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Land and Resources

The coast of the Canadian mainland, about 58,500 km (about 36,350 mi) in length, is extremely broken and irregular. Large bays and peninsulas alternate, and Canada has numerous coastal islands, in addition to the Arctic Archipelago, with a total insular coastline of some 185,290 km (some 115,135 mi). Off the eastern coast the largest islands are Newfoundland, Cape Breton, Prince Edward, and Anticosti. Off the western coast, which is fringed with fjords, are Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Islands. Southampton Island, covering 41,214 sq km (15,913 sq mi), and many smaller islands are in Hudson Bay, a vast inland sea in east central Canada.

Canada contains more lakes and inland waters than any other country in the world. In addition to the Great Lakes on the U.S. border (all partly within Canada except Lake Michigan), the country has 31 lakes or reservoirs of more than 1300 sq km (more than 500 sq mi) in area. Largest among these lakes are Great Bear, Great Slave, Dubawnt, and Baker in the mainland Northwest Territories; Nettilling and Amadjuak on Baffin Island; Athabasca in Alberta and Saskatchewan; Wollaston in Saskatchewan; Reindeer in Saskatchewan and Manitoba; Winnipeg, Manitoba, Winnipegosis, and Southern Indian in Manitoba; Nipigon and Lake of the Woods in Ontario; Mistassini in Qubec; and Smallwood Reservoir and Melville in Newfoundland.

Among the great rivers of Canada are the Saint Lawrence, draining the Great Lakes, and emptying into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence; the Ottawa and the Saguenay, the principal affluents of the Saint Lawrence; the Saint John, emptying into the Bay of Fundy, between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick; the Saskatchewan, flowing into Lake Winnipeg, and the Nelson, flowing from this lake into Hudson Bay; the system formed by the Athabasca, Peace, Slave, and Mackenzie rivers, emptying into the Arctic Ocean; the upper course of the Yukon, flowing across Alaska into the Bering Sea; and the Fraser and the upper course of the Columbia, emptying into the Pacific Ocean.

Physiographic Regions

Excluding the Arctic Archipelago, five general physiographic regions are distinguishable in Canada: The Canadian Shield, Appalachian, Great Lakes-Saint Lawrence, Interior Plains, and Cordillera. The largest region, designated either as the Canadian Shield or the Laurentian Plateau, extends from Labrador to Great Bear Lake, from the Arctic Ocean to the Thousand Islands in the Saint Lawrence River, and into the United States west of Lake Superior and into northern New York. This region of ancient granite rock, sparsely covered with soil and deeply eroded by glacial action, comprises all of Labrador (the easternmost part of the mainland, which is part of the province of Newfoundland), most of Qubec, northern Ontario, Manitoba, and most of the Northwest Territories, with Hudson Bay in the center.

Eastern Canada consists of the Appalachian region and the Great Lakes-Saint Lawrence lowlands. The former embraces Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, and the Gasp Peninsula of Qubec. This region is an extension of the Appalachian mountain system (continuations of the Green Mountains of Vermont and the White Mountains of New Hampshire) and of the Atlantic Coastal Plain. The Great Lakes-Saint Lawrence lowlands region, covering an area of about 98,420 sq km (about 38,000 sq mi) in southern Qubec and Ontario, is a generally level plain. This region includes the largest expanse of cultivable land in eastern and central Canada and most of the manufacturing industries of the nation.

Bordering the Canadian Shield on the west is the Interior Plains, an extension of the Great Plains of the United States. About 1300 km (about 800 mi) wide at the U.S. border, it narrows to about one-quarter of that size west of Great Bear Lake and widens again at the mouth of the Mackenzie River on the coast of the Arctic Ocean to about 500 km (about 300 mi). Within the Interior Plains are the northeastern corner of British Columbia, most of Alberta, the southern half of Saskatchewan, and the southern third of Manitoba. This region contains the most fertile soil in Canada.

The fifth and westernmost region of Canada embraces the uplifts west of the Interior Plains. The region belongs to the Cordillera, the vast mountain system extending from the southernmost extremity of South America to westernmost Alaska. In Canada, the Cordillera has an average width of about 800 km (about 500 mi). Part of western Alberta, much of British Columbia, the Inuvik Region and part of the Fort Smith Region of Northwest Territories, and practically all of Yukon Territory lie within this region. The eastern portion of the Cordillera in Canada consists of the Rocky Mountains and related ranges, including the Mackenzie, Franklin, and Richardson mountains. Mount Robson (3954 m/12,972 ft) is the highest summit of the Canadian Rockies, and ten other peaks reach elevations of more than 3500 m (about 11,500 ft). To the west of the Canadian Rockies is a region occupied by numerous isolated ranges, notably the Cariboo, Stikine, and Selkirk mountains, and a vast plateau region. Deep river valleys and extensive tracts of arable land are the chief features of the plateau region, particularly in British Columbia. Flanking this central belt on the west and generally parallel to the Pacific Ocean is another great mountain system. This system includes the Coast Mountains, an extension into British Columbia of the Cascade Range of the United States, and various coastal ranges. The loftiest coastal uplift is the Saint Elias Mountains, on the boundary between Yukon Territory and Alaska. Among noteworthy peaks of the western Cordillera in Canada are Mount Logan (5959 m/19,551 ft, the highest point in Canada and second highest mountain in North America after Mount McKinley), Mount Saint Elias (5489 m/18,008 ft), Mount Lucania (5226 m/17,147 ft), and King Peak (5173 m/16,971 ft); all are in the Saint Elias Mountains.


The Canadian Shield, which occupies the eastern half of Canada's landmass, is an ancient craton, or stable platform, made up of rocks that formed billions of years ago, during the Precambrian time of earth history. The shield, with its assemblage of granites, gneisses, and schists 2 to 4 billion years old, became the nucleus of the North American plate at the time that the earth's crust first began experiencing the tectonic forces that drive continental drift. See also North America: Geological History.

