Everything you wanted to know about Canada!

Canada, a federated country in North America, made up of ten provinces and two (soon to be three) territories. Canada is a vast nation with a wide variety of geological formations, climates, and ecological systems. It has rain forest, prairie grassland, deciduous forest, tundra, and wetlands. Canada has more lakes and inland waters than any other country. It is renowned for its scenery, which attracts millions of tourists each year. On a per-capita basis, its resource endowments are the second richest in the world after Australia.

Canada is the second largest country in the world but has about the same population as the state of California, which is one-25th its size. This is because the north of Canada, with its harsh Arctic and sub-Arctic climates, is sparsely inhabited. Most Canadians live in the southern part of the country. More than three-quarters of them live in metropolitan areas, the largest of which are Toronto, Montréal, Vancouver, Ottawa-Hull, and Edmonton. French and English are the official languages, and at one time most Canadians were of French or English descent. However, diversity increased with a wave of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that brought in people from many other European nations. This trend continues on the eve of the 21st century:

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Canada is one of the few countries in the world that still have significant immigration programs. Since the 1970s most immigrants have come from Asia, increasing still further the diversity of the population. (See Canada: People.)

Canada’s prosperity and diversity have encouraged a variety of artistic pursuits. Most major cities have symphony orchestras, opera companies, classical and modern dance groups, and live theater. Canadian popular musicians have built highly successful careers both in Canada and in the world at large. Canadian writers have also gained worldwide recognition, as have painters, sculptors, film makers, and architects. To nurture Canadian arts, the government has imposed quotas on foreign content in Canadian media.

Canada has impressive reserves of timber, minerals, and fresh water, and many of its industries are based on these resources. Many of its rivers have been harnessed for hydroelectric power, and it is self-sufficient in fossil fuel. Industrialization began in the 19th century and a significant manufacturing sector emerged, especially after World War II (1939-1945). Canada’s resource and manufacturing industries export about one-third of their output. Transportation equipment is the leading manufacturing industry. While Canada’s prosperity is built on the resource and manufacturing industries, most Canadians work in service occupations, including transportation, trade, finance, personal services, and government. (See Canada: Economy.)

Canada is a parliamentary democracy, and the federal, provincial, and territorial legislatures are all elected. However, Canada’s sovereign is a monarch, the queen of England, who is also the monarch of Great Britain. The queen is represented in Canada by the governor-general and ten lieutenant governors. Canada’s constitution guarantees equality under the law to all of its citizens. Powers of the federal and provincial governments are spelled out separately under the constitution, but over the past 50 years they have increasingly cooperated in programs that provide a wide range of social services—often called the “welfare state”—to the public. (See Canada: Government.)

Canada’s indigenous peoples (original inhabitants) are often called First Nations or, incorrectly, Indians. The name Canada comes from a word meaning “village” or “community” in one of the indigenous Iroquoian languages. Indigenous peoples had developed complex societies and intricate political relations before the first Europeans, the Vikings, arrived in the 11th century. The Vikings soon left, but more Europeans came in the 16th century and were made welcome because they brought manufactured goods and traded them for furs and other native products. However, the Europeans settled down and gradually displaced the indigenous peoples over the next 250 years. This process of dispossession has left a legacy of legal and moral issues that Canadians are beginning to face. (See Canada: History.)

European settlers came in a series of waves. First were the French, followed by the English, and these two groups are considered the founding nations. France lost its part of the territory to Great Britain in a war in 1760, but most of the French-speaking colonists remained. Their effort to preserve their language and culture has been a continuing theme of Canadian history and has led in recent years to a movement to become independent of the rest of Canada.

Modern Canada was formed in an event that Canadians call Confederation, in 1867, when three colonies of Great Britain merged to create a partially independent state of four provinces. Since then, six more provinces and two territories have been added, with a third territory scheduled to come into existence in 1999. Canada achieved full independence in 1931 but continues to belong to the Commonwealth of Nations, a voluntary association of countries with ties to Great Britain.

Land and Resources

Canada’s physical characteristics have very much influenced the course of its development. It is a very large country (only Russia is larger) composed of several distinct regions that are often separated from each other by natural barriers. Canada has an abundance of natural resources, such as forests, minerals, fish, and hydroelectric power. These resources have encouraged Canadians to focus their economic development on the export of raw materials. Conservation of these resources has become a national priority.

Canada is a country of difficult terrain; much of its area is under water or is rocky, marshy, mountainous, or otherwise uninhabitable. Settlement has therefore been concentrated in the areas that are more level and have the better soils. The northern climate, with its long winters, has encouraged the population to settle in the south, where agricultural and living conditions are most favorable. The vast majority of Canadians live within 320 km (200 mi) of the American border.


