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Ontario is a Canadian province, the most populous and the second largest in area (after Quebec). Its southern boundary runs along the St. Lawrence River and through Lake Ontario, the Niagara River, and Lake Erie; here the province borders on the American states of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

Ontario's northern boundary lies in Hudson Bay; here it borders the territory of Nunavut and the provinces of Manitoba and Quebec. Its eastern boundary is a land and river border with Quebec.

The western boundary consists of a land border with Manitoba and with the American state of Minnesota and of a marine border with Minnesota and Michigan; this boundary runs through Lakes Superior, Huron and St. Clair, their connecting waters, and the southern portion of the Detroit River.

The capital city of Ontario is Toronto, Ontario, the largest city in Canada. Ottawa, the capital of Canada, is also in Ontario. The 2006 Census reported 12,160,282 residents of Ontario, who constituted 38% of the national population.

The province is 1,076,395 km2 in area, of which 917,741 km2 are land.


The province has three main geographical regions. In the north, the Hudson Bay Lowlands consist largely of muskeg. To the south of the Hudson Bay Lowlands, and occupying over half the area of the province, is the Ontario portion of the Canadian Shield, a heavily forest area in which only a thin layer of soil covers bedrock. In the south is the arable Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Valley.


Before the arrival of Europeans, the territory which is now Ontario was occupied by Algonqians and Iroquoians.

New France

See also New France.

What is now Southern Ontario (the region bounded by Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, and Georgian Bay) was explored by Étienne Brûlé from 1610 to 1612 and claimed for New France, while Henry Hudson visited Hudson Bay and claimed the region for England in 1611. Samuel de Champlain visited Lake Huron in 1615, and French missionaries established outposts soon after. In 1730 the Hudson's Bay Company established an outpost at Moose Factory, now the oldest English-speaking settlement in Ontario.

Province of Quebec

See also History of Quebec

In 1763, Great Britain acquired what is now Southern Ontario and the shores of Lake Huron and Lake Superior through the Treaty of Paris as part of its acquisition of the French colony of New France. The British renamed New France the Province of Quebec. In 1774, the Quebec Act expanded the boundaries of Quebec to include the Ohio Country and Illinois Country, from the Appalachian Mountains on the east, south to the Ohio River, west to the Mississippi River and north to the southern boundary of Rupert's Land, the commercial territory of the Hudson's Bay Company. In 1783 the United States took over all land south of the Great Lakes, although a few British military posts were active until ended by the Jay Treaty of 1795.

In 1784, settlement of large numbers of United Empire Loyalists (Americans who had remained loyal to the British Crown) began. They settled mainly in Niagara and along the St. Lawrence River. More Americans followed, attracted by cheap, arable land. Sentiment grew in the region favouring British institutions, especially English law, and the use of English as an official language.

Upper Canada

The Constitutional Act of 1791 divided Quebec into Upper Canada (the part of present-day Ontario south of Lake Nipissing plus the current Ontario shoreline of Georgian Bay and Lake Superior) and Lower Canada (the southern part of present-day Quebec). Upper Canada used English law and English was its official language. Upper Canada's first capital was Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake); in 1796 it was moved to York, now Toronto.

Upper Canada was invaded during the War of 1812 by the United States, which hoped to annex it. The Americans were repelled by British regular troops, Canadian militia, and First Nations allies, although they controlled Lakes Erie and Ontario for a considerable time.

Following the war, British and Irish immigration to Upper Canada increased, and economic development accelerated. At the same time, resentment grew of the power of the Family Compact, a Tory clique which dominated the unelected executive council of advisers to the Governor-General while the unelected legislative assembly had little power. As in the other British North American provinces, a Reform movement, eventually led by William Lyon Mackenzie, arose. Disputation between Tories and Reformers was intense and sometimes violent; in 1826, for example, Tories threw the presses of Mackenzie's newspaper into Toronto Bay. In 1837, during a period of economic distress following a bad harvest, the Upper Canada Rebellion broke out. It was quickly suppressed, but the occurrence of a related rebellion in Lower Canada led the British to replace the governor-general with the Earl of Durham, whom they charged with reporting on the colonists' grievances.

Durham dropped charges against all rebels except Louis-Joseph Papineau, Mackenzie, and a few other leaders. However, he exiled eight rebels who had already been convicted to Bermuda, an act which exceeded his power (since he had no authority in Bermuda). When the British government declared he had no authority to do this, Durham resigned after only five months in power. However, he had already collected a great deal of information about the origins of the rebellions, and published a report in 1839.

