The first documented football match was a practice game played on November 9, 1861, at University College, University of Toronto (approximately 400 yards or 370 metres west of Queen's Park). One of the participants in the game involving University of Toronto students was Sir William Mulock, later chancellor of the school. A football club was formed at the university soon afterward, although its rules of play at this stage are unclear.
The first written account of a game played was on October 15, 1862, on the Montreal Cricket Grounds. It was between the First Battalion Grenadier Guards and the Second Battalion Scots Fusilier Guards resulting in a win by the Grenadier Guards 3 goals, 2 rouges to nothing. In 1864, at Trinity College, Toronto, F. Barlow Cumberland, Frederick A. Bethune, and Christopher Gwynn, one of the founders of Milton, Massachusetts, devised rules based on . The game gradually gained a following, with the Hamilton Football Club formed on November 3, 1869. Montreal formed a team April 8, 1872. Toronto was formed on October 4, 1873, and the Ottawa FBC on September 20, 1876. (Of those clubs, only the Toronto club is still in continuous operation today.)
This rugby-football soon became popular at Montreal's McGill University. McGill challenged Harvard University to a game, in 1874 using a hybrid game of English rugby devised by the University of McGill.
The first attempt to establish a proper governing body and adopted the current set of Rugby rules was the Foot Ball Association of Canada, organized on March 24, 1873, followed by the Canadian Rugby Football Union (CRFU) founded June 12, 1880, which included teams from Ontario and Quebec. Later both the Ontario and Quebec Rugby Football Union (ORFU and QRFU) were formed (January 1883), and then the Interprovincial (1907) and Western Interprovincial Football Union (1936) (IRFU and WIFU). The CRFU reorganized into an umbrella organization forming the Canadian Rugby Union (CRU) in 1891. The immediate forerunner to the current Canadian Football League was established in 1956 when the IRFU and WIFU formed an umbrella organization, the Canadian Football Council (CFC). In 1958 the CFC left the CRU to become the CFL.
The Burnside rules closely resembling American football (which are similar rules developed by Walter Camp for that sport) that were incorporated in 1903 by the ORFU, was an effort to distinguish it from a more rugby-oriented game. The Burnside Rules had teams reduced to 12 men per side, introduced the snap-back system, required the offensive team to gain 10 yards on three downs, eliminated the throw-in from the sidelines, allowed only six men on the line, stated that all goals by kicking were to be worth two points and the opposition was to line up 10 yards from the defenders on all kicks. The rules were an attempt to standardize the rules throughout the country. The CIRFU, QRFU and CRU refused to adopt the new rules at first. Forward passes were not allowed in the Canadian game until 1929, and touchdowns, which had been five points, were increased to six points in 1956, in both cases several decades after the Americans had adopted the same changes. The primary differences between the Canadian and American games stem from rule changes that the American side of the border adopted but the Canadian side did not (originally, both sides had three downs, goal posts on the goal lines and unlimited forward motion, but the American side modified these rules and the Canadians did not). The Canadian field width was one rule that was not based on American rules, as the Canadian game was played in wider fields and stadiums that were not as narrow as the American stadiums.
The Grey Cup was established in 1909 after being donated by Albert Grey, 4th Earl Grey, Governor General of Canada, as the championship of teams under the CRU for the Rugby Football Championship of Canada. Initially an amateur competition, it eventually became dominated by professional teams in the 1940s and early 1950s. The , the last amateur organization to compete for the trophy, withdrew from competition after the 1954 season. The move ushered in the modern era of Canadian professional football, culminating in the formation of the present-day in 1958.
Canadian football has mostly been confined to Canada, with the United States being the only other country to have hosted high-level Canadian football games. The CFL's controversial "" as it would come to be officially known attempted to put CFL teams in the United States playing under Canadian rules between 1992 and 1995. The move was aborted after three years; the Baltimore Stallions were the most successful of the numerous Americans teams to play in the CFL, winning the 83rd Grey Cup. Continuing financial losses, a lack of proper Canadian football venues, a pervasive belief that the American teams were simply pawns to provide the struggling Canadian teams with expansion fee revenue, and the return of the NFL to Baltimore prompted the end of Canadian football on the American side of the border.
The CFL hosted the Touchdown Atlantic regular season game at Nova Scotia in 2005 and New Brunswick in 2010, 2011 and 2013. In 2013, Newfoundland and Labrador became the last province to establish football at the minor league level, with teams playing on the Avalon Peninsula and in Labrador City. The province however has yet to host a college or CFL game. Prince Edward Island, the smallest of the provinces, has also never hosted a CFL game.