Canada is by size, the largest country in North America, second in the world overall (behind only Russia). Renowned worldwide for its vast, untouched landscape, its blend of cultures and multifaceted history, Canada is one of the world’s wealthiest countries and a major tourist destination.
“With or without the Royals, we are not Americans. Nor are we British. Or French. Or Void. We are something else And the sooner we define this, the better.” — Will Ferguson
Canada is a land of vast distances and rich natural beauty. Economically and technologically, and in many other ways she closely resembles her neighbour to the south, the United States, although there
are significant differences between the two countries. While both countries have a long and continuing history of colonialism over the Indigenous people of their countries, Canada is perfectly happy with its British heritage and many Canadians are proud of this. Much of Canada’s current built environment and influence has come primarily from immigrants from two European nations, Britain and France. This dual nature is very different than in the United States, and in some parts of Canada, particularly Quebec and parts of New Brunswick, Canadians primarily speak French. Canada became a self-governing dominion in 1867 by an act of the British parliament, and is still a proud member of the Commonwealth of Nations. By 1931 it was more or less fully independent of the United Kingdom, although true independence did not occur until 1982. Canada’s past and ongoing colonialism is still of some contention between Indigenous people, Canadians, and the Canadian government. Though a medium-sized country by its population (35 million), Canada has earned respect on the international stage for its strong diplomatic skills, peacekeeping efforts, and respect for human rights. Canadians generally enjoy a very high quality of life – Canada consistently scores very well on indices of economic freedom, corruption, respect for civil rights, and more. Domestically, the country has displayed some success in negotiating compromises amongst its own culturally and linguistically varied populations, a difficult task considering that language, culture, and even history can vary significantly throughout the whole country. Similarly to the United States’ traditional image of itself as a melting pot, there are many different minorities from all over the world living in Canada, particularly in urban centers. Canadians are, for the most part, used to living and interacting with people of different ethnic backgrounds on a daily basis and will usually be quite friendly and understanding if approached in public. The country is largely urban-based, where peoples of all backgrounds may rub elbows with one another.
The Canadian Sir Sandford Fleming first proposed time zones for the entire world in 1876, and Canada, being a continental country, is covered coast to coast with multiple zones. Canada uses the 12-hour clock system, however the 24-hour clock system is used in the provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick where French is an official language and this clock system is used with that language; and where ambiguity must be avoided, such as train or airline schedules when given in both English and French, because they will be indicated in each clock system. Daylight Saving Time, when clocks are moved forward by one hour, is observed in most of the country from 02:00 on the second Sunday in March until 02:00 on the second Sunday in November; during this time, for example, British Columbia is observing GMT-7 while Alberta is observing GMT-6. Saskatchewan does not observe Daylight Savings Time, but the City of Lloydminster does.
GMT-8 Pacific Time (Yukon, British Columbia)
GMT-7 Mountain Time (Alberta, Northwest Territories, Nunavut)
GMT-6 Central Time (Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario)
GMT-5 Eastern Time (Ontario, Quebec)
GMT-4 Atlantic Time (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island)
GMT-3.5 Newfoundland Time (Newfoundland and Labrador)
Canada’s official measurements are metric, however some people, especially those aged 40 and over, will still use the imperial system for many things. One of the most common holdovers from the imperial system is the use of feet and inches for measurement of short distances and heights, and especially the use of pounds for masses, even among younger Canadians. However in the province of Quebec, the metric system is used more widely by the population. You will still hear older Canadians use the term ‘mile’ when referring to informal distances, and may also give temperatures in Fahrenheit when referring to pools and hot tubs. All weather forecasts will be in °C, except for border towns such as Windsor and Niagara Falls where media often give weather forecasts in °F.
Trying to distil the climate of Canada into an easy-to-understand statement is impossible, given the vast area and diverse geography within the country. Overall, in most places, winters are harsh compared to much of the world, on par with northern Eurasia. The most populated region, southern Ontario, has a less severe climate, similar to the bordering regions of the midwestern and northeastern United States. Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, is just south of the Arctic Circle and remains very cold except for the months of July and August, when the July average maximum is only 12°C (54°F). On the other hand, the coastlines of British Columbia are very mild for their latitude, remaining above freezing for most of winter, yet they are not far away from some of the largest mountain glaciers found on the continent.
Most of the large Canadian urban areas are within 200 kilometres (124 mi) of Canada’s border with the United States (Edmonton and Calgary being the only exceptions). Visitors to most cities will most likely not have to endure the weather that accompanies a trip to more remote northern or mountainous areas often pictured on postcards of Canada. Summers in the most populated parts of Canada are generally short and hot. Summer temperatures over 35°C (95°F) are not unusual in Southern Ontario, the southern Prairies and the southern Interior of B.C., with Osoyoos being the hot spot of Canada for average daily maximums. Toronto’s climate is only slightly cooler than many of the larger cities in the northeastern United States, and summers in the southern parts of Ontario and Quebec (includes Montreal) are often hot and humid. In contrast, humidity is often low in the western interior during the summer, even during hot weather, and more cooling occurs at night. In the winter, eastern Canada, particularly the Atlantic Provinces, are sometimes subject to inclement weather systems entering from the U.S. bringing snow, high wind, rain, sleet, and temperatures in their wake of under -10°C (14°F).
