The second largest country in the world after Russia, Canada stretches for some 5,000 km from east to west, from St John's in Newfoundland to Victoria in British Columbia - as far as from St John's to Tunisia in North Africa. From the north of Ellesmere Island to the US border, Canada extends through some 4,500 km.
The country is one of the richest in the world, although these vast distances result in high costs for transport. The Canadians have one of the highest gross national products per head. Canada has forged a network of railways, highways, telephone links, airways and pipelines which enable the country to operate as a national economic unit.
Most of Canada's development has taken place in the southern zone, nearest to the US border.
The terrain, climate and nearness to capital and markets make exploitation of resources easier than elsewhere in the country. Investment has flowed into the zone, and the exploitation of resources by farming, lumbering, mining and by manufacturing and service industries is concentrated there.
To this zone also flows the wealth from the still incompletely surveyed territories of the north and northwest. There the search for oil is pushing the development frontier into the Arctic.
The riches from development are concentrated in the cities of the southern zone. The three cities of Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver alone account for about 30% of Canada's population.
Three-quarters of all Canadians live in towns and cities, most of them in the southern zone - the St Lawrence Valley, the Great Lakes Peninsula (between Lakes Huron, Erie and Ontario), and the widely spaced cities of Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Halifax.
By contrast, there are vast areas of uninhabited wasteland in the north.
On average, over the whole country, there are only about 3.5 people per square kilometer. From this single statistic, Canada appears to be underdeveloped, and indeed most of the country's vast resources of soils, rivers, vegetation, minerals, people and space have yet to be exploited.
Canada consists of a vast basin with a discontinuous saucer-like rim, higher in the west than in the east. The Hudson Bay depression is the drowned, central part of the saucer.
The western rim is formed by the fold-mountain ranges of the Western Cordillera, which occupies the Yukon, most of British Columbia and part of Alberta.
There are 53 peaks more than 3,000 meters high.
In the west is the mineral-rich island arc of Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Islands. This chain of islands is separated from the Coast Mountains by the drowned valleys which now form the Inside Passage, extending from Puget Sound to Alaska. The Coast Mountains are dominated by Mt Waddington (4,042 meters). Mt Logan (5,951 meters), in the Yukon, is Canada's highest peak.
To the east is a wide mountain basin, cut by the deep valleys of the Fraser, Thompson and Okanagan rivers. Further east, the Rocky Mountain Trench, 1,600 km long and up to 24 km wide, is a great fold and structural weakness in the Earth's crust.
The Canadian Rockies overlook the plains to the east like a great wall, breached by the Yellowhead, Kicking Horse and Crowsnest passes.
The Rockies of Alberta and British Columbia contain rich coal, oil and natural-gas deposits as well as reserves of many other minerals, including tungsten, lead, zinc, mica and silver.
The low plateau of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba to the east of the Rockies is covered by sedimentary rocks with valuable mineral deposits. The prairies cover the south of these central lowlands giving way to coniferous forest and tundra in the north. On the prairies clay floors and sandy beaches of former glacial lakes are the basis of the fertile black-earth soils.
Much-reduced remnants of glacial lakes include Great Bear Lake, Great Slave Lake and Lake Athabasca. There are reserves of oil and natural gas in the Peace River Basin and in the Mackenzie Basin to the north. The rich potash deposits of Saskatchewan supply about 17% of the world's potash (fertilizer).
The Canadian Shield, extending over 4.8 million square kilometers, occupies roughly 40% of Canada, including most of Ontario, Quebec, northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and the eastern half of the Northwest Territories. Most of it is less than 656 meters above sea level though the outer rim stands higher and rises to 2,000 meters in the north. Its rocky hills, thin, washed-out soils, forests, tortuous rivers, rapids and lakes made it a formidable barrier to pioneers. However, it has proved to be one of the richest areas in the world for minerals, and the rivers provide hydroelectric power. To the north, the shield almost encircles the Hudson Bay lowlands.
In the Great Lakes Peninsula, the shield is covered by sedimentary rocks of Carboniferous age (250 to 345 million years old). Fertile brown forest soils cover its gently undulating surface.
The St Lawrence Lowland is covered by glacial deposits and marine clays which provide fairly fertile brown forest soils. This, with the Great Lakes margins, is Canada's industrial heart.
To the east lie the complex folds and ridges of the north Appalachians, occupying the Maritime Provinces and continuing to Newfoundland. These mountains reach altitudes of 1,200 m in places and are cut by deep valleys opening on to the Gulf of St Lawrence.
About 78% of Canada is virtually uninhabited. Many areas are too high, rugged or swampy for permanent habitation. The rigors of the country's climate also discourage settlement.
The Arctic coastlands have very cold winters when temperatures can drop to -62°C. Summers are short and relatively warm, but despite the midnight sun the subsoil remains frozen. There is less than 25 cm precipitation a year.
Severe winter cold is characteristic of most areas east of the Rockies, but differing summer temperatures and rainfall provide variety. The St Lawrence Lowland and north Appalachians have cool summers, averaging 16-21°C and a growing season of about 165 frost-free days. Precipitation is heavy - about 50-100 cm a year, most of it falling as snow rather than rain.
Montreal and the Great Lakes Peninsula have hot summers averaging 21°C. Humid heat:waves can send the temperature soaring to over 32°C. Precipitation, much of which is snow, is between about 50 and 113 cm a year.
Some parts of the Prairie Provinces arc dry, with only 25-35 cm precipitation a year. There, summers average 15°C in July. The occasional Chinook winds help to thaw the slight snow cover, warm the ground for the spring crops and raise summer temperatures.
Temperatures are reduced by altitude in the Western Cordillera. The west coast has cool summers and mild winters.
Temperatures range from 3°C in January to 18°C in July. Rainfall is abundant and well distributed. Vancouver receives about 104 cm a year.
Vegetation. In the far north, with annual mean temperatures below 10°C, the Arctic tundra offers only summer grazing for caribou. The forests to the south have provided much of the incentive to open up the interior, yet even now two-thirds of the forested regions remain unexploited.
The northern forests of spruce, fir, pine and larch have been felled where they are accessible by river or by Jogging railways. So too have the mixed softwood/hardwood stands of the Great Lakes and St Lawrence area. The major reserves of softwood are now in the Western Cordillera, and in the less accessible Hudson Bay lowlands.
The vast grasslands of the prairies form the northern part of the North American Wheat Belt. The Prairie Provinces, with about 17% of Canada's population, are a granary for the world. Canada produces about one-fifth of the world's wheat exports.