Country Profile: Canada

Canada is a big place. Stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, and extending northward to the Arctic, it is the world’s second largest country when measured by total area. Along with its southern neighbour, the United States, Canada dominates the map of North America. Yet, despite its size, it is dwarfed by its southern neighbour in nearly every aspect. The United States has a much larger population and economy, and possesses a military power that extends across the globe. This article will explore the reasons why Canada has long remained in the United States’ shadow, and why its biggest challenges could be just over the horizon.

Flag of Canada, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Flag of Canada, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Key Figures

  • Population – 35,099,836 (July 2015 est.)
  • Size –  9,984,670 sq km
  • Official Languages – English and French
  • Capital – Ottawa
Map of Canada, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Map of Canada, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Where?

Canada is located in North America, and shares a land border with only one other country, the United States of America. The border between Canada and America is the largest undefended border in the world, running across the 49th parallel in the south and Alaska in the west. In total, the border is 8891km (5252 miles) long.

As someone born in the UK, it is difficult for me to truly grasp the size of Canada. Despite having a population almost half that of the UK, Canada is roughly 36 times larger than my homeland.  The lack of population results in large expanses of sparsely populated areas, and travelling between population centres requires a lot of time and energy, particularly in the Canadian west. For instance, a person driving east from Vancouver must travel for more than 10 hours (almost 1000 km, or 621 miles) to reach the next major Canadian city, Calgary. This drive usually takes over 10 hours. In contrast, the drive from London to Edinburgh is a significantly shorter journey (668 km, or 415 miles), with many other major cities along the way

Size itself is not always a problem for a country, but it does lead to significantly larger expenditures on infrastructure and transportation, especially if the population is spread out over a large area. Larger countries rely much more heavily on their transportation networks in order to keep trade flowing between different regions. However, mother nature can often lend a helping hand.

The United States is another large country, and Canada’s only neighbour of note. It too faces challenges when transporting goods between distant cities and states. However, the United States is fortunate to possess the Greater Mississippi Basin, the largest system of navigable and interconnected waterways in the world. In short, the system of rivers allows someone in Minnesota or Iowa to transport goods all the way to the Gulf of Mexico (or any of the states along the way) cheaply and efficiently. Transport and travel via water has traditionally been (and remains) easier and much more efficient than transporting anything over land. The Great Plains of the United States are covered in fertile arable land, and have rivers that nearly always join up with the Mississippi. Once the United States grew to possess these lands, and had the population to work the land to generate economic development, the country was well on its way to being one of the most prosperous in the world.

The Mississippi River and its tributaries, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The Mississippi River and its tributaries, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

While Canada shares one of America’s geographical advantages (access to both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans), it lacks nearly every other one. The large, navigable rivers that dominate the midwestern states of America simply don’t exist in Canada. The two largest rivers in Canada are the Mackenzie and the Yukon. Unfortunately, neither of them is remotely useful because both rivers are too far north. The Mackenzie flows into the freezing Arctic Ocean, while the Yukon makes its way into Alaska before exiting into the Bering Sea.

The one river that does see plenty of commercial use in Canada is the Saint Lawrence River. This waterway begins in the Great Lakes and flows into the Atlantic Ocean, delimiting a portion of the eastern border between Canada and the United States. The Saint Lawrence remains a useful aspect of Canada’s geography, and it is no coincidence that the cities of Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City were founded on its banks. However, there is a drawback to Canada’s best waterway: the United States. Unfortunately for Canada, the Saint Lawrence is also useful to its southern neighbour. This river begins its path to the Atlantic in the Great Lakes of Erie, Huron, and Ontario. Ultimately, Canada is unable to exert complete control over its most useful waterway.

Map of the Saint Lawrence River, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Map of the Saint Lawrence River, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It’s not all bad news though. While Canada may be a large and difficult country to traverse, it is home to some of the world’s largest mineral deposits and other natural resources. From its beginning as a colonial state, Canada’s inhabitants exploited the natural resources of the land and water in and around Canada. In the 16th and 17th centuries, fishing was a hugely important part of the economies of eastern coastal Canada. As a country that is mostly covered by forest, the lumber and wood industries also helped kick-start economic development in early Canadian history. In recent years, fossil fuels and mineral extraction have become highly lucrative industries. However, the recent crash in oil prices has highlighted the fragility and long term instability of the fossil fuel industry. There is also strong opposition to the further development of the fossil fuel industry from various environmental and indigenous groups, particularly in western Canada. The Athabasca oil sands, located in Alberta, have come under particular scrutiny.

