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An Introduction to Canada

Updated on April 22, 2014
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Canada is the largest country in area in the Western Hemisphere and the second largest in the world. Canada is exceeded in size only by the Russian Federation. The country covers more than half the continent of North America, extending from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific and from the northern boundary of the main portion of the United States to the polar regions. The state of Alaska bounds it on the northwest.

Canada is the home of about 34 million people. They constitute an independent sovereign state that formerly was the senior Dominion of the British Empire and now is a member of the Commonwealth. Canada is a young nation -formally launched in 1867- but its influence in world affairs is much greater than the size of its population would indicate.

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The country's topography is extremely varied. In the east the land is generally undulating, with hills and low mountains, few of which exceed 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) in height. The central portions of the country are vast plains. The west is rugged mountain terrain, where the ranges of the Rocky Mountains run north and south. The subarctic north is rolling or level. Hundreds of lakes are scattered through this region; nearly 8% of Canada's total area is freshwater. North of the continental mainland are the bleak islands of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

Since all of Canada, save for southern Ontario and part of Nova Scotia, lies north of latitude 45° N, its climate is often rigorous. Summers in much of the country are short; the winters are long and bitter, with deep snowfall in most sections.

The country possesses rich natural resources. The great forests are one of Canada's prime assets. The central plains are one of the world's most fertile farming regions. Abundant water-power potential is available in the rapid rivers. Beneath the land's surface lie huge deposits of minerals. The wise exploitation of this wealth is one of the challenges that face Canadians.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, fish and then furs attracted hardy Europeans to a land sparsely populated by Native peoples. European settlement led to the tilling of the soil and the cutting of the forests. These were the bases on which the country grew and prospered until it emerged in the 20th century as a modern industrial nation.

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Canadian society displays an ethnic pattern that is largely the heritage of the tumultuous 18th century, when Britain and France contended for sovereignty in the New World. The Seven Years' War ended with a British victory in 1763. Settlers from the British Isles and, following the Revolutionary War, loyalists from the United States moved into the eastern colonies and pushed westward. British influences have been dominant in Canada as the country evolved from a group of British colonies to a sovereign state.

Yet for some 150 years before 1763, the French had been established in Canada, principally in and around the valley of the St. Lawrence River. Despite the British victory in the Seven Years' War, French logements became the nucleus of a power that has profoundly affected the country's history and will contribute profoundly to the shape of its future.

Canada's Aboriginal peoples, who for the most part experienced the settlement of the Europeans as catastrophic—their own numbers drastically reduced by warfare and disease and their way of life disrupted—have again claimed a central role in Canadian national life. Their spiritual and cultural heritage has been the source of their renewed sense of identity and vitality and has greatly enriched the national cultural discourse.

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Today about 21% of Canada's inhabitants claiming a single country of origin trace themselves to the British Isles; about 23% claim French origin. Some 3% are Aboriginal (Indian, Inuit, and Métis). The remainder of the people have varied European, Asian, or other ethnic backgrounds; in 1991 the foreign-born represented more than 16% of Canada's total population. Nevertheless, virtually all Canadians use either English or French as the language of daily business and social life, and the nation is broadly composed of two linguistic and cultural groups -English and French.

Inevitably this division, with English predominant, has caused tensions and strains over the years, leading to vigorous attempts to evolve a national pattern that would allow more adequate expression of the "French fact." For example, the Constitution of Canada enacted in 1982 made both French and English the official languages of the federal administration and required its departments and agencies to provide services in both languages in designated districts.

In common with other industrialized nations, Canada has seen a demographic shift in the late 20th century as well as an ethnic one. Fertility and mortality are both down, and the population overall statistically is aging. Demographic factors will remake Canadian society in the future just as surely as will political, economic, and environmental factors.

The structure of the Canadian nation rests on firm foundations. The country has a tradition of democracy that is embodied in its democratic institutions. It has a flexible governmental system, responsive to the will of the people. It has a mixed economy, and there are great opportunities for development of resources and technology to invite further ventures. Canada's intellectual and artistic life is thriving. In the arena of world affairs, the nation has accepted international responsibilities -most notably in recent years in its contribution to United Nations peacekeeping activities- that have stimulated the growth of political maturity at home and earned gratitude and respect abroad.

CN Tower
CN Tower | Source

The Canadian nation is a federation of ten provinces and two territories. The central authority is the government of Canada. Each province has its own government, which exercises a large degree of autonomy in specifically defined spheres. The territories are administered by federally appointed commissioners, although they have legislative assemblies. The electorate chooses the House of Commons (the lower house of the bicameral national Parliament) and the unicameral provincial legislatures in all ten provinces. The federal Senate, the upper house of the Parliament, is appointive.

Canada's economy is broadly diversified. Agriculture, which was its base for many years, is still a major factor, although its share in the total economy has greatly diminished. The resources of the Canadian land -its rich soil, its timber, and its minerals- provide much of the raw material for the nation's industry. They are also the base of its foreign trade, which is characterized by specialized exports of grains (especially wheat), wood products, and industrial products using native minerals. After World War II Canada became an industrial nation; its manufacturing establishment compares favorably with that of any other highly developed nation. The industrial centers are largely concentrated in central Canada, but a thriving nexus has been developed with the Pacific coast of British Columbia, and the midwestern plains, long the heartland of farming, now have significant industrial development, based notably on the oil fields of Alberta. The service sector has grown dramatically; by late in the 20th century, it accounted for some two-thirds of Canada's gross domestic product.

One perceived problem has been the long-standing feeling of many Canadians that their neighbor, the United States, with greater wealth and a population some ten times that of Canada, is an overshadowing presence. This presence has been demonstrated in practical terms. More than half of Canada's manufacturing industry is owned and directed by foreign-based interests, especially from the United States, and American cultural influence is pervasive. Nevertheless, Canadians have acted decisively to protect their own cultural development.

The effort to preserve a uniquely Canadian heritage nevertheless goes forward even as Canada is drawn ever further onto the world stage. Technology is pushing back the last frontiers, opening even the Arctic islands to exploitation. Increasingly, environmental problems such as ozone depletion, acid rain, and the destruction of natural habitat must be addressed regionally and even globally rather than nationally. Industrial development is drawing the bulk of the population from the countryside and the small towns into the cities and their environs; by the late 1980s some 75% of Canadians lived in urban centers, many of decidedly cosmopolitan character. As Canadians become more involved in the arena of world affairs -economically, as a trading partner of the world's major industrialized nations; politically, as a regional power in an era of quasieconomic, quasipolitical alliances; and even militarily, as a NATO member and a mainstay of UN peacekeeping operations- their outlook is becoming ever more global.

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