Published Date

January 1, 1946

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 47: Canada: Our Oldest Good Neighbor (1946)

The area of Canada is considerably larger than that of continental United States, and the countries look somewhat alike on the map—if no railways or cities are marked on it. If these are shown, they indicate that the distribution of population is not at all the same.

As we have already observed, most of the Canadians live along the southern side of their country. Why is this? If you think climate is the answer, you have missed the most important reason. It is geology.

More than half the Dominion is covered by a strange rocky formation that has dominated the development of Canada almost from the very beginning. This Pre-Cambrian or Laurentian shield, as it is called, lies like a gigantic collar around Hudson Bay. It spreads out to the Atlantic, and comes right down to the St. Lawrence, across which it throws a spur to form the Thousand Islands. Westward it encloses Lake Superior, and from there it stretches northwest to the mouth of the Mackenzie River in the Arctic.

This rocky formation is made up of the stumps of ancient mountains that have been ground down by the action of glaciers in ages past. It is a wilderness of rocks, lakes, and evergreen trees. Long ago it blocked the advance of settlement. It has been of economic use for only three purposes—at first for the furs it produced, and more recently for its wealth of forest and mineral resources.

The Pre-Cambrian shield is to blame for crowding the population of eastern Canada in a narrow belt of territories along the south. It has also cut Canada in two, separating the East from the West by a huge, almost uninhabited area. There is no “Middle West” in the Dominion of Canada.


The Maritime Provinces

This is not the only way nature has divided the Dominion into separate regions the like of which do not exist in our country. Set apart in the extreme east are the three provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, which Canadians commonly lump together as the Maritimes. They have a French history that is older than the founding of New England, and in the nineteenth century they received many immigrants from the British Isles. But it was the settlement of the Loyalists that gave the Maritimes their distinct character.

These Loyalists were generally people of superior education and social standing—judges, lawyers, doctors, and business leaders. It has been said that a list of them reacts like an honor roll of Harvard graduates of that time. Ever since the Dominion was formed, the Maritimes have contributed much more than their numerical proportion of its prominent citizens, particularly in the professions.

Where did they get their brains? Harvard men might have an answer, but Canadians have another. They smile and say “fish,” referring to the diet on which the Maritimers are raised—or supposed to be raised. Their life has been largely influenced by the fact that they have lived by the sea, from the sea, and on the sea. The sea is in their blood.

These three provinces are much smaller than any one of the other six, and they are the only ones whose populations spread over their whole area. They are almost cut off from the rest of the Dominion by a rough mountainous barrier and the northern salient of Maine.

Central Canada—Quebec and Ontario

The next region of unbroken settlement is the long strip of Quebec and Ontario that lies south of the Pre-Cambrian shield. It is commonly known as Central Canada. Though not geographically central, it contains nearly two-thirds of the Dominion’s population and is the center of economic and political power in Canada.

The province of Quebec is much the older and is predominantly French. For nearly a century and a half it was the main seat of the French empire that extended over a great part of this continent. The city of Quebec, founded in 1608, is older than any city in the United States except St. Augustine. There you can see physically preserved more of the past than anywhere else north of the Rio Grande.

In size Quebec cannot compare with its younger rival Montreal, which is just over three centuries old. This is now the largest city in the Dominion and with its suburbs has a population of more than a million. It is the second largest French-speaking city in the world, being next in size to Paris.

For many generations the typical French Canadian lived on a little farm, like a narrow ribbon, running back from the river’s edge. There are still many French Canadians of the old type, but the majority now live in cities and towns. The province of Quebec, in fact, has proportionately the most industrialized population of any part of the Dominion—though it retains many of its social and political traditions.

Ontario is the richest and most populous of all the provinces. Therefore, its total industrial production exceeds that of Quebec, though in proportion its population is not quite so urban. Its agricultural society is the most prosperous in the Dominion. Toronto, the capital city, is not so large as Montreal by 200,000, but it is two and a half times bigger than any other city in the country.

Ontario is often said to be the core or heart of the Dominion. There is much truth in the statement, and the people of that province are more or less conscious of it. If you tell this to a man from another part of Canada, however, you may get an interesting little explosion. No state in the Union holds a position comparable to that of Ontario in the Dominion. Nor is there any American parallel for Quebec.

Though these two provinces of Central Canada are separated by no natural barrier, the cleavage between them is much greater than any that we have in our country. Not even the Mason and Dixon’s line cuts as deep as the division between French-speaking Roman Catholic Quebec and English-speaking Protestant Ontario. But this raises such an important subject that we must consider it separately later.

The Prairie Provinces

Westward, or rather northwestward, hundreds of miles across the rocky wilderness of the Pre-Cambrian shield, begins the next region of unbroken settlement. This is by far the most extensive in the country. It stretches across the three Prairie Provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta—commonly known as the Prairies.

