At the time of European contact Canada had been inhabited for more than 4 000 years. The Native population stood at about 300 000, with the largest concentrations in the lower Great Lakes area and on the West Coast (Native Population and Subsistence, 17th Century). The population was culturally very diverse, and the variety of languages spoken was far greater than in Europe.
Permanent contact with Europeans, starting with itinerant fishermen and whalers, began early in the 16th century. During the 1580s fur trading became a profitable undertaking on the East Coast, and it expanded rapidly, early in the 17th century, up the St Lawrence River valley. Fur trading demanded permanent posts, and these attracted settlers and missionaries. In order to explore, to settle, and to exploit resources in safety, the French were obliged to join existing Native alliance systems that stretched from the Montagnais at Tadoussac to the Huron near Georgian Bay. These allies were pitted against the Iroquois League, which eventually forged an alliance with the Dutch and later the English.
The uneven introduction of muskets to Native allies upset the balances of power that had prevailed among them before European contact. At first this new technology was used by the Native people to settle old conflicts, but gradually the European powers armed their Native allies and used them to promote imperial ambitions. Trade, missionary efforts, increasingly devastating warfare, and the gradual depletion of fur and game animals all placed Native cultures under severe stress. But nothing had the cataclysmic impact on the Native population of the epidemic diseases spread unwittingly by the Europeans. Beginning in 1634 (or perhaps earlier), wave after wave of smallpox, measles, influenza, and other diseases swept through the Native populations. Lacking biological resistance, most perished. By the 1820s Canada's Native population had been reduced to about 175,000 (Native Canada, ca 1820) and in 1900 it was down to 99,000. The depletion of game accelerated with the spread of the fur trade and European settlement, resulting in Native migration and, often, starvation. Added to these disasters was the growing incidence of Native land being transferred to Europeans.
Over thousands of years Native societies everywhere had thoroughly integrated their ways of life with their natural environments. Although they had survived the intolerance of Europeans and had tried to withstand their persistent efforts to remake them into Europeans, Native societies began to disintegrate after they were confined to reserves and their relationship with the land was severed. Evidence of decline was apparent in Eastern Canada by the early 19th century, and within 100 years conditions had worsened and spread across most of the country.