Why Canada is not part of the US (part 1)

My wonderful lover was trying to explain to his family why historically Canada did not become part of the US. (He is American and I am Canadian)

Here is the wonderful piece of work he came up with in two parts.

Why Isn’t Canada Part of the United States? 
A Primer for Americans
I receive this question relatively often, especially from my parents.  As both are immigrants from places far removed from the USA’s seventeenth-century history, neither has a clear grasp of why one part of North America colonized by England is one country, and the other part is another country.  It doesn’t help that history classes in the USA don’t do a very good job of explaining the actions of the various parts of British and French North America except as they pertain directly to the growing United States.  I certainly didn’t have a very clear idea of why Canada emerged as its own country (let alone the British islands in the Caribbean) before I began attending school in Canada and became curious about the matter.
It turns out, the story is fairly interesting, and goes back to the first of the various incidents that started the Thirteen American Colonies thinking of independence.

1712 Status Quo and the Treaty of Utrecht

In 1712, England’s holdings in North America consisted of the Thirteen Colonies, the North Atlantic islands of Bermuda, and the lion’s share of the islands in the Caribbean Sea, including Jamaica and the Bahamas.  They also succeeded in maintaining a sphere of influence in the Central American territory of Belize, despite Belize’s nominal allegiance to Spain.

Spain claimed a great deal of North America, including modern Mexico, Florida, the various nations of Central America, and what is now the western third of the United States, as well as the Caribbean territories of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic).  All of these colonies would develop their own colorful histories with the United States.

The rest of the Caribbean was a patchwork of claims by France (see below), the Netherlands, and Denmark, frequently changing hands.  Most of these are still dependent in some way on their parent countries, but many have achieved full or partial independence or joined with other nations, such as the US Virgin Islands.

France’s colonial holdings comprised a vast territory within central and eastern North America, divided into the following regions:

·       Louisiana: The vast majority of what is now the United States, including the entire Mississippi and Ohio River watersheds and most of the Gulf Coast, and extending as far west as what is now Montana.
·       Canada: Approximately half of the current country of Canada, extending as far west as what is now southern Alberta and including the land bordering most of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River.
·       Hudson Bay: The land surrounding Hudson Bay, as far north as Baffin Island.
·       Acadia: The land between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Bay of Fundy.
·       Newfoundland: A large island north of Acadia.
·       French West Indies: Various islands in the Lesser Antilles as well as Saint-Domingue (now Haïti). 

Also in 1713, the states of England, Scotland, and Wales united to become the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

France lost all of its North American holdings except Louisiana, the French West Indies, and two islands off the coast of Newfoundland to England as a consequence of its involvement in the War of Spanish Succession, which ended in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713.  Various portions of this acquisition began to develop into more distinct entities in the following years.

Britain sold the Hudson Bay territory to the Hudson Bay Company, a trade consortium specializing in the extraction of natural resources such as lumber and fur. It became known as Rupert’s Land. Rupert’s Land would eventually grow to encompass most of what is now Canada, serving as a default destination for future British claims in the north and west.

The French territory of Canada was heavily settled by the French prior to 1712, especially along the banks of the St. Lawrence River, and did not take well to British rule.

Newfoundland had few permanent residents in the 18th Century, as Great Britain found its interests in the area served with a largely transient population.  Newfoundland served as a way station between the Thirteen Colonies, the English Caribbean, and Great Britain, and became relatively wealthy from this trade.  Its links to the former French territory of Canada were tenuous at best.

Acadia saw a steady influx of English colonists, especially after the British renamed it Nova Scotia.  It soon became a sort of “14th American Colony,” especially since it was adjacent to the better-known 13.
In 1733, Russia established the colony of Russian North America in what is now Alaska.

The Seven Years’ War and the Quebec Act

England and France again came to blows in 1756, a conflict known in the United States as the French and Indian War and elsewhere as the Seven Years’ War.  As a consequence of this war, France was forced to cede Louisiana to Britain and Spain.  Britain kept the portion of Louisiana east of the Mississippi River, and Spain received the western portion.  Britain forbade the settlement of this new territory by pioneers from the Thirteen Colonies for complicated reasons, which the colonists regarded as a grave insult, since colonial militias were crucial in the war.

