Did France Claim Canada Upon 'Discovery'?

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date


Source Publication

J.M. Bumsted (ed.), Interpreting Canada's Past. Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press, 1986.


International law; Acquisition of territory; Status of Indigenous peoples; History of Canada; French claims in North America; Doctrine of discovery; Indigenous sovereignty; Legal history; History of international law; European imperialism


Historians usually trace the origins of Canada to the initial explorations of England and France, with emphasis upon the French voyages of the early sixteenth century involving Verrazzano, Cartier, and Roberval. France, it is said, officially asserted territorial rights in North America at this era, based upon the discoveries and acts of taking possession of its emissaries, and that these claims were sustained, if in a somewhat desultory manner, until the successful colonizing efforts of the following century. The French crown is thought to have treated North America as unowned land open to appropriation, territorium nullius, rejecting the claims of Iberian aspirants and Indigenous occupants alike. This allowed scope for its own pretensions, backed as they were by a minimal display of actual authority. In fact, the evidence available to us - and it is far from complete - suggests a more complex and equivocal picture. While France was undoubtedly ready to dispute Iberian claims in the New World, there is remarkably little to show that it asserted exclusive rights of its own to the regions explored by its agents up to 1560. It is far from clear that the French crown in this era maintained that vast American territories might be won by the flourish of a standard, the planting of a cross, or the founding of small coastal settlements. Indeed, its stance vis-a-vis Spain and Portugal involved a repudiation of such notions. Nor do we encounter much evidence that France viewed America as, juridically, a desert land. Rather, it seemed prepared to recognize the fact that large areas were controlled by Indigenous groups. This is not necessarily to say that it was more disposed than other European states to respect the rights of these communities, for we see signs of its willingness to contemplate their subjugation. But it candidly viewed the process as one of conquest, not pretending that it was dealing with a juridical vacuum. This suited France's own ends, for in challenging the assertions of Spain and Portugal it could point to the factual independence of Indigenous groups in areas which these states claimed. If these views are correct, they necessitate a reassessment of the significance of France's early efforts in North America. They also throw into doubt the general picture often painted of the official attitudes of European states to the New World at this period.

This document is currently not available here.

Catalogue Record

Click here to access the catalogue record for this item.