When the glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age, about 25,000 B.C., Indians and Eskimos (Inuit) gradually made their way across the land bridge that once connected Asia and North America (where the Bering Strait now separates the Soviet Union from Alaska).
Europeans did not voyage to the North American continent until the 11th century A.D. About the year 1000 the Viking, Leif Ericson, came across the Atlantic Ocean and probably landed at L' Anse aux Meadows in what is now northern Newfoundland. Another 500 years passed before any permanent European settlements were made in Canada.
In 1497, Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot), an Italian explorer, set out in an English ship, the Matthew, to find a western route to Asia. Instead he discovered a "New Found Land," teeming with fish. Cabot had stumbled on the great cod fisheries of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland.
Throughout the 1500's, fishermen from England, France, Spain, and Portugal ventured in ever-growing numbers to fish in Newfoundland's waters. The French and English set up permanent bases on shore. They salted and dried the cod so it would not spoil on the voyage to Europe. French fishing stations spread out toward the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The English tended to remain in eastern Newfoundland. Sir Humphrey Gilbert, an English explorer, formally claimed that territory for England in 1583.
Trading with the local Indians developed at the fishing stations. In exchange for pots, axes, knives, and other implements, the natives offered various furs, particularly beaver pelts. Soon shiploads of beaver skins were bound for Europe. As the fur trade developed in the New World, it spread westward, eventually reaching both the Arctic and the Pacific coasts.
(Grolier New Book of Knowledge Encyclopedia)