Canada occupies nearly all of North America north of latitude 49° north and east of longitude 141° west. It has an area of 9,970,610 sq km (3,849,674 sq mi), of which 7.6 percent or 755,180 sq km (291,577 sq mi) is covered by fresh water such as rivers and lakes, including part of the Great Lakes. It is bounded on the north by the Arctic Ocean; on the northeast by Baffin Bay and Davis Strait, which separate it from Greenland; on the east by the Atlantic Ocean; on the south by the United States; and on the west by the Pacific Ocean and Alaska. Cape Columbia, a promontory of Ellesmere Island, is the country’s northernmost point; the southernmost point, 4600 km (2900 mi) away, is Middle Island in Lake Erie. The easternmost and westernmost limits, which are separated by 5500 km (3400 mi), are respectively Cape Spear, Newfoundland, and the greater part of the border with Alaska.

Long distances and a challenging physical environment make transportation and communication across the country very difficult. This reality has made it a challenge for Canadians to maintain a sense of nationhood.

Natural Regions

Six general landform regions are distinguishable in Canada: the Appalachian, Great Lakes-Saint Lawrence, Canadian Shield, Interior Plains, Cordillera, and Arctic Archipelago.

Appalachian and Great Lakes-Saint Lawrence Regions

Eastern Canada consists of the Appalachian region and the Great Lakes-Saint Lawrence lowlands. The Appalachian region embraces Newfoundland Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and the Gaspé Peninsula of Québec. This region is an extension of the Appalachian mountain system (continuations of the Green Mountains of Vermont and the White Mountains of New Hampshire) and of the Atlantic Coastal Plain.

The Great Lakes-Saint Lawrence region is a generally level plain that includes southern Québec and Ontario. This region has the largest expanse of good farmland in eastern and central Canada. The Great Lakes-Saint Lawrence region also contains the so-called manufacturing heartland of Canada, along the corridor from Windsor, Ontario, to Québec City. Ontario and Québec provinces together account for 77 percent of Canada’s employment and value added in manufacturing.

Canadian Shield

Also called the Laurentian Plateau or just the Shield, this is the largest region, extending from Labrador to Great Bear Lake, from the Arctic Ocean to the Thousand Islands in the Saint Lawrence River, and into the United States west of Lake Superior and in northern New York. This region of ancient granite rock is sparsely covered with soil and deeply eroded by glacial action. It includes all of Labrador (the easternmost part of the mainland), most of Québec, northern Ontario, Manitoba, and most of the Northwest Territories, with Hudson Bay in the center.

Interior Plains

Bordering the Canadian Shield on the west is the Interior Plains, an extension of the Great Plains of the United States. About 1300 km (about 800 mi) wide at the U.S. border, it narrows to about one-quarter of that size west of Great Bear Lake and widens again to about 500 km (about 300 mi) at the mouth of the Mackenzie River on the Arctic Ocean coast. Within the Interior Plains are the northeastern corner of British Columbia province, most of Alberta, the southern half of Saskatchewan, and the southern one-third of Manitoba. This region has the most fertile soil in Canada.


Canada’s westernmost region, the Cordillera, embraces the mountains west of the Interior Plains. The region belongs to the vast mountain system extending from the southernmost extremity of South America to westernmost Alaska. In Canada, the Cordillera has an average width of about 800 km (about 500 mi). It includes part of western Alberta, much of British Columbia, the Inuvik Region and part of the Fort Smith Region of Northwest Territories, and practically all of Yukon Territory.

The eastern portion of the Cordillera in Canada consists of the Rocky Mountains and related ranges, including the Mackenzie, Franklin, and Richardson mountains. Mount Robson at 3954 m (12,972 ft) is the highest summit of the Canadian Rockies, and ten other peaks reach elevations of more than 3500 m (11,500 ft). To the west of the Canadian Rockies are numerous isolated ranges, notably the Cariboo, Stikine, and Selkirk mountains, and a vast plateau region. Deep river valleys and extensive tracts of arable land are the chief features of the plateau region, particularly in British Columbia.

Flanking this central belt on the west and generally parallel to the Pacific Ocean is another great mountain system. This system includes the Coast Mountains, which are an extension into British Columbia of the Cascade Range of the United States, and various coastal ranges. The highest of these, the Saint Elias Mountains, are on the boundary between Yukon Territory and Alaska. Among noteworthy peaks of the western Cordillera in Canada is Mount Logan, which at 5959 m (19,551 ft) is the highest point in Canada and second highest mountain in North America. Others are Mount Saint Elias at 5489 m (18,008 ft), Mount Lucania at 5226 m (17,147 ft), and King Peak at 5173 m (16,971 ft). All are in the Saint Elias Mountains.

