian (Ojibwa, Cree and Algonquin) in the northern/western portions and Iroquois and Wyandot (Huron) tribes more in the south/east. During the 1600s, the Algonquians and Hurons fought a bitter war against the Iroquois.
The Tuscarora joined the Five Nations in 1722 and henceforth they were known as the Six Nations. The Iroquois lived mostly in northern New York State until after the American Revolution when many of them moved to Ontario as Loyalists. Distinct native cultures and languages have continued and evolve to this day.
Land was not legally subdivided into administrative units until a treaty had been concluded with the native peoples ceding the land. In 1788, while part of the Province of Quebec (1763–1791), southern Ontario was divided into four districts: Hesse, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, and Nassau.
In 1792, the four districts were renamed: Hesse became the Western District, Lunenburg became the Eastern District, Mecklenburg became the Midland District, and Nassau became the Home District. Counties were created within the districts.
By 1798, there were eight districts: Eastern, Home, Johnstown, London, Midland, Newcastle, Niagara, and Western.
By 1826, there were eleven districts: Bathurst, Eastern, Gore, Home, Johnstown, London, Midland, Newcastle, Niagara, Ottawa, and Western.
By 1838, there were twenty districts: Bathurst, Brock, Colbourne, Dalhousie, Eastern, Gore, Home, Huron, Johnstown, London, Midland, Newcastle, Niagara, Ottawa, Prince Edward, Simcoe, Talbot, Victoria, Wellington, and Western.
In 1849, the districts of southern Ontario were abolished by the Province of Canada, and county governments took over certain municipal responsibilities. The Province of Canada also began creating districts in sparsely populated Northern Ontario with the establishment of Algoma District and Nipissing District in 1858.
The borders of Ontario were provisionally expanded north and west. When the Province of Canada was formed, its borders were not entirely clear, and Ontario claimed to eventually reach all the way to the Rocky Mountains and Arctic Ocean. With Canada’s acquisition of Rupert’s Land, Ontario was interested in clearly defining its borders, especially since some of the new areas it was interested in were rapidly growing. After the federal government asked Ontario to pay for construction in the new disputed area, the province asked for an elaboration on its limits, and its boundary was moved north to the 51st parallel north.
The northern and western boundaries of Ontario were in dispute after Confederation. Ontario’s right to Northwestern Ontario was determined by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in 1884 and confirmed by the Canada (Ontario Boundary) Act, 1889 of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. By 1899, there were seven northern districts: Algoma, Manitoulin, Muskoka, Nipissing, Parry Sound, Rainy River, and Thunder Bay. Four more northern districts were created between 1907 and 1912: Cochrane, Kenora, Sudbury and Timiskaming.
The first Europeans to visit Ontario arrived by boat. French explorers Etienne Brulé and Samuel de Champlain followed the St. Lawrence River into Lake Ontario in 1610 and 1615, respectively. Henry Hudson sailed into Ontario from the north and claimed the Hudson Bay area for Britain in 1611. Both the French and the British were keenly interested in Ontario’s commercial possibilities particularly the fur trade. Both built fortifications to protect their interests. The first settlers set up their base in the south, where the climate and land supported farming and the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence offered a natural transportation route.
FRENCH AND BRITISH STRUGGLE FOR DOMINATION
The French explorer Étienne Brûlé explored part of the area in 1610-12. The English explorer Henry Hudson sailed into Hudson Bay in 1611 and claimed the area for England, but Samuel de Champlain reached Lake Huron in 1615, and French missionaries began to establish posts along the Great Lakes. French settlement was hampered by their hostilities with the Iroquois, who allied themselves with the British. From 1634 to 1640, Hurons were devastated by European infectious diseases, such as measles and smallpox, to which they had no immunity.
The French and British were rivals in the New World as well as in the Old World and fought each other in North America intermittently beginning in the early 1600’s. The final war for what is now Canada fought between the French and British (the Seven Years War) began in 1754. When it ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, France ceded its claims for this land to Great Britain. British settlement was bolstered by the American Revolution which began in 1775. The revolutionary war ended in 1783, but colonists there who wanted to remain loyal to Britain (United Empire Loyalists) flocked to Ontario.
The British established trading posts on Hudson Bay in the late 17th century and began a struggle for domination of Ontario. The 1763 Treaty of Paris ended the Seven Years’ War by awarding nearly all of France’s North American possessions (New France) to Britain. The region was annexed to Quebec in 1774. From 1783 to 1796, the Kingdom of Great Britain granted United Empire Loyalists leaving the United States following the American Revolution 200 acres (81ha) of land and other items with which to rebuild their lives. This measure substantially increased the population of Canada west of the St. Lawrence-Ottawa River confluence during this period, a fact recognized by the Constitutional Act of 1791, which split Quebec into the Canadas: Upper Canada southwest of the St. Lawrence-Ottawa River confluence, and Lower Canada east of it. John Graves Simcoe was appointed Upper Canada’s first Lieutenant-Governor in 1793.
