By P. E. BRYDEN
A popular song in the 1960s declared Ontario “a place to stand and a place to grow”. As Canada’s most populous province, and the centre of the majority of Canadian business, it has certainly proven to be both a place to stand and a place to grow for many Canadians – more than 13 million at last count. But Ontario’s origins were much more humble.
A land of the rocky Canadian Shield, with a fairly narrow belt of fertile soil across its southern expanse, Ontario was home to big game hunters in the north and more sedentary farmers in the south when Europeans first came to the area.
While attractive to missionaries, seeking to convert First Nations to Christianity and to fur traders and explorers, seeking to stake a claim for European control and commerce, Ontario did not, at first, lure many European settlers.
Following the American Revolution in the 1780s, many Americans who remained loyal to Great Britain fled northward to the more comfortable environment of British North America. These so-called Loyalists camped as refugees in Quebec, where most people spoke French. In an effort to keep both the old French and the new English immigrants happy, Quebec was carved into two pieces – Lower Canada to the east and Upper Canada to the west. The political foundations for what would later become Ontario were laid.
Ontario – or Upper Canada, as it was still called – was initially quite sparsely settled, with Loyalists establishing just a few communities around Lake Ontario. But the land was fertile, and the very British nature of both the government and the culture attracted large numbers of immigrants from the British Isles. By 1851, 60 years after it was formed, the population was approaching a million, most immigrants either from the United States or Britain.
By this time, too, Ontario was about to surpass its sister colony in population. The relationship between Ontario and Quebec, united both by history and economy but divided by language, was one of the driving forces behind a larger confederation of British North American colonies in 1867. Seeking a new political arrangement as well as a more integrated economy, politicians from Ontario were instrumental in advocating Confederation and convincing more reluctant politicians in Quebec and the Maritimes to go along with the deal. They were successful, and in 1867 Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia joined to form the new Dominion of Canada.
Ontario has always had the highest population of all the provinces, and has continued to attract a steady flow of immigrants from outside Canada. Toronto is certainly the largest centre, but people have chosen to settle across much of Ontario’s southern fertile belt since the middle of the 19th century. This has meant displacing First Nations people. Treaties established territory for First Nations within Ontario, but recently there have been disputes about the extent of those reserves and the activities that can be undertaken on them.
Thanks to an agreeable climate and advantageous trade policies, Ontario early on developed a strong, well-integrated economy. Far more agriculturally diverse than any other region of Canada, Ontario farmers produce not only staple grain crops like wheat and corn, but have also successfully planted orchards, vegetable crops, vineyards and tobacco fields.
Ontario has been blessed with lucrative natural resources. The heavily forested northern part of the province has been a key to Canada’s pulp and paper industry; nickel, iron, and silver deposits were discovered in the Canadian Shield and profitably mined; and water has been harnessed for hydro-electrical power.
But more than the luck of Ontario’s location – as shown by its climate and resources – the province has benefited from both high tariff barriers, which for decades impeded the ability of other regions to buy American products, and policies designed to encourage domestic trade. Industry has been encouraged to locate in Ontario, which in turn has lured people and investment into the provinces. By the beginning of the 20th century, Ontario was the economic engine driving the country. It continues to be so, although other parts of the country are now making significant economic gains on Ontario.
Economic strength has translated into political strength for Ontario. The province has more Members of Parliament in the House of Commons than any other, and this sometimes seems to result in even more advantages for the central province. Ontario has more money, thanks to a larger tax base, and continues to be an attractive destination for immigrants, industry, technology and sporting and cultural events. From the perspective of other regions across the country, Ontario is often seen to have been the undeserving beneficiary of Confederation. For the more than 12 million people who call Ontario home, however, it is still “a place to stand and a place to grow”.
Next Installment: Quebec: Heart of French Canada
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