Canada is often called ‘The Great White North’, and it is easy to see why. Aside from the slightly milder climates in the cities of Vancouver and Victoria, most of Canada, including its population centres, experience freezing temperatures in the winter months. The smaller, less used waterways ice over, and the land freezes. The north of Canada, especially the territories of Nunavut, Yukon and the Northwest Territories, are huge yet sparsely populated. These areas, along with the northern regions of provinces such as Quebec and British Columbia, are simply not suitable for large-scale human habitation. Despite its beautiful and largely unspoiled landscapes, and abundance of mineral resources, Canada remains a challenging country from a geographical standpoint.

Who?

Canada is a diverse country, and its colonial heritage is reflected in the ethnic makeup of its population. In 2015, the total population of Canada was estimated to be 35 million, which makes it one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. Around 76% of Canadians identify as white, with English, Scottish, Irish, and Germans being the largest European groups. Roughly 14% of Canadians are of Asian descent. The largest minority groups in Canada are Chinese, Filipino and Indian, all of which have seen rapid population growth in the past three decades. Roughly 4% of Canadians are Aboriginal, or indigenous peoples. These native peoples are comprised of three main groups: First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples.

Many languages are spoken in Canada, but there are two official nationwide languages: English and French. According to the 2011 census, English is spoken as a first language by 56.1% of the population, while 21% of Canadians claim French as their mother tongue. However, more than 85% of Canadians have a working knowledge of English, whereas just 30.1% can say the same for French. Historically, the relationship between the largely Francophone Quebec and the rest of Canada has been tense, but following the closely fought 1995 Quebec referendum on independence, talk of secession from Canada in Quebec has faded.

An important challenge that Canada must face in the near future is its own demographics. For many years, the birth rate in Canada has been below replacement levels. This has resulted in a slower pace of population growth and an increasing lack of young people. The median age in 2011 was estimated at over 40 years old, and that figure is set to climb. A quick look at the population pyramid below highlights the problem. The largest single demographic in Canada is that of people between 50 and 54 years old.

Population pyramid of Canada, courtesy of the CIA World Factbook
Population pyramid of Canada, courtesy of the CIA World Factbook

But why is this a problem? Surely a smaller population would result in less of a strain on public services? In the short term, the opposite is actually true. As the average Canadian gets older, there will be more of a strain placed on its healthcare, social welfare and pension systems.  This is not an issue that Canada will face alone – Japan, Germany, South Korea, and many others are already facing this challenge.

Furthermore, tax revenue is something that Canada will have to re-evaluate in the coming years. Thanks to years of relatively high tax revenue, Canada has invested large sums of money into its various social programmes, and has produced a highly regarded, publicly funded healthcare system. As the generation of 50 to 60 year-olds begins to retire in the next decade, tax revenue will almost certainly fall, as there is simply no way for the younger generations to produce the same amount of revenue. Making sure these social programmes remain well-funded and organised will prove a daunting challenge.

International Relations

From its founding as a colonial outpost of the British Empire, Canada has maintained a close relationship with the United Kingdom. Until the Second World War, British and Canadian citizens shared a common nationality, and it wasn’t until the Canadian Citizenship Act of 1946 that Canadians truly had their own national identity. To this day, Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state of both nations, and the Canadian political system is largely based on the British Parliamentary System.

However, since the Second World War, Canada and Britain have slowly drifted apart. During the Suez Crisis of 1956, the Canadian government rejected calls from the British to support their invasion of Egypt. Additionally, economic ties between the two weakened as the 20th century continued, especially after the UK joined the European Economic Community in 1973. As Britain focused more on its European economic partners, Canada began to expand its economic interaction with its American neighbours.

