Canada is defined by its geography


As the second largest country in the world, larger than all of Europe, Canada’s geographical statistics are truly impressive. Canadian territory is immense, spanning six time zones, stretching 5,500 km from west to east and 4,600 km from north to south and encompassing over 9,000,000 square kms of land, and a further million square kms of surrounding waters. At 244,000 km, its coastline is the longest of any nation, touching three oceans. The landscape consists of seemingly endless mountains, prairie, forest and Arctic tundra.

A Canadian prime minister once lamented that Canada had too much geography – over the years, more than a few Canadians have agreed – but along with her people, that geography remains Canada’s greatest resource.

Nowhere is that more obvious when considering the country’s riches of fresh water. Two million lakes and giant glaciers hold seven per cent of the world’s total fresh water resource. But this apparent abundance is misleading. Nearly two-thirds of this fresh water drains into the Arctic Ocean, far from population centres or areas of economic development. Water shortages in southern Canada, for both human and industrial uses, are growing more critical by the year, and much of the fresh water is polluted. Meanwhile, losses of environmentally critical wetlands continue.

Geography has also left the country rich in other resources. The Pre-Cambrian Shield, among the oldest rocks on earth, is a treasure trove of mineral wealth, from gold and silver to iron, nickel and uranium, while huge boreal and temperate forests sustain another industry. Largely in the form of tar sands, northern Alberta contains among the largest petroleum reserves in the world, though their extraction is environmentally costly. Canada’s hydro-electric potential is almost as vast.

Although agriculture is a major industry, only eight per cent of Canada’s land is suitable for farming or grazing. The cereal-producing great plains of southern Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are by far the largest farmed area, but the richest farm land is found in British Columbia and southern Ontario and has suffered from urban sprawl. A once abundant fishery on both coasts has been imperiled by overuse and the impact of climate change.

If geography has dictated economic development and settlement, it has just as fundamentally shaped Canada’s history. The sheer size of the country imposed enormous obstacles to exploration, settlement and economic development, and shaped Canada’s distinct regions every bit as much as economic, political, and social forces did. It was control of the few river routes linking east to west during the fur trade period of the 1700s and 1800s that in large measure accounted for Canada remaining British rather than becoming American.

Climate and geography have been partners. The Canadian climate varies from temperate in the south to Arctic in the far north. But, for newcomers, Canada all too often seems to be “10 months of winter and two months of hard sledding,” and indeed, every part of the country, except the West Coast, endures severe cold for at least several months of the year. Surviving winter with a minimum of complaint is a badge of honour, and snow-shoveling is a skill mastered by all.

Ottawa, the nation’s capital, holds the unhappy distinction of being one of the coldest capital cities in the world.

No one revels in the spring thaw, or a warm summer day, like a Canadian. Not surprisingly, there has never been any illusion in Canada that the climate can be mastered. Canadians battle the harsh winter elements as they battle an unforgiving geography but for us to endure is to triumph. That capacity for endurance, that patience in the face of adversity, is central to the Canadian character.

In the Canadian heart, The North is as much a concept as a place. Fully 72 per cent of Canadians live within 150 km of the United States, 80 per cent in cities.

At the dawn of the 21st century, most of Canada is hardly removed from wilderness. Even residents of the largest cities can quickly go canoeing, hiking, camping or fishing in solitude. But, in truth, the great majority of Canadians have been no closer to the country’s vast north than the window of an airliner jetting to Europe. Nevertheless, it is The North – the “great lone land” of Canadian writers and painters – that defines Canada and its people. Even the words of the national anthem – “the true north, strong and free” – serve to remind Canadians that they live in a country defined by its northern character.

Our northern geography also defines Canada’s greatest challenge: the impact of relentless global warming on a fragile environment as glaciers and permafrost melt and sea ice disappears. And when in a few decades the Arctic becomes a navigable ocean, the very claims of Canada to the vast island archipelago and interior waters of the high Arctic will likely be challenged.

Next Instalment: The Governor General.

The Canadian Experience is a 52-week history series designed to tell the story of our country to all Canadians. Sponsored by Multimedia Nova Corporation and Diversity Media Services/Lingua Ads partners, the series features articles by our country’s foremost historians on a wide range of topics. Past articles and author bios are available at The Canadian Experience is copyright © 2010-2011 Multimedia Nova Corporation.


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