Many inland cities, especially those in the Prairies, experience extreme temperature fluctuations, sometimes very rapidly. Owing to a dry climate (more arid west than east on the southern Prairies), bright sunshine hours are plentiful in the 2300-2600 annual hours range. Winnipeg (also colloquially known as ‘Winterpeg’) has hot summers with bouts of aggressive humidity, yet experiences very cold winters where temperatures around -40°C (-40°F) are not uncommon and can stay below -15°C (5°F) for long stretches. The official hottest temperature in Canada ever recorded was in southern Saskatchewan, at 45°C (113°F), while the coldest was in Snag, Yukon -63°C (-81°F). Summer storms in the Prairies and Ontario can be violent and sometimes unleash strong damaging winds, hail, and rarely, tornadoes. On the west coast of British Columbia, Vancouver and Victoria are far more temperate and get very little snow, average low wind speeds and seldom experience temperatures below 0°C or above 27°C (32-80°F) but receive high rainfall amounts in winter then in turn dry, sunny, pleasant summers.
The average temperature is typically colder in Canada than in the U.S. and Western Europe as a whole, so bring a warm jacket and other winter clothing if visiting between October and April. The rest of the year, over most of the country, daytime highs are generally well above 15°C (60°F) and usually into the 20s-30s°C(70s-90s°F) range during the day.
Canada recognizes and celebrates the following national holidays (some provinces may have minor differences):
New years day — 1 January
Family Day — 3rd Monday in February (not observed in all provinces, known as Louis Riel Day in Manitoba, Islander Day in PEI)
Good Friday — typically sometime during week of April, always on a Friday
Easter Sunday — typically first Sunday in April
Victoria Day—Last Monday in May before 24 May (always one week before the U.S. holiday of Memorial Day)
Canada Day—1 July
Civic Day — first Monday in August (only applies in some provinces, under different names ie. in Ontario its referred to as Simcoe Day after an early Lieutenant Governor)
Labour Day — first Monday in September
Thanksgiving—Second Monday in October (the same day as the U.S. holiday of Columbus Day)
Remembrance Day —11 November (this day is observed in the U.S. as Veterans Day)
Christmas — 25 December
Boxing day—26 December
Note also that Canada’s Labour Day is not celebrated on 1 May, as in much of the world, but on the first Monday in September (the same day as the U.S. celebrates its Labor Day).
Canada’s government is a parliamentary democracy based on the Westminster system inherited from the British and similar to that of the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Canada is formally a constitutional monarchy, with Queen Elizabeth II as the head of state. She is represented in Canada by the Governor-General, currently Julie Payette, who carries out her duties. The monarchy serves mostly as a figurehead, though, and in practice the Prime Minister, his or her cabinet, and the Parliament are the source of almost all real political power.
Canada is a federal state, and Canadian provinces have a great deal of autonomy. Each province has its own legislature and provincial government, and the Canadian constitution defines certain areas of exclusively provincial jurisdiction. For example, each province sets its own drinking age, minimum wage, sales tax, labour regulations, and administers their own road, healthcare and education systems. Two of the three territories’ legislative assemblies (Nunavut and the Northwest Territories) are peculiar, as they are non-partisan – no political parties are represented.
There are three main parliamentary parties at the federal level: the currently-governing Liberal Party (centre), the opposition Conservative Party (right of centre), and the New Democratic Party (left of centre).
Visiting Canada all in one trip is a massive undertaking. Over 5000 kilometres (3100 mi) separate St.em\ John’s, Newfoundland from Victoria, British Columbia (about the same distance separates London and Riyadh, or Tokyo and Kolkata). To drive from one end of the country could take 7-10 days or more (and that assumes you’re not stopping to sightsee on the way). A flight from Toronto to Vancouver takes over 4 hours. When speaking of specific destinations within Canada, it is better to consider its distinct regions
Atlantic Provinces (New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island)
This region is known for its history, particularly during the formation of Canada as a sovereign state. Atlantic Canada is well-known for unique accents, the origin of Acadian culture, natural beauty (particularly around coastal areas), the historic beauty of Halifax, and a huge fishing and shipping industry. It is also home to the distinctive culture of Newfoundland and Labrador, which was simultaneously the first part of what is now Canada to be explored by Europeans and the last part to join the confederation.
