In the end, all roads lead back to Ontario — whether the rest of Canada likes it or not. Far and away the country’s most populated province, an amazing one in three Canadians dwell within its borders, alongside practically everything big and important in the country. Among other landmarks, Ontario houses the federal parliament, the country’s largest city, the national stock exchange, the biggest university, the headquarters of almost every major Canadian newspaper, television station, bank and corporation, and — just to top it off — the tallest building, biggest waterfall and greatest lakes, too.
Ontario’s wealth and power comes at a price, though, namely the resentment of the rest of the country. Whether or not Ontarians know they’re being mocked when their province is dubbed “the centre of the universe” by outsiders is an open question, however. They have lots of reasons to take it in stride.
Ontario is a large, vaguely fish-shaped province with most people living in the tail. Its distinctive shape comes as a result of being sandwiched between two massive bodies of water: Hudson Bay in the north, and the five Great Lakes in the south.
Northern Ontario is a grim mix of dense forest, wet swamp and rocky, barren soil. Early settlers found the land so harsh they were often forced to abandon their farms, and a popular Canadian folk song vividly describes the awful insects that dominate the climate. The southern peninsula that stretches into the Great Lakes is another story, however, and these arable, temperate lowlands of rolling hills and deciduous trees have proven to be the province’s most livable and economically useful territory. The so-called Golden Horseshoe region that borders the western coast of Lake Ontario is now the most densely-populated region in all of Canada, though this has led to a notable decline of nature in favour of urban sprawl.
Marbled with lakes and rivers, water has historically been one of the major industries of Ontario, both in terms of drinkable freshwater and hydroelectricity gained from dams and turbines. Should water one day emerge as one of the world’s most precious resources, Ontario could easily become the Saudi Arabia of H2O.
The history of Canada is very much the history of Ontario. Or at least a lot of it starts there. As we learned in the history chapters, the territory that’s now Ontario was originally settled by British and French colonists in the 17th century, before the Seven Years War segregated the settlers into two different colonies so they’d bother each other less. The English-speaking half of this deal was known as Upper Canada, and it was this colony that became the province of Ontario following the adoption of the current Canadian Constitution in 1867. Well into the 20th century, Ontario eagerly played the role of the defender of English and Protestant rights in Canada just as aggressively as Quebec defended the interest of the French and Catholics — often without much politeness or subtlety.
In contrast to most other parts of the country, Ontario urbanized extremely rapidly. Already possessing large cities and well-developed economic infrastructure, it quickly became the hub of Canadian manufacturing, trade and commerce in the peak years of the late Industrial Revolution that followed Confederation. Though the province’s farming sector declined quickly, an ample mining industry centred around iron, steel and nickel picked up the slack, and allowed Ontario to establish a thriving automobile industry after World War II (1939-1945). More controversially, the province also enriched itself by importing cheap raw materials like lumber, wheat and oil, from the western provinces — though this cheapness was only achieved through high international tariffs that discouraged the west from trading with their neighbouring cities in United States.
More immigrants settle in Ontario than anywhere else in Canada, and in the post-war era its population, and especially that of its largest city, Toronto, has continued to boom at such a rate that no other province can possibly expect to catch up in the foreseeable future (second place Quebec has just over half as many people as Ontario does — and is in decline). This has had the effect of making Canada a rather lopsided federation as far as federations go, since it’s very easy to be very successful in Canadian business or politics by simply pandering to Ontario and ignoring the rest.
If Ontario is Canada, Toronto is Ontario. Over 40 per cent of Ontarians live in or around Toronto — the GTA or “Greater Toronto Region” as it’s known — and the thriving metropolis contains most of the business and commerce centres that make the province so notable in the first place.
Located on the coast of Lake Ontario on the province’s great southern peninsula, Toronto (then known as Fort York) was originally chosen as Upper Canada’s colonial capital for its strategic distance from the United States — a concern that seems quite ironic today, given how much trade the city now does with the Americans. After Confederation, Toronto lost the bid to become national capital, but remains the capital of Ontario, with the provincial legislature overlooking the scenic Queen’s Park area.
As the fifth largest city in North America, Toronto is home to the same sort of vibrant big-city urban culture that defines its competitors like New York and Chicago, with huge department stores, expensive restaurants, first-run musicals, crowded subways, gigantic sports arenas and gritty slums. It’s now something of a running joke, in fact, to debate just how “world class” this-or-that element of Toronto is; though it’s undoubtedly one of the major cities of the world, there’s are always lots of Joneses to keep up with. What undeniably does differentiate the city, though, is its multiculturalism. As the Toronto website proudly proclaims, half of the city’s residents were born outside of the country, and 140 different languages are spoken in its apartments, restaurants, workplaces and community centres.
Like most capital cities, “Ottawa,” in the language of the typical Canadian, is a word meaning “the federal government” — and all the assorted baggage of scandal and disdain that go hand-in-hand with national politics. But the place is also Canada’s fourth-largest city (and Ontario’s second-biggest) and has a large enough suburban population to make it more than just an empty star on the map.
Practically everything that defines Ottawa is the result of careful government planning. Little more than a humble logging community in the pre-Confederation era, the city was picked in 1867 by the British to be the new capital of Canada largely because of its neutrality. Located smack on the Quebec border, it was an Ontario town with a high French population, and as such seemed to perfectly embody the spirit of bi-cultural compromise that everyone hoped would form the founding creed of the new federation. Since then, successive governments have passed laws ensuring that the city remains the most bilingual region in the country, where any resident can lapse into French without confusing their waiter or cashier, and where “ARRET” shares equal space with “STOP” on the city’s traffic signs.
The highlight of Ottawa is, of course, the massive neo-gothic Parliament buildings that sit on the cusp of the man-made Rideau Canal and serve as the most prominent visual symbol of Canadian political authority. Nearby are countless other government tourist attractions such as the Supreme Court, the official residences of the governor general and prime minister, and a vast array of embassies, galleries, museums and monuments. Though politics and bureaucracy are undoubtedly the city’s bread and butter, in recent years Ottawa has managed to earn something of a reputation as “Canada’s Silicon Valley,” too, due to its burgeoning tech sector.