WAR OF 1812
In 1812 the United States, angered by British harassment on the Atlantic Ocean, trade problems, and wanting to add Britain’s North American colonies to the United States, declared war on Great Britain and invaded Upper Canada. The Americans were beaten back in 1812. However, the Legislative Buildings, in Toronto, were burned by the Americans in 1813. The British retaliated in 1814 by invading Washington and burning the Capitol and the president’s house. The war ended in a stalemate and the Treaty of Ghent was signed that year.
American troops in the War of 1812 invaded Upper Canada across the Niagara River and the Detroit River, but were defeated and pushed back by British regulars, Canadian fencibles and militias, and First Nations warriors. The Americans gained control of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, however. During the Battle of York they occupied the Town of York (later named Toronto) in 1813. The Americans looted the town and burned the Parliament Buildings but were soon forced to leave.
After the War of 1812, relative stability allowed for increasing numbers of immigrants to arrive from Europe rather than from the United States. As was the case in the previous decades, this deliberate immigration shift was encouraged by the colonial leaders. Despite affordable and often free land, many arriving newcomers, mostly from Britain and Ireland found frontier life with the harsh climate difficult, and some of those with the means eventually returned home or went south. However, population growth far exceeded emigration in the decades that followed. It was a mostly agrarian-based society, but canal projects and a new network of plank roads spurred greater trade within the colony and with the United States, thereby improving previously damaged relations over time.
Meanwhile, Ontario’s numerous waterways aided travel and transportation into the interior and supplied water power for development. As the population increased, so did the industries and transportation networks, which in turn led to further development. By the end of the century, Ontario vied with Quebec as the nation’s leader in terms of growth in population, industry, arts and communications.
Many in the colony however, began to chafe against the aristocratic Family Compact who governed while benefiting economically from the region’s resources, and who did not allow elected bodies the power to effect change (much as the Château Clique ruled Lower Canada). This resentment spurred republican ideals and sowed the seeds for early Canadian nationalism. Accordingly, rebellion in favour of responsible government rose in both regions; Louis-Joseph Papineau led the Lower Canada Rebellion and William Lyon Mackenzie led the Upper Canada Rebellion.
Ontario’s population continued to grow rapidly throughout the 1820s. Trade and immigration were boosted by improving access: the Erie Canal was built in the U.S.A. to link the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, while the Welland Canal in Ontario allowed ships to bypass Niagara Falls and travel between Lakes Ontario and Erie. Settlers arrived from England, Scotland and Ireland. By 1830, the population of Canada was about 235,000. In 1834, Toronto was made the first city in Ontario.
In time, the legislative council that oversaw political affairs came to be seen as dominated by a few powerful people, called the Family Compact. The growing population began to demand a say in their own government. An uprising, led by William Lyon Mackenzie in 1837, produced few direct results, but set the stage for events to come. A similar popular uprising was taking place in Lower Canada.
FEDERATION AND CONFEDERATION
Although both rebellions were put down in short order, the British government sent Lord Durham to investigate the causes of the unrest. He recommended that self-government be granted and that Lower and Upper Canada be re-joined in an attempt to assimilate the French Canadians.
Accordingly, the two colonies were merged into the Province of Canada by the Act of Union 1840, with the capital at Kingston, and Upper Canada becoming known as Canada West. Parliamentary self-government was granted in 1848. There were heavy waves of immigration in the 1840s, and the population of Canada West more than doubled by 1851 over the previous decade. As a result, for the first time the English-speaking population of Canada West surpassed the French-speaking population of Canada East, tilting the representative balance of power.
In 1841, on the advice of Lord Durham, the Union Act took effect, uniting Upper and Lower Canada into the Province of Canada. Upper Canada was renamed Canada West and Lower Canada was renamed Canada East. The union put the French of Quebec in a minority, and ultimately proved unworkable. At the time of the union, Upper Canada’s population was about 450,000. Kingston was the capital of the Province of Canada until 1843 when legislation was passed moving the capital to Montreal.
An economic boom in the 1850s coincided with railway expansion across the province, further increasing the economic strength of Central Canada. With the repeal of the Corn Laws and a reciprocity agreement in place with United States, various industries such as timber, mining, farming and alcohol distilling benefited tremendously.
A railway boom in the 1850s made year-round transportation routes a reality, though the boom abruptly ended in 1857. When the American Civil War started in 1861, the population of Canada West was about 1.5 million.
In 1867, Ontario and Quebec again became separate provinces when they joined with Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to form a federal union, the Dominion of Canada, as declared in the British North America Act. The new nation’s capital was Ottawa, an Ontario town on the Quebec border, and the first prime minister was Sir John A. Macdonald.