During the Paleozoic era, large parts of Canada were covered by shallow seas. Sediments deposited in these seas formed the sandstone, shale, and limestone that now surround the Canadian Shield. The Cambrian and Silurian systems are represented by great thicknesses of strata that appear in outcroppings in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland, along the Saint Lawrence Valley, and on the shores of Lake Ontario. Flat-lying beds of Paleozoic and younger rocks extend westward across the Interior Plains throughout the prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. In these areas, the rocks contain valuable deposits of oil and gas. In the Cordilleran region of western Canada, the rocks were subjected to tectonic forces generated by the collision of the North American plate with the Pacific plate. In the ensuing upheavals, which began during the Cretaceous period, mountain ranges rose throughout the Cordilleran region. The easternmost of these ranges, the Rocky Mountains, are similar in structure to the mountains of Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, having been built by uplift and folding of sedimentary rocks and, in lesser degree, by volcanic activity. The strata of which they are composed range in age from Paleozoic to Tertiary and contain valuable deposits of base and precious metals as well as fossil fuels.

During the Quaternary period, nearly all of Canada was covered by vast ice sheets that terminated in the northern United States. Landscapes were profoundly modified by the erosive action of this vast mass of moving ice, particularly in the creation of Canada's many thousands of lakes and its extensive deposits of sand, clay and gravel.


Part of the Canadian mainland and most of the Arctic Archipelago fall within the Frigid Zone; the remainder of the country lies in the northern half of the North Temperate Zone. As a consequence, general climatic conditions range from the extreme cold characteristic of the Arctic regions to the moderate temperatures of more southerly latitudes. The Canadian climate is marked by wide regional variations. In the Maritime provinces (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island), extremes of winter cold and summer heat are modified by oceanic influences, which also cause considerable fog and precipitation. Along the western coast, which is under the influence of warm ocean currents and moisture-laden winds, mild summers and winters, high humidity, and abundant precipitation are characteristic. In the Cordilleran region the higher western slopes of certain uplifts, particularly the Selkirks and the Rockies, receive sizable amounts of rain and snow, but the eastern slopes and the central plateau region are extremely arid. A feature of the Cordilleran region is the chinook, a warm, dry westerly wind that substantially ameliorates winter conditions in the Rocky Mountain foothills and adjoining plains, often causing great daily changes. For further climatic information, see articles on the individual provinces.

Natural Resources

Canada is richly endowed with valuable natural resources that are commercially indispensable to the economy. The country has enormous areas of fertile, low-lying land in the Prairie provinces (Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan) and bordering the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence River in southern Qubec and southern Ontario. Canadian forests cover about 49 percent of the country's land area and abound in commercially valuable stands of timber. Commercial fishing in Canada dates back nearly 500 years, and ocean waters, inland lakes, and rivers continue to support this industry. The mining industry of Canada has a long history of exploration and development that predates confederation in 1867. The Canadian Shield contains a wealth of minerals; the nation is also rich in reserves of crude petroleum and natural gas. The river and lake systems of the country combine with the mountainous topography to make hydroelectric energy one of the permanent natural assets of Canada. The wildlife of the country is extensive and varied.


The flora of the entire northern part of Canada is arctic and subarctic (see Tundra). A good part of the Maritime provinces is covered by forests of mixed hardwoods and softwoods. The Prairie provinces are comparatively treeless as far north as the Saskatchewan River system; prairie grasses, herbage, and bunchgrasses are the chief forms of vegetation. North of the Saskatchewan a broad belt of rather small and sparse trees extends from Hudson Bay to Great Slave Lake and the Rocky Mountains. Spruce, tamarack, and poplar are the principal species. The dry slopes and valleys of the Rocky Mountains support thin forests, mainly pine, but the forests increase in density and the trees in size westward toward the region of greater rainfall. On the coast ranges, especially on their western slopes, are dense forests of mighty evergreen trees. The principal trees are the spruce, hemlock, Douglas and balsam firs, jack and lodgepole pines, and cedar.


The animals of Canada are very similar or identical to those of northern Europe and Asia. Among the carnivores are several species of the weasel subfamily, such as the ermine, sable, fisher, wolverine, and mink. Other representative carnivores include the black bear, brown bear, lynx, wolf, coyote, fox, and skunk. The polar bear is distributed throughout the arctic regions; the puma, or American lion, is found in British Columbia. Of the rodents, the most characteristic is the beaver. The Canadian porcupine, the muskrat, and many smaller rodents are numerous, as are hare, and in the Interior Plains a variety of burrowing gopher is found.

Several varieties of Virginia deer are indigenous to southern Canada; the black-tailed deer occurs in British Columbia and parts of the plains region. This region is also the habitat of the pronghorn antelope. The woodland caribou and the moose are numerous and widely distributed, but the Barren Ground caribou is found only in the more northern areas, which are also the habitat of the musk-ox. Elk and bison are found in various western areas. In the mountains of British Columbia bighorn sheep and Rocky Mountain goats are numerous. Birds are abundant and diverse, and fish are numerous in all the inland waters and along all the coasts. Reptiles and insects are scarce, except in the far south.


Large areas of Canada are covered by boggy peat characteristic of the tundra and adjoining forest areas. This land is generally infertile and frequently mossy. A formation of rich dark brown and black prairie soils runs from southern Manitoba west across Saskatchewan and into Alberta, forming Canada's best farmland. The gray-brown soil of the St. Lawrence Basin and the Great Lakes is also good farmland. Only about 5 percent of Canada's land is suitable for farming, however, the remainder being too mountainous, rocky, wet, or infertile.