Quebec is one of the most unique regions in Canada, and for that matter, North America. Originally settled as part of New France, Quebec is culturally distinct from the rest of Canada. French is the dominant language, unlike the rest of the country, and the province is known for great cultural sites like Quebec City’s Winter Festival, Montreal’s classic architecture, and maple syrup and poutine (two staples of Canadian cuisine). Montreal is also the second largest French-speaking city in the world, though through centuries of influence from both the British and the French, its inhabitants have developed a distinct sense of identity.
Canada’s most populous province is also quite geographically vast, allowing for endless activities to partake in. Toronto, Canada’s largest city, is eclectic and vibrant, and prides itself on its multiculturalism. The province is also home to Ottawa, Canada’s charming, bilingual capital, as well as Niagara Falls, and the untapped natural beauty of the Muskoka and beyond. All these things and more make Ontario showcase a lot of what is considered quintessentially Canadian by outsiders.
Prairies (Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan)
Known for their vast open spaces and plentiful resources, the Canadian Prairies are a dynamic set of provinces with some of the most stunning natural beauty in the world. On the western edge of the Prairies, in Alberta lie the mountainous national parks of Banff and Jasper, and on the eastern edge in Manitoba, lies the beginning of the Canadian Shield, which contains some of the oldest rock on the surface of the earth. The major cities of Calgary, Edmonton, and Winnipeg are modern cities with everything from massive rodeos to high-class museums.
Colloquially known as “B.C.”, this province prides itself on being beautiful. From cultured Vancouver, to charming Victoria, to the iconic ski slopes in Whistler, to the wineries of the Okanagan, B.C. is filled with wonder, both natural and man-made. The province also has the mildest winters in Canada on average (though often cloudy), especially in coastal regions, making it popular with Canadians who are less enthusiastic about winter.
The North (Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Yukon)
The Territories are some of the most remote regions on Earth and constitute most of Canada’s landmass. Though more known for their unique fauna and landscapes, the Territories also have some interesting human settlements, including Dawson City, a city that looks nearly untouched from the gold rush of 1898, and Iqaluit, Canada’s newest territorial capital, which is home to some interestingly adaptive architecture to the harsh climate of the North.
There are many cities in Canada, all of which are distinctive, welcoming to tourists, and well worth visiting. Just NINE of these are:
Ottawa – Sitting in Eastern Ontario with a view of Quebec across the river, Ottawa is the national capital of Canada. It’s home to Parliament Hill, many national museums, the ByWard Market, and the best Canada Day celebrations.
Calgary – Confident and modern, Calgary is booming like nowhere else in Canada currently. Every summer, it plays host to the Calgary Stampede, a near city-wide celebration of Calgary’s ranching heritage. The city is also home to the Calgary Tower, Calgary Zoo, and Canada Olympic Park (the city hosted the 1988 Winter Olympics). Calgary is a stepping off point for visitors to Banff and the Canadian Rockies, 1 hour away.
Halifax – home to the second largest natural harbour in the world, Halifax is rich in history with architecture dating back to colonial times. The city is very compact and walkable, meaning most amenities are just a short walk away (if you’re downtown), such as the Citadel Hill, Canadian Museum of the Atlantic, the Public Gardens (oldest park in Canada), and Pier 21.
Montreal – Once Canada’s largest metropolis, Montreal can still pack a serious punch as one of the most unique cities in North America. It is the cultural heart of Canada’s francophone culture, and the city’s multilingualism is one of its defining aspects. Have a Montreal-styled bagel in Mile End, stroll the streets of Old Montreal, take the metro to Olympic Park, visit one of the city’s innumerous festivals, and take in the views atop Mont-Royal.
Quebec City – Quebec’s capital city, which is well known for its quaint Old City, it’s grand winter festival, and gorgeous architecture, such as the Chateau Frontenac. Visitors and locals alike boast about Quebec City’s charming European feel.
Toronto – As the largest city in Canada, Toronto is economic and cultural capital of Canada (particularly Anglophone Canada). Toronto prides itself on its diversity and is famous for landmarks like the CN Tower. But Toronto is also a very eclectic city, home to endless neighbourhoods that offer quality shopping, cuisine, and cultural amenities. The city is also home to the third largest live theatre scene in the world (after New York and London).
Vancouver – A city unto urbanism itself, Vancouver is clean, modern, and efficient. Owing in part to its mild climate (that never gets too cold or too hot), the city has a strong outdoorsy streak in it. Vancouver is a city where you can hit the beach and the ski slopes in the same day. The city was also host to the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Whitehorse – Midpoint of the Alaska Highway, gateway to the outdoor activities of Canada’s far north.
Winnipeg – Formerly known as the “Bulls Eye of the Dominion”, this city has a rich mixture of culture, including Metis and French-Canadian. Winnipeg also contains the Royal Canadian Mint, the old skyscrapers of the Exchange District, and the vibrant Forks.