In physical size Canada is the second largest nation on earth. In size, it is second only to Russia with 3,851,788 square miles. If you look at the North American continent, you will notice that it continues to widen as you move north. Thus to cross Canada by road or rail entails a longer journey than crossing the United States. Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory is over 700 miles farther west than San Francisco while St. John’s, Newfoundland is nearly 1,000 miles farther east than Boston. This greater expanse gives Canada two more time zones than the lower 48 states.
They love to tell a story in Canada regarding its size. According to the story, a young man living in Vancouver (on the Pacific coast) receives a telegram from his father saying, “Son your brother is coming to visit you. His flight arrives in St. John’s on Saturday. Please pick him up at the airport.” Now St. John’s is the capital of Newfoundland (on the far Atlantic coast). Of course the parents are not aware of the fact that it is over 5,000 miles east of Vancouver. So the son writes back via e-mail, “Dear dad, you pick him up since you are closer.” St. John’s is 1,000 miles closer to London than it is to Vancouver. This anecdote may give you some appreciation of the size and scope of Canada.
Unlike the United States, Canada is an empty land. With a population of approximately 33,000,000, Canada has an average density of only eight people per square mile. With 318,968,000 people and 3, 717,813 square miles, the population density of the United States is 88.6 people per square mile, and this includes the vast emptiness of Alaska, so it is clear that Canadians have a lot more legroom than we do in the United States.
Despite the fact that Canada has so much legroom, most Canadians live in the major cities of the country, the majority of which are less than a day’s drive from the American border. Some wise guy American once said that if the border were not there, most Canadians would be living even farther south. He must have been from Florida as his reference was to the intense cold of the northern winters. Even though winter can be brutal, Canadians love their land and would not choose to live in the United States, although they do envy those who live in Florida or Arizona during the winter months. And many do spend the winter months south of the border in either Florida or Arizona, but that is only an interlude, as most Canadians would not want to live permanently in the United States. We are two different countries with two distinctly different lifestyles, so for Canadians living in the United States or for Americans living in Canada requires quite an adjustment.
This travel companion will focus upon two of Canada’s most popular urban centers. Toronto is the nation’s largest and most dynamic city. Situated along the northern shore of Lake Ontario, it is an eastern Canadian city with a strongly rooted British cultural heritage. Today, however, it has become quite cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse. Toronto is exciting, dynamic and yet retains its civility as a people oriented city. The great British actor Peter Ustinov once said when asked how he like Toronto, “It is like New York, but run by the Swiss.”
Vancouver is the country’s third largest city and the metropolis of the West Coast of Canada. It is a fast growing and fast paced city with its economic and much of its cultural orientation outward across the Pacific to Asia. One news reporter once said tongue in cheek that the city should be renamed “Hongcouver.” Many people did not appreciate the name, but it does allude to the strong Asian connection.
This is not a travel guide similar to Frommer’s, but rather a companion that first provides valuable background as to Canada as a nation and secondly introduces you to the cities of Toronto and Vancouver relative to their geography, history and culture. It does not provide recommendations as to restaurants, hotels or sightseeing opportunities. But it will in the end make you a more “savvy” visitor, giving you valuable background regarding these two dynamic urban centers.
But before we look at Toronto and Vancouver, it is first essential to talk in broad terms about the basic geography and history of Canada. So many potential visitors, especially those from the United States, have little or no knowledge of the scope of Canada. Nor do most people have a grasp of Canadian history. Visiting either city without having this understanding limits one’s capability to truly get to know these cities and their people. Canada may share the same landmass as the United States, but it lies to the north and also possesses many landscape features not found in its neighbor to the south. Historically this is a country with a deeply rooted French cultural background that was conquered by the British and ultimately developed two distinct personalities. Even though Toronto and Vancouver are not within the predominantly French speaking province of Québec, they are still governed by the same national rules concerning bilingualism.
Canada shares the Pacific Coast Mountains, the intermountain plateaus, Rocky Mountains and Prairies with the United States. But then above the Great Lakes the country is dominated over by the hard rock Canadian Shield, a vast region covered in thick forest and dotted with around a million lakes that result from the scour of the glaciers of the last Ice Age. The Great Lakes drain through the valley of the St. Lawrence River within Québec. Many large tributaries drain off the Canadian Shield into the St. Lawrence. To the east of the river, the Atlantic Provinces are essentially a part of the ancient Appalachian Mountain chain extending north to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Unlike the bulk of the United States, nearly all of Canada experiences harsh winters with snow covering the land. Only the Pacific Coast fringe has a milder, yet very wet maritime climate not unlike that of England. But the snow level hovers just a few hundred feet above sea level.
Canada is divided into ten provinces and three federal territories. A Canadian province is like a state, but it has a greater degree of internal autonomy and more political clout than U. S. states. For example, provinces can negotiate directly with foreign governments regarding the development of resources; they have a total say in the development of health care programs and they own most of the land within their boundaries whereas in the United States, most land that is not privately owned is federal land. Just as in the United States, a Canadian province has a capital city, issues its own license plates and is well marked with large welcome signs along its borders. Most of the provinces are much larger than their American counterpart states because they are fewer in number. You are lucky in that there are only ten to remember.
What about the national capital city? Canada’s national capital straddles the border between the provinces of Ontario and Québec. The main seat of government is in the city of Ottawa, Ontario, however, many important government offices are located across the Ottawa River in the sister city of Hull-Gatineau. As a nation that is bicultural and bilingual, the location of the national capital was deliberate, chosen in 1867 by Her Majesty Queen Victoria to be a center that would bind the two primary cultures together.
If you like this introduction, my entire book plus many other traveler’s companion books are all available here.
I would also invite you to join me in 2015 and 2016 during the summer months, as I will be cruising the Baltic Sea with Silversea Cruises.
For more information about joining Dr. Lew Deitch on one of these cruises, contact us.
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