Britain was concerned that the Acadians still residing in Nova Scotia were not loyal to the British Crown, a concern the Acadians did little to alleviate.  They eventually forced most of the Acadians to relocate to the far less strategically important location of New Orleans, on pain of losing their language and culture, giving rise to the US state of Louisiana’s Cajun population and increasing the prevalence of pro-British sentiment in the colony.

In 1769, Prince Edward Island was organized as a separate colony from Nova Scotia.

In 1774, the British government passed the Quebec Act, creating the Province of Quebec out of much of the former French territories of Canada and Louisiana.  Within this province, the colonists, mostly Frenchmen living near the St. Lawrence River, could use French customary law alongside British law and could continue speaking French without reprisal.  The Quebec Act also asserted the primacy of the Catholic Church, rather than the Church of England, within the province.

The American Revolution

Revolutionary sentiment was not confined to the Thirteen Colonies in the years leading up to the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  However, the other British North American territories were far less enthusiastic about the prospect of forming a new nation with the rebellious colonies, for a variety of colorful reasons.

British West Indies

The numerous British-controlled islands in the Caribbean Sea had relatively small native-born populations, as most of their landowners had migrated directly from Britain and their Afro-Caribbean majorities remained enslaved.  Since the trade with Great Britain and Newfoundland would have been lost to them if they had rebelled, any attempt at secession would have instantly bankrupted the islands.  Many of them had also suffered through decades of relatively frequent shifts of control between European powers, and had little interest in instigating another war, especially since the British would have fought hard to keep them.  All of them remain associated with Great Britain as commonwealth nations or overseas territories to this day.

Rupert’s Land

Extremely sparsely populated and wholly owned by a Britain-based corporation, the Hudson Bay Territory had no reason to rebel, and did not.  It would eventually be purchased by Canada shortly after the country’s confederation.


The former Canadian territories of Canada and Louisiana had little love for Britain, but neither did they see much to gain from an alliance with the rebellious colonies.  The Quebec Act had assured that they would keep their culture, language, and religion and not be forced into British norms if they remained loyal to the British crown.  The Québécois people suspected that they might lose all three if they formally aligned with the culturally British, Protestant colonies.  In effect they did not break with Great Britain in 1775 because they did not wish to become more British. 

That being said, the American revolutionary forces made an attempt in November of 1775 to capture the major cities of Quebec, both to add them to the growing nation and to keep them from serving as staging grounds for British efforts.  Led by the famous generals Richard Montgomery and Benedict Arnold (pre-treason), this effort captured Montreal and a handful of smaller cities along the St. Lawrence River, ending in a siege at Quebec City, at the mouth of the river.  The American forces suffered a number of setbacks during the attack, but due to support from within and around the city, managed to hold it until the following spring.  The support that the American forces received in Quebec was not sufficient to prevent the British from retaking the city, or the rest of the American-held cities in the province, once the weather improved and reinforcements arrived.  The British Army expelled the American forces and many of their sympathizers and punished those who stayed behind, quieting any expressions of revolutionary sympathy that may have otherwise erupted later.

It is even more ironic, then, that by the time the principles that the new United States would strive to live by were articulated, during the Constitutional Conventions in 1787, that the Québécois people would almost certainly have found them ideal.  The United States established a tradition of letting each of its constituent states largely handle its own affairs, which would have permitted Quebec to maintain its distinctive character.  With the Bill of Rights a few years later, the United States officially declared that it would never impose any religion on its citizens, leaving them to make that choice for themselves, which would have permitted Quebec to retain its Catholicism, as well.  The United States has also never had an official language, despite the prevalence of English within its borders, and various communities within the United States today treat any number of languages as de facto “official” tongues alongside English, including Spanish, Haitian Creole, French, Chinese, and German.

Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island

Unlike the other British colonies that did not ultimately join the Thirteen Colonies to become the United States, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island were genuinely ambivalent about becoming part of the United States.  Those colonists that had been born in the area were often sympathetic to the revolutionary cause, especially since Britain’s tax policies hit them just as hard as they hit the lower thirteen.  However, the two colonies had seen a large influx of British and Scottish colonists who still regarded themselves as citizens of the United Kingdom.  The Thirteen Colonies, never to be outdone, attempted to bring down the pro-British colonial administration of Nova Scotia and galvanize the Patriot sympathizers within the region with an attack on a British fort deep in the colony.  Success would deny the British access to the strategically important port of Halifax and dramatically increase the potential fortunes of the incipient United States with the abundant natural resources of the two former French possessions.

