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European Contact: 985-1600, European-Indigenous Relations

early traders, indigenous nations, great enthusiasm, fur trade, Missionaries

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.

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