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The name Canada originated from a Huron-Iroquoian word, Kanata meaning "village" or "settlement" or "collection of huts", referring to Stadacona, a settlement on the site of present-day Quebec City. Maps made by early European explorers show that the name River Canada was given to the Ottawa River, and the Saint Lawrence River below Montreal. A plausible hypothesis is that the river was named for the village on its banks, and the surrounding country for the river used to explore it.

Canada, which has been inhabited by aboriginal peoples, known in Canada as the First Nations, for at least 10,000 years, was first visited by Europeans around 1000, when the Vikings briefly settled at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. More permanent European visits came in the 16th and 17th century, as the French settled there.

In 1763, at the end of the Seven Years' War, France chose to keep its Caribbean Islands and to leave its North American colony, New France, to Britain.

After the American Revolution, many British Loyalists settled in Canada. On July 1, 1867, with the passing of the British North America Act, the British government granted local self-government to a federation of four provinces formed from three of its North American colonies, Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. The former Province (colony) of Canada formed two provinces of the new Dominion of Canada, being partitioned into Quebec and Ontario along the old boundary between Lower and Upper Canada. The term Confederation refers to this act of union and is often used for the resulting federation.
Other British colonies and territories soon joined Confederation: by 1880 Canada included all of its present area except for Newfoundland and Labrador (which joined in 1949). Full control over the Dominion's affairs officially came in 1931 with the Statute of Westminster, and in 1982 with the patriation of Canada's constitution.

In the second half of the 20th century, some citizens of the mainly French-speaking province of Quebec sought independence in two referendums held in 1980 and 1995. In both referendums, the separatist cause, led by the Parti Quebecois, was defeated with 60% and 50.6% opposed to independence, respectively.

Canada is the world's second-largest country in total area after Russia. However, it has an extremely low population density of 3 people per square kilometre as there are roughly 32 million Canadians, of whom 80% live within 200 kilometres of the American border. While Canada covers a larger geographic area than the neighbouring United States, it has only one-ninth of the population. As mentioned, Canada's vast and rich territory has led to a historical economic dependence on its natural resources.

Canada is divided into 10 provinces and 3 territories. The provinces have a reasonably large amount of autonomy from the federal government, while the territories have somewhat less.

The provinces are responsible for most of Canada's social programs (such as healthcare, education, and welfare) and together collect more revenue than the federal government, an almost unique structure among federations in the world. The federal government can initiate national policies that the provinces can opt out of, but at a risk of losing federal money. Transfer payments are made to ensure that reasonably uniform standards of services are kept between the richer and poorer provinces. Criminal law is one of the few areas that is strictly the responsibility of the federal government, and crime and punishment is uniform throughout most of Canada. The provinces and territories each have their own unicameral legislatures.