A political stalemate between the French- and English-speaking legislators, as well as fear of aggression from the United States during and immediately after the American Civil War, led the political elite to hold a series of conferences in the 1860s to effect a broader federal union of all British North American colonies. The British North America Act took effect on July 1, 1867, establishing the Dominion of Canada, initially with four provinces: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario. The Province of Canada was divided into Ontario and Quebec so that each linguistic group would have its own province. Both Quebec and Ontario were required by section 93 of the BNA Act to safeguard existing educational rights and privileges of Protestant and the Catholic minority. Thus, separate Catholic schools and school boards were permitted in Ontario. However, neither province had a constitutional requirement to protect its French- or English-speaking minority. Toronto was formally established as Ontario’s provincial capital.
In 1868 the coat of arms and motto of Ontario are created. Curiously, the motto (“Ut incepit fidelis sic permanet”) was added to Ontario´s coat of arms by Sir Henry William Stisted, The first Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario; who was a great friend of the Spanish General José of Bascarán and Federic, the 27th Lord of Olvera. In one of his visits to him, Sir Henry observed the mentioned motto in the coat of arms that was hung on the wall of the lounge of the house of the General Bascarán, and Sir Henry requested authorization from his friend to include in the coat of arms of Ontario the motto of the Spanish city because he thought that it was representing perfectly the feelings of the Ontarians.
PROVINCE OF ONTARIO
Once constituted as a province, Ontario proceeded to assert its economic and legislative power. In 1872, the lawyer Oliver Mowat became Premier of Ontario and remained as premier until 1896. He fought for provincial rights, weakening the power of the federal government in provincial matters, usually through well-argued appeals to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. His battles with the federal government greatly decentralized Canada, giving the provinces far more power than John A. Macdonald had intended. He consolidated and expanded Ontario’s educational and provincial institutions, created districts in Northern Ontario, and fought to ensure that those parts of Northwestern Ontario not historically part of Upper Canada (the vast areas north and west of the Lake Superior-Hudson Bay watershed, known as the District of Keewatin) would become part of Ontario, a victory embodied in the Canada (Ontario Boundary) Act, 1889. He also presided over the emergence of the province into the economic powerhouse of Canada. Mowat was the creator of what is often called Empire Ontario.
Beginning with Sir John A. Macdonald’s National Policy (1879) and the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway (1875–1885) through Northern Ontario and the Canadian Prairies to British Columbia, Ontario manufacturing and industry flourished. However, population increase slowed after a large recession hit the province in 1893, thus slowing growth drastically but only for a few short years. Many newly arrived immigrants and others moved west along the railway to the Prairie Provinces and British Columbia, sparsely settling Northern Ontario.
Mineral exploitation accelerated in the late 19th century, leading to the rise of important mining centres in the northeast like Sudbury, Cobalt and Timmins. The province harnessed its water power to generate hydro-electric power and created the state-controlled Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario, later Ontario Hydro. The availability of cheap electric power further facilitated the development of industry. The Ford Motor Company of Canada was established in 1904. General Motors Canada was formed in 1918. The motor vehicle industry would go on to become the most lucrative industry for the Ontario economy during the 20th century.
In July 1912, the Conservative government of Sir James Whitney issued Regulation 17 which severely limited the availability of French-language schooling to the province’s French-speaking minority. French Canadians reacted with outrage, journalist Henri Bourassa denouncing the “Prussians of Ontario”. It was eventually repealed in 1927.
Influenced by events in the United States, the government of Sir William Hearst introduced prohibition of alcoholic drinks in 1916 with the passing of the Ontario Temperance Act. However, residents could distil and retain their own personal supply, and liquor producers could continue distillation and export for sale, which allowed this already sizable industry to strengthen further. Ontario became a hotbed for the illegal smuggling of liquor and the biggest supplier into the United States, which was under complete prohibition. Prohibition in Ontario came to an end in 1927 with the establishment of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) under the government of Howard Ferguson. The sale and consumption of liquor, wine, and beer are still controlled by some of the most extreme laws in North America to ensure that strict community standards and revenue generation from the alcohol retail monopoly are upheld. In April 2007, Ontario Member of Provincial Parliament Kim Craitor suggested that local brewers should be able to sell their beer in local corner stores; however, the motion was quickly rejected by Premier Dalton McGuinty.
The post-World War II period was one of exceptional prosperity and growth. Ontario, and the Greater Toronto Area in particular, have been the recipients of most immigration to Canada, largely immigrants from war-torn Europe in the 1950s and 1960s and after changes in federal immigration law, a massive influx of non-Europeans since the 1970s. From a largely ethnically British province, Ontario has rapidly become very culturally diverse.
The nationalist movement in Quebec, particularly after the election of the Parti Québécois in 1976, contributed to driving many businesses and English-speaking people out of Quebec to Ontario, and as a result Toronto surpassed Montreal as the largest city and economic centre of Canada. Depressed economic conditions in the Maritime Provinces have also resulted in de-population of those provinces in the 20th century, with heavy migration into Ontario.
English is considered the de facto language. Numerous French language services are available under the French Language Services Act of 1990 in designated areas where sizable francophone populations exist.