Canadian Geography

Geographical map of Canada

Canada is something of a paradox: a country that is both large and small at the same time. Land-wise, only the Russian Federation occupies more sheer territory, yet when it comes to people, Canada trails behind many European countries nearly one-thirtieth its size. The explanation stems from Canada’s unique geography, which is, all things considered, rather unfriendly to humans. Around 90 per cent of Canada’s land is uninhabited, and most Canadians live clustered together in a handful of large cities close to the U.S. border.

Landmass

Canada occupies the top half of the North American continent, where it borders only one other country: the United States to its south (and north-east, via the isolated state of Alaska). The country’s national motto, “From Sea to Sea,” captures the vastness of the nation, as Canada quite literally stretches from the Pacific Ocean on its western coast to the Atlantic Ocean on its east. Some have even suggested adding a third “to Sea” in the motto, to reflect the fact that the country reaches high enough north to touch the Arctic Ocean as well.

Canadian geography unfolds in two basic directions: west to east and north to south. The more north you go, the colder, rockier, snowier, and overall less suitable for living the country gets, which explains why few people go through the hassle. From west to east, the story is more complicated, as Canada contains a vast array of geographic diversity encompassing everything from lush green valleys to dry, sandy deserts.

West Coast

British Columbia

The picturesque combination of mountains, evergreens, and rivers that defines interior British Columbia.

The West Coast of Canada (containing the province of British Columbia and known by geographers as the Cordillera Region) is the most mountainous part of the country, and contains the Coastal Range mountains that stretch down from Alaska all along Canada’s Pacific coast. Farther east lies the Canadian portion of the Rocky Mountains, which forms British Columbia’s border with the province of Alberta. These mountains are home to massive evergreen forests and a diverse assortment of wildlife, much of which has historically formed the “postcard” cliched images of Canada.

Between the two Pacific mountain ranges lie mostly rich, green valleys but also a small, warm, dry region in the southern interior known as the Okanagan. Insulated by the mountains, this desert-like area has proven a hospitable climate for growing fruit and vegetables, making it a natural home for some of Canada’s largest orchards and wineries.

The Prairies

Canadian badlands

The rocky terrain of the Canadian badlands in Drumheller, Alberta.

Moving east, the land dramatically flattens and the mountains disappear. This vast territory, known as the Prairies, spans the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and houses some of the driest, least forested parts of the country. Wide-open fields and flat, arable land have made the region the base of Canadian agriculture, but is considerably less popular with tourists. Southeastern Alberta features a mostly arid, desert-like landscape known for its rocky soil and hoodoos — massive gravity-defying stone formations.

Though often overlooked, the landscape of the northern region of the prairie provinces is considerably more hilly and forested than the more famous plains of the south.

Central Region

Ontario trees

Brightly coloured leaves mark the beginning of fall in provinces like Ontario and Quebec, which are home to vast forests of deciduous trees.

Central Canada, containing the country’s two largest provinces, Ontario and Quebec, exists on a massive geographic land form known as the Canadian Shield that gives much of the country its distinctive shape. Hollowed out by giant Hudson’s Bay in the middle and bordered by the Great Lakes below, the area, also known as the Laurentian region, is a mostly green landscape of rolling hills, grassy fields, and deciduous forests, though the north remains comparatively barren and rocky.

Both Ontario and Quebec are dotted with thousands of small lakes and rivers, many of which are surrounded by moist wetlands home to iconic Canadian animals such as the beaver and moose. Most human residents of the region live in what is known as the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Lowlands area, a stretch of low elevation and fertile farmland located around the coasts of Lake Ontario and the massive St. Lawrence River, both of which flow into the Atlantic Ocean.

Atlantic Canada

Canadian Maritimes

Rich in iron oxide, the soil in the Canadian Maritimes is known for its distinctive red colour.

Lastly, and farthest east, we have the Appalachian region, encompassing the four Atlantic provinces of Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia, which are all either islands or peninsulas in the Atlantic Ocean.

A mix of rocky coasts and forested interiors, Atlantic Canada’s landscape has been shaped by its proximity to the ocean, with steep cliffs, high tides, and long coastal fjords. Much of the interior is densely forested and low in elevation, though the Appalachian Mountain Range does extend into parts of northern New Brunswick and Newfoundland.

In contrast to other parts of Canada, the small Atlantic provinces are known for being densely populated, and only Newfoundland features large portions of entirely uninhabited land.