The United States had long been wary of Canada, especially during the 19th century when Canada was closely connected with the all-power British Empire. However, with the decline of the old colonial empires, the United States began to see Canada as more of a partner. This relationship developed further during the Cold War.

The primary antagonists of the Cold War were the Soviet Union and the United States. These two countries aimed a tremendous amount of firepower at each other for decades, and spent much time and energy trying to prevent any kind of attack or conflict. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the most efficient way for the Soviets or Americans to get at each other was over Canada and the Arctic Circle. This meant that Canada sat between the two global military superpowers. Subsequently, the United States developed a close alliance with Canada to ensure their support in any dispute with the Soviets.

During this time, economic ties between Canada and the United States also developed. By the 1970s, the largest market for Canadian products was the United States. Economic links were further strengthened by the signing of the NAFTA agreement in 1994, which saw the lifting of tariffs on several key imports and exports.  Today, Canada and the United States are the world’s largest trading partners, and this relationship looks set to continue for the foreseeable future.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and US President Barack Obama meet in 2016. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and US President Barack Obama meet in 2016. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Canada’s great frontiers are its vast northern regions that stretch up into the Arctic. These lands consist of huge frozen seas and lakes, and barren, largely unproductive tundra. However, as global temperatures rise, access to the Arctic is becoming more viable, and this has led the countries which border the Arctic to make claims over the territory. It is widely believed that the Arctic seabed is home to some of the world’s largest deposits of natural resources, including petroleum and natural gas. Russia, Norway, Denmark, Canada and the United States all claim territorial seas and exclusive economic zones (EEZs) in the Arctic region, with an eye on these resources.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a country has a right to make a claim to any resources that are connected to its continental shelf, which includes underwater landmasses. Unfortunately, the countries involved in making territorial claims in the Arctic struggle to agree on what exactly constitutes their own exclusive waterways, and where one continental shelf begins and another ends. Considering how difficult it can often be for countries to agree on land borders that are easily visited and measured, it is unsurprising that a place as inhospitable as the Arctic seabed has caused so much disagreement and ambiguity.

Map of the Arctic, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Map of the Arctic, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

To demonstrate how serious these claims are, one only has to look back to 2007, when a Russian expedition performed a descent to the ocean bottom beneath the North Pole and planted a Russian Flag there. The other countries involved in the Arctic territorial claims, including Canada, expressed public outrage at this attempt to claim such a large part of the Arctic. These disputes also extend to two countries which may not appear to have any relation to each other. Currently, both Canada and Denmark claim ownership over Hans Island, which is a tiny, uninhabited island located between Canada and Greenland. This minor dispute highlights the extent to which Arctic sovereignty is currently contested.

Future Challenges

There are many things that Canada has done right since becoming an independent state. Its various social welfare programmes receive plenty of praise, and deservedly so. In addition to this, Canadians themselves are among the world’s most well-educated people, and reside in some of the world’s most liveable cities. Canada has invested a lot of time and money to ensure that the average Canadian has a high standard of living.

However, Canada will have to work hard in the coming decades to maintain this prosperity. Potentially declining tax revenues will force the government to reallocate resources to deal with the ageing population. For many years, immigration has been a driving force behind population growth in Canada, yet despite this, the birthrate has remained relatively low. This rapid increase in diversity, particularly in the large cities of Vancouver and Toronto, could also be a challenge for the Canadian authorities.

In recent years, particularly in the regions of Alberta and Yukon, economic growth has largely depended on the extraction of resources such as oil and minerals. While these industries will remain important looking forward, fluctuations in the value of these resources can very quickly make them economically unviable. Ensuring that a province or territory is not reliant on a single product or market should be the goal of any Canadian administration.

A final challenge for Canada will be securing its northern Arctic border and the resources that may lie beneath the seabed. As the polar icecaps melt and retreat, previously unaccessible shipping lanes are also becoming viable, so the establishment of clearly defined borders and sovereignty will be an important goal for Canada, as well as the other countries involved in the Arctic.

Source for statistics and figures: CIA World Factbook

This article was proofread and edited by my good friend Miles Raymer. Please check out his fantastic blog at http://www.words-and-dirt.com/ and his goodreads profile at http://www.goodreads.com/user/show/7208369-miles  

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