A popular song in the 1960s declared Ontario “a place to stand
and a place to grow.” As Canada’s most populous province, and
the centre of the majority of Canadian business, it has
certainly proven to be both a place to stand and a place to grow
for many Canadians — more than 13 million at last count. But
Ontario’s origins were much more humble.
A land of rocky Canadian Shield, with a fairly narrow belt of
fertile soil across its southern expanse, Ontario was home to
big game hunters in the north and more sedentary farmers in the
south when Europeans first came to the area. While attractive to
missionaries, seeking to convert First Nations to Christianity
and to fur traders and explorers, seeking to stake a claim for
European control and commerce, Ontario did not, at first, lure
many European settlers.
Following the American Revolution in the 1780s, many Americans
who remained loyal to Great Britain fled northward to the more
comfortable environment of British North America. These
so-called Loyalists camped as refugees in Quebec, where most
people spoke French. In an effort to keep both the old French
and the new English immigrants happy, Quebec was carved into two
pieces — Lower Canada to the east and Upper Canada to the west.
The political foundations for what would later become Ontario
Ontario — or Upper Canada, as it was still called — was
initially quite sparsely settled, with Loyalists establishing
just a few communities around Lake Ontario. But the land was
fertile, and the very British nature of both the government and
the culture attracted large numbers of immigrants from the
British Isles. By 1851, 60 years after it was formed, the
population was approaching a million, most immigrants either
from the United States or Britain.
By this time, too, Ontario was about to surpass its sister
colony in population. The relationship between Ontario and
Quebec, united both by history and economy but divided by
language, was one of the driving forces behind a larger
confederation of British North American colonies in 1867.
Seeking a new political arrangement as well as a more integrated
economy, politicians from Ontario were instrumental in
advocating Confederation and convincing more reluctant
politicians in Quebec and the Maritimes to go along with the
deal. They were successful, and in 1867 Ontario, Quebec, New
Brunswick, and Nova Scotia joined to form the new Dominion of
Ontario has always had the highest population of all the
provinces, and has continued to attract a steady flow of
immigrants from outside Canada. Toronto is certainly the largest
centre, but people have chosen to settle across much of
Ontario’s southern fertile belt since the middle of the 19th
century. This has meant displacing First Nations people.
Treaties established territory for First Nations within Ontario,
but recently there have been disputes about the extent of those
reserves and the activities that can be undertaken on them.
Thanks to an agreeable climate and advantageous trade policies,
Ontario early on developed a strong, well-integrated economy.
Far more agriculturally diverse than any other region of Canada,
Ontario farmers produce not only staple grain crops like wheat
and corn, but have also successfully planted orchards, vegetable
crops, vineyards and tobacco fields.
Ontario has also been blessed with lucrative natural resources.
The heavily forested northern part of the province has been a
key to Canada’s pulp and paper industry; nickel, iron, and
silver deposits were discovered in the Canadian Shield and
profitably mined; and water has been harnessed for
But more than the luck of Ontario’s location — as shown by its
climate and resources — the province has benefited from both
high tariff barriers, which for decades impeded the ability of
other regions to buy American products, and policies designed to
encourage domestic trade. Industry has been encouraged to locate
in Ontario, which in turn has lured people and investment into
the provinces. By the beginning of the 20th century, Ontario was
the economic engine driving the country. It continues to be so,
although other parts of the country are now making significant
economic gains on Ontario.
Economic strength has translated into political strength for
Ontario. The province has more Members of Parliament in the
House of Commons than any other, and this sometimes seems to
result in even more advantages for the central province. Ontario
has more money, thanks to a larger tax base, and continues to be
an attractive destination for immigrants, industry, technology
and sporting and cultural events. From the perspective of other
regions across the country, Ontario is often seen to have been
the undeserving beneficiary of Confederation. For the more than
12 million people who call Ontario home, however, it is still “a
place to stand and a place to grow.”
Next Instalment: Quebec: Heart of French Canada
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