Arctic Archipelago

The Arctic Archipelago is a collection of islands north of Hudson Bay and between the Beaufort Sea and Davis Strait. All but the southern tip of Baffin Island are above the Arctic Circle. The archipelago is a complex region including mountains, uplands, plateaus, and lowlands. There are three main subareas: the Innuitian region, the Shield territories, and the Arctic lowlands.

The Innuitian region, in the far north, consists of the Queen Elizabeth Islands. The northernmost of these, Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg islands, are almost entirely mountainous and glacier covered. The Sverdrup Islands to the southwest are lowlands, forming a basin between the Queen Elizabeths and the plateaus of the Parry Islands.

The second major part of the archipelago is an extension of the Canadian Shield and includes most of Baffin Island, Devon Island, part of Somerset Island, and the southeast tip of Ellesmere. This is mainly granite bedrock that has been uplifted and folded into mountains.

The Arctic lowlands make up most of the remainder of the archipelago. These lowlands extend from the Arctic coastal plain in the far west through the interior lowlands of Banks Island. They include most of Victoria Island, Prince of Wales Island, and King William Island.

The archipelago has a cold, dry Arctic climate. Much of the region is covered by glaciers or polar deserts composed of gravel and other unconsolidated material. The sparse vegetation is mainly lichens and mosses.


The Canadian Shield, which occupies the eastern half of Canada’s landmass, is an ancient craton (stable continental platform). It is made of rocks that formed billions of years ago during the Precambrian Era of Earth history and includes granites, gneisses, and schists 2 to 4 billion years old. It became the nucleus of the North American crustal plate when Earth’s crust first experienced the tectonic forces that drive continental drift. (See Plate Tectonics.)

In the Paleozoic era (about 570-240 million years ago), large parts of Canada were covered by shallow seas. Sediments deposited in these seas formed the sandstone, shale, and limestone that now surround the Shield. During the Cambrian and Silurian periods of the Paleozoic Era, layers of rocks were formed that appear as outcroppings in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland, along the Saint Lawrence valley, and on the shores of Lake Ontario. Flat beds of Paleozoic and younger rocks extend westward across the Interior Plains through the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. The rocks in these areas contain valuable deposits of oil and gas. In the Cordillera, the rocks were subjected to tectonic forces generated by the collision of the North American plate with the Pacific plate. In the ensuing upheavals, which began during the Cretaceous Period (about 138-65 million years ago), mountain ranges rose throughout the Cordillera. The easternmost of these ranges, the Rocky Mountains, run from Canada south through Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. They were built by uplifting and folding of sedimentary rocks and, to a lesser degree, by volcanic activity. The strata composing them range in age from the Paleozoic Era to the Tertiary Period (about 65-1.6 million years ago) and contain valuable deposits of metals as well as fossil fuels.

During the Pleistocene Epoch (about 1.6 million to 10,000 years ago), nearly all of Canada was covered by vast ice sheets that extended into the northern United States. As these ice sheets moved, they profoundly modified Canada’s landscapes, creating many thousands of lakes and extensive deposits of sand, clay, and gravel. (See also Ice Ages.)


Canada’s largest area of high-quality farmland is a formation of rich dark brown and black prairie, or grassland, soils that run from southern Manitoba west across Saskatchewan and into Alberta. The gray-brown soil of the Saint Lawrence valley and the Great Lakes is also good farmland. Only about 5 percent of Canada’s land is suitable for raising crops, however; the remainder is too mountainous, rocky, wet, or infertile.

Large areas of Canada are covered by boggy peat that is characteristic of the tundra and adjoining forest areas. This land is generally infertile and frequently mossy. In the Arctic regions, most of the soil is classified as permafrost, meaning that at least 80 percent of the ground is permanently frozen. The freeze-thaw action that occurs in the more southern parts of the permafrost zone frequently causes so-called patterned ground features, such as polygonal rings of stones, ice wedges, and pingos (ice domes).