The North

The Canadian “north” is a somewhat amorphous geographic designation. All the provinces, save the Maritimes, contain dry, largely barren and mostly uninhabited northern areas prone to long, cold winters, heavy snow, and perpetually frozen soil.

Canada arctic

Because Canada's arctic is almost entirely uninhabited, the Canadian government has long struggled to maintain its claim of control over northern North America. In particular, there are growing fears that other countries, such as Russia and Denmark (via Greenland), are actively undermining Canadian sovereignty in the region.

In a more specific sense, however, the North can mean the northern half of Canada that contains the country’s three northern territories, Yukon, Nunavut, and the creatively-named Northwest Territories. Though the Yukon possesses a more forested, Cordillera-style environment in contrast to Nunavut and the NWT, all three feature mostly rocky, barren terrain with only sparse vegetation.

The extreme north of Canada, where virtually no humans live at all, is an archipelago of massive islands covered by snowy tundra, vast, frozen glaciers, and towering mountains. Home to polar bears, seals, and narwhals — but almost no human beings — this unique and exotic region forms an important part of Canada’s image, even if it’s an area few will ever visit in person.

Canadian Weather

Winter in Canada

Canada's snow-capped peaks have proven a tourist mecca for skiers, particularly the mountain resort of Whistler, British Columbia, which co-hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Weather is a controversial topic with Canadians, born from a mix of frustration and defensiveness. On one hand, Canada is, undeniably, one of the coldest countries in the world, with temperatures in many cities dipping below -20°(C) in the winter (December-March), complete with heavy snowfalls, icy winds, and frozen streets. On the other hand, winter is only one of the country’s four seasons, and most inhabited parts of Canada also enjoy relatively mild autumns (September-December), pleasant springs (March-June), and warm summers (June-September). The common international perception that Canadians suffer through harsh cold all year round is one of the most irritating stereotypes to Canadians travelling abroad.

Canadians that live near the Atlantic or Pacific coasts usually experience minimal snow, but long, heavy periods of rainfall in the fall and winter, and a generally moist, grey climate. In the sunny Prairie region, rain is considerably rarer, but the dry air can occasionally prompt thunderstorms and tornadoes. Central Canada has infamously cold, snowy winters, but these usually give way to wet springs and hot, humid summers. Northern Canada tends to have the most extreme weather polarization of all, with as much as 24 straight hours of continuous sunlight in the summer, and near-perpetual darkness in the fall. Even in the North, however, there are still periods of relative warmth and green — at least in the areas where humans have chosen to live.

Canadian Natural Resources

Canada’s status as one of the planet’s richest nations is hardly a mystery. There are very few valuable minerals, chemicals, or elements that cannot be found in at least some part of Canada, giving the country a huge abundance of natural resources to sell.

Oil sands

The extraction of natural resources comes with a price, and pollution and environmental destruction remain ongoing problems in Canada. The country remains one of the world's leading emitters of greenhouse gasses, and many of Canada's energy industries are woefully inefficient, pumping a great deal of harmful waste products into the land and air.

Perhaps most famously, the prairie province of Alberta is home to some of the largest deposits of both oil and natural gas on the North American continent, a fact which has allowed Canada to emerge as one of the 21st century’s major energy-producing superpowers. The province is also home to the world’s largest proven oil sands reserves, a fact which, if added alongside the country’s traditional petroleum reserves, puts Canada in a firm second-place behind Saudi Arabia as the world’s most oil-rich nation.

All provinces and territories (save tiny Prince Edward Island) have ample mineral mines, though what exactly is harvested varies from province to province. Canada is one of the world’s leading producers of zinc, which is found in most parts of the country, as well as uranium and potash, which are mined mainly in Saskatchewan. Large amounts of nickel and copper are found in Northern Ontario and Manitoba, while iron and coal have been traditional staples of the Maritime region. Gold has historically been found just about everywhere, while diamonds are becoming big business in Canada’s North. Controversially, Canada has also remained one of the world’s most active producers of the dangerous insulator known as asbestos, which is mainly mined in Quebec and sold to Third World countries with lax public safety laws.

Links About Canadian Geography:

Quick Facts:

  • Canada is the world's second-largest country, yet much of the land is uninhabited.
  • The main regions of Canada are the mountainous west coast, flat central prairies, eastern forested plains and frozen north.
  • Almost every region in Canada is home to vast forests, rivers and lakes.
  • Canadian weather is often harsh and cold, particularly during the long winter months.