Predominantly agricultural now, it was long a domain of the Hudson’s Bay Company, chartered in 1670 and still doing business—now mostly department stores. Canada acquired the territory in 1870—her Louisiana Purchase. It attracted few settlers until shortly before 1900, when it began to fill with a rush that soon became almost a stampede.

The population of this part of the Dominion is a great mixture, having been drawn from the United States, eastern Canada, the British Isles, and continental Europe. It is Canada’s melting pot. Over twenty foreign-language newspapers are published in Winnipeg, the metropolis of the Prairie Provinces. Yet it is astonishing to see how rapidly the immigrants from continental Europe have been assimilated.

By and large, the prairie people are the least provincial in Canada. This is largely explained by their diverse origin, their recent arrival, and their main economic interest—the production of wheat for sale abroad.

They are also less conservative. The cooperative movement has been stronger in Canada than in the United States, and in Canada it has been strongest on the prairie, particularly in the marketing of grain. There also arose the two radical political parties of the present clay. One is the Social Credit party, called the “Funny Money” party by its opponents, which has governed Alberta since 1935. The other is the socialist CCF (Cooperative Commonwealth Federation), which captured the government of Saskatchewan in 1944 and has a considerable following in every province of the Dominion west of Quebec.

The farther west you go on the prairie the more the population spreads out to the north. Here is the chief exception to the general rule that Canadians live close to the American border. Here is the only large area where, humanly speaking, the Dominion has breadth as well as length, where you can travel several hundred miles north through unbroken settlement.

In the West, settlement comes to an end as it runs up against the Rockies. These are a formidable barrier—more so than in our country. In Canada the mountainous backbone of the continent becomes more rugged and compressed, and the passes present more difficult engineering problems for railway and highway construction.

The Pacific Province—British Columbia

The Rockies cut off British Columbia from the rest of the Dominion. Though this province stretches from the state of Washington up to and behind Alaska, most of its population is crowded into the extreme southwest corner—in and around Vancouver. This is the third largest city in Canada, a rank it gained as recently as the census of 1931, when it surpassed Winnipeg.

British Columbia developed later than any other province or group of provinces. The reason was its geographical isolation before the opening of the Panama Canal. That event made British Columbia—that and the immense resources of fish, forest, and mine, which make it naturally the richest of all the provinces except Ontario. It has become one of the world’s more important mining regions.

British Columbia differs from the Prairies in having a much smaller proportion of continental Europeans and a much larger one of old people. The genial climate of the coast has made it what some bustling Canadians on the prairie have called a “land of the tired and retired.” It has attracted retired and semi-retired people from all over western Canada and even from the British Isles. Society in this province, particularly Vancouver Island, has a distinct English flavor such as is not to be found anywhere else in the Dominion.

North of the 60th parallel, the Yukon and Northwest Territories and the islands stretching to the Arctic Ocean form a vast area empty of inhabitants except Eskimos, some Indians, and a few whites. It plays no vital role in the life of present-day Canada, but it has rich natural resources which have just begun to be exploited.

Beads on a steel thread

Now let its view the country as a whole, and we will see that it is not a natural unit, nor even nine natural units corresponding to the nine provinces. Geography has divided it into four quite separate sections: the first comprising the three little Maritime Provinces; the second the two big provinces of Central Canada, Quebec and Ontario; the third the three large Prairie Provinces; and the fourth the single province of British Columbia.

Few countries in the world are so disjointed physically. The inhabited portions of the Dominion, instead of forming a compact block, are separated from each other and stretched out from ocean to ocean. They are strung together like beads on the steel thread of the railways.

Railways, therefore, mean more to Canada than to any other country. Indeed they were mostly built for a national purpose, to hold and pull the country together. The Dominion has been created in defiance of geography. Moreover the geographical unity of Central Canada is cut in two by fundamental differences of race, language, and religion. Thus there are not four but five very distinct regions or sections.

The natural result is a strong tendency toward sectionalism, much more so than in the United States, and this tendency is supported by the governmental structure. The Old South is not so isolated geographically as are the Maritime Provinces or the Prairie Provinces. Nor in all the Union is there any state that coincides with a sectional area, as does each of the other three provinces, Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia. The inherent sectionalism in the Dominion is one of the major problems of the country.

The problem has been complicated by us, quite unconsciously. We could not help it. While geography has divided Canada, it has linked each of the inhabited sections with the adjoining portion of the United States. As a consequence, our country has exercised a strong pull upon each of these parts of our northern neighbor.

It was to resist this pull that the Dominion was formed in 1867, that it acquired the West out to the Rockies in 1870 and British Columbia in 1871. Here is a rather interesting paradox: The very force that might have swallowed up British North America piecemeal saved it by making it draw together to form a nation. The result is that Canada has more national unity than the above account of physical disunity may suggest.

Next section: Is There a Deep Split between French and English Canada?