The Battle of Fort Cumberland in late 1776 looked poised for success.  The fort was located in a portion of the colony where Patriot sympathy was high, which prevented the pro-British government from convincing the locals to keep the fort in good repair.  The militia team gathered strength as it moved from Maine to Nova Scotia, and even managed to capture two of the ships in the nearby harbor and keep word of the attack from leaving the area.  The Patriot leader tipped his hand by sending a letter to the fort garrison requesting its surrender, which prompted the garrison leader to send another messenger, which the Patriot forces could not stop.  Thanks to the garrison leader’s tactical acumen, the Patriot forces could not take the fort before trust in the strike leader’s ability crumbled, reinforcements arrived from elsewhere in Nova Scotia, and his forces were scattered.

As in Quebec the year before, the pro-British administration captured and punished revolutionary sympathizers.  Many chose to leave the colony, solidifying Britain’s hold and swelling the Patriot forces further south.


Due to its small, largely transient population, Newfoundland had little revolutionary sympathy.  The colonists grew to regard the island both as a threat and as a means to attack Great Britain’s economic interests.

In 1775, Great Britain issued the Restraining Act, among whose provisions were a dramatic restriction of trade with Britain and loss of access to Newfoundland’s abundant fishing banks.  The Thirteen Colonies responded in kind, cutting Newfoundland off from access to their trade.  Newfoundland suddenly found itself without access to all manner of colonial goods, including food, which it was not equipped to produce for itself.  The Newfoundlanders attempted to solve the crisis with goods from Great Britain, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and other British holds, but found that none of these avenues could make up the difference in time.  They fled in droves, mostly back to Britain, but some remained and began farming.

Historians differ on the exact reasons for Newfoundland’s continued loyalty to Great Britain.  Certainly, being threatened with starvation by the revolutionaries did not help, but the Newfoundlanders largely solved that problem without Britain.  The high Irish-descended population of the island should have driven them to take the opportunity to break with Britain, if anything.  More likely, the fact that Newfoundland’s administration was largely handled from Great Britain, rather than through a local assembly, prevented any local authority from becoming the focus of anti-British sentiment or from organizing the locals into a revolutionary militia.

Perhaps more importantly, the war created a situation where Newfoundlanders could profit immensely from remaining aligned with Great Britain.  Newfoundland’s access to the Grand Banks fishery and the sugar colonies of the Caribbean, which were forbidden to the rebelling colonists, made the Newfoundlanders disproportionately wealthy.  This wealth would become stressed in 1778 when American privateers and Spanish naval vessels began targeting the supply ships leaving Newfoundland for Europe and the Caribbean.  Their efforts were so successful that Newfoundland’s local economy grew to largely replace the riches they gained from outside, inculcating in the people of Newfoundland a unique identity of their own, distinct from American and British alike.


A peculiar group of islands, Bermuda is most famous for being the northern- and easternmost corner of the Bermuda Triangle, and for convincing numerous amateur geographers that it’s in the Caribbean.  Its central location made it an ideal port for vessels transporting salt from the Turks and Caicos islands and fish from Newfoundland, giving it wealth disproportionate to its size.  Unlike the similarly situated Newfoundland, Bermuda was established by the same company that established the Virginia colony and had numerous familial and business ties with the Thirteen Colonies.  Those ties might have made Bermuda join the Thirteen Colonies in rebellion, but Bermuda’s position in the Atlantic Ocean left it subject to a total naval blockade by the British.  Severed from the previously lucrative colonial trade, Bermuda became a base for privateers attacking American shipping and for trade with the Caribbean colonies.  By the time relations between Britain and the United States normalized, the economies and cultures of the new nation and the island colony had diverged too far for a union to remain a political possibility.


  1. Have you seen the HBO series 'John Adams'? If it was any other time other than four in the morning then I would have probably started watching it all over again. But, for now I guess I would have to listen to just its opening titles and be happy with that. lol


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