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Canada's first human inhabitants crossed the Bering Strait land-bridge during the last Ice Age, sometime between 50,000-17,000 years ago. Around 16,000 years ago, the retreating glaciers allowed people to move south and east into what is now Canada, and by the time of European settlement, Canada's native peoples had spread across the continent, developing distinct regional cultural, economic, and language systems.
European history in Canada began in 1497, when Italian explorer John Cabot, traveling in service to King Henry VII of England, reached Newfoundland or Nova Scotia. Canada's land was claimed by France in 1534 by Jacques Cartier, who became the first European to explore the St. Lawrence River. Following its first disastrous attempts at colonization, during which many colonists perished in Canada's harsh winters, France abandoned Canadian settlement for 60 years.
The growing popularity of fur brought back by North American traders caused France to try their hand at settling Canada again. In 1608, geographer and explorer Samuel de Champlain founded what became the first permanent French settlement, later the city of Quebec and capital of New France. French colonists continued to struggle throughout the 17th century, while French explorers penetrated beyond the Great Lakes to the western prairies and south along the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.
Meanwhile, the British had laid their claim to in Canadian territory when they established the Hudson's Bay Company in 1680. Because of the valuable fisheries and fur trade, a conflict developed between the French and English with the Iroquois nation siding with the English, thus giving the French and Indian Wars their name.
Over the course of the four French and Indian wars waged between 1689 and 1763, England gained control over all of France's holdings in Canada. The country's borders were established post-Revolutionary War and scuffled over during the War of 1812. After the American victories in those wars, many British loyalists moved into Nova Scotia and Southwestern Quebec.
Meanwhile, British explorers like George Vancouver and Alexander MacKenzie mapped the Canadian Northwest near the turn of the 19th century. The Colony of Vancouver Island was chartered in 1849, with the trading post at Fort Victoria as the capital.
In 1867, the eastern and western Canadian colonies became a united federation known as the Dominion of Canada, to indicate Canada's status as a self-governing colony of the British Empire. In 1905, Saskatchewan and Alberta were admitted as provinces, each rapidly growing thanks to abundant wheat crops. In 1931, the Statute of Westminster gave Canada almost complete independence from the U.K. Parliament, leading it to be referred to as Canada's declaration of independence.
Canada participated in World War II with the Allies and became officially independent of Great Britain in 1982. Today the country is known for its progressive health care and social policies.