Rivers and Lakes

Canada contains more lakes and inland waters than any other country in the world. In addition to the Great Lakes on the American border (all partly within Canada except Lake Michigan), the country has 31 lakes or reservoirs of about 1300 sq km (about 500 sq mi) in area. Canada’s two largest lakes are Lakes Superior and Huron, at 82,100 sq km (31,700 sq mi) and 59,600 sq km (23,000 sq mi) respectively. About one-third of Lake Superior is in Canada, and about three-fifths of Lake Huron. The largest lakes wholly within Canada are Great Bear, at 31,328 sq km (12,096 sq mi), and Great Slave, at 28,568 sq km (11,030 sq mi), both in the Northwest Territories. Each of these immense lakes is larger than either Lake Erie or Lake Ontario. Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, at 24,387 sq km (9416 sq mi), also compares in size with Lake Erie and is much larger than Lake Ontario. Other very large bodies of freshwater are Lake Athabaska and Reindeer Lake in Saskatchewan and the Smallwood Reservoir in Newfoundland. Also significant in size are Nettilling Lake on Baffin Island, Lakes Winnipegosis and Manitoba in Manitoba, Lake Nipigon and Lake of the Woods in Ontario, and Lake Melville in Newfoundland.

Canada’s two greatest rivers are the Saint Lawrence, draining the Great Lakes and emptying into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, and the Mackenzie, which empties into the Arctic Ocean and drains a large part of northwestern Canada. While the Saint Lawrence is the largest river in Canada in volume of water discharged at its mouth, the Mackenzie is the longest. Through its tributary, the Peace River, and tracing to its source in the Finlay River of British Columbia, the Mackenzie is 4241 km (2635 mi) long and is one of the longest rivers in the world. The Saint Lawrence and the Mackenzie are the second and third largest rivers by volume of discharge, respectively, in North America. Other large Canadian rivers in terms of both length and discharge are the Yukon, flowing from Yukon Territory across Alaska into the Bering Sea; the Nelson-Saskatchewan system, flowing across the Interior Plains into Hudson Bay; the Churchill, also flowing into Hudson Bay; and the Fraser and the Columbia in British Columbia. Other significant regional rivers are the St. John, emptying into the Bay of Fundy between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick; the Churchill, in Newfoundland; and the many rivers flowing into the Saint Lawrence from the Shield, including the Ottawa, the Saguenay, and the Saint-Maurice. All these rivers are navigable for at least some of their length, but only the Saint Lawrence and Mackenzie are used for commercial navigation.

In general, all rivers and lakes in Canada have value as sources of water for agricultural, industrial, urban, and recreational uses; but some have more specific commercial uses. The Saint Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes together form an important transportation network for eastern Canada, allowing oceangoing vessels to travel deep into the heartland. The Great Lakes are used to transport bulk materials, such as grain and iron ore, and have been important for the industrial development of the Saint Lawrence-Great Lakes region. Many of the rivers emptying into the Saint Lawrence are also important producers of hydroelectric power. In contrast, the rivers of the Arctic drainage basin have little commercial importance. Although the Mackenzie is navigable for most of its length and has been used for transportation, its isolation limits its usefulness. The rivers draining into Hudson Bay are important primarily as power sources, particularly the Nelson in northern Manitoba and the La Grande in northern Québec. The fast-flowing rivers draining into the Pacific, such as the Fraser, are particularly suitable for power generation. They are also crucial for the salmon fishing industry, but these two uses are not compatible. For this reason, hydroelectric development has been prohibited on the Fraser.


The coast of the Canadian mainland, about 58,500 km (about 36,350 mi) in length, is extremely broken and irregular, with alternating large bays and peninsulas. Canada also has numerous coastal islands, with a total island coastline of about 185,290 km (about 115,130 mi). Off the eastern coast the largest islands are Newfoundland, Cape Breton, Prince Edward, and Anticosti. Off the western coast, which is fringed with fjords, are Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Islands. Hudson Bay contains Southampton Island and many smaller islands. The Arctic Archipelago contains many large and small islands, the largest of which are Baffin, Ellesmere, and Victoria.

The importance of the coastline lies in the access it provides to marine resources. Canada has jurisdiction over resources in the oceans that are within 200 nautical miles (230 mi/370 km) of its shores. It has exclusive rights to the resources within that zone, including fisheries and oil deposits. The most important oil sources at present are the Hibernia Oilfields off Newfoundland and the Sable Island reserves off Nova Scotia. The coastline is also important because it provides many natural harbors that have been developed into ports. Ocean ports handle much of Canada’s international trade and provide a significant portion of local and regional coastal economies. Of course, the commercial value of the coastline varies with location; the southern coasts and their ports, such as Vancouver and Victoria in the west and Halifax in the east, are much more important than similar locations in the north, which are icebound much of the year. Finally, coastlines in Canada are very scenic and attract visitors from around the world.