Durham's report condemned oligarchic rule in both the Canadas, and observed that the rebellion in Lower Canada had been the result of conflict between French and English. Durham recommended that Upper and Lower Canada be re-united and given responsible government with control over local affairs. Union of Upper and Lower Canada was intended to eliminate the danger of a responsible government falling under French control, which Durham thought would promote reactionary ideas.

Canada West

The report consequently was opposed by French-Canadians and by Upper and Lower Canadian Tories. However, the British government, while rejecting proposals for responsible government in the Canadas, created the United Province of Canada in 1841. Upper Canada, now also known as Canada West, was given as many seats in the legislative assembly as Canada East, although it had far fewer people. This plan assured an anglophone majority in the Assembly, although it probably made Durham's proposed assimilation of the French impossible.

While unwilling to grant responsible government, the Colonial Office did allow the governor general to change the members of the executive council, which weakened the power of the Family Compact, which had developed as a result of appointing members for life. The British also made a large loan for public works. The movement for responsible government continued to grow, and in 1841 the governor-general, Sir Charles Bagot realized that to govern effectively he would have to admit French leaders to his executive council. Once admitted, Canada East Reformer Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine insisted that Canada West Reformer Robert Baldwin also be admitted. Baldwin had served in the council before, but his admission along with Lafontaine created a Reform bloc.

Beginning with the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, Britain abandoned mercantilist restrictions on free trade within the Empire. The abandonment of these restrictions also removed the justification for not granting responsible government to the colonies, since the interests of the trade system no longer had to be protected. In 1846 the Colonial Secretary, Lord Grey, informed the governor of Novia Scotia that the British North American governors were to select the ministers in their executive councils from the party holding a majority in the legislative assembly. In 1848, the new governor-general Lord Elgin, asked Lafontaine and Baldwin to form a government after the Reformers won a majority in that year's Canadian elections.

A further consequence of the abandonment of mercantilism was a Reciprocity Treaty with the United States, signed in 1854. It provided for free exchange of natural products between British north America and the United States, Canadian access to Lake Michigan, American access to the St. Lawrence, and access by each country to the other's fisheries. Trade between British North America and the United States increased, producing the Canadian Commercial Revolution of rapid commercial development. In Canada West, for example, an important lumber industry developed as a result of reciprocity.

In 1859 the province of Canada imposed a tariff on manufactured goods. When British manufacturers objected that the tariff violated the principle of free trade on which the British Empire was now based, Canada replied that the British had given the colonies power to decide their own trade policies, regardless of their effect on British interests. As commercial development increased, the British North American colonies became interested in promoting trade with each other to reduce their dependence on foreign trade.

As Canada West became more populous, discontent with the union with Canada East grew. Because Canada East and Canada West had the same number of seats in the Legislative Assembly, and because the members from Canada East voted as a bloc while the representatives from Canada West did not, Canada East received a disproportionately large share of government funding, and any government was essentially an alliance with two leaders, one English and one French. One of the consequences of this discontent was the Clear Grit movement in Canada West, which advocated American-style elective government and full democracy. They also called for a final secularization of the clergy reserves, with the money realized from sale of the reserves used to fund public education.

In Canada East, a similar party, the Parti rouge, appeared, but had little success because of its anticlericalism. The main French party, the Bleus, allied with the English Conservatives, who had abandoned their opposition to French political power after they realized, along with the Bleus, that an alliance would make their interests dominant under responsible government. The alliance advocated French political power and English commercial expansion. It was also supported by Reformers in Canada West other than the Clear Grits. While the Clear Grits represented farming interests, the other Reformers represented business interests.

In 1854, this tripartite alliance, led by Georges-Étienne Cartier, John A. Macdonald, and Francis Hincks, came to power as the Liberal-Conservative Party.

Province of Ontario


The Legislative Assembly of Ontario is unicameral. One hundred and seven ridings (electoral districts) each elect a single member of the Assembly. The winner of the election in each riding is the candidate who receives the most votes, regardless of the percentage of the vote he or she receives. A member of the Assembly is usually designated an MPP (Member of Provincial Parliament), although MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) is occasionally used. The Legislative Assembly is also frequently called the provincial parliament.

The leader of the party holding the most seats in the Legislative Assembly is officially the Premier and President of the Council (that is, of the Executive Council or cabinet), and is known as the premier. He or she may also be known as the prime minister of Ontario but, as in the other provinces, premier is preferred so that the premier will not be confused with the prime minister of Canada (in French, however, premier ministre is used both for provincial premiers and the federal prime minister).

Since 2003, general elections are to be held at least every four years. Before 2003 elections were called at the government's pleasure within five years of the previous election or when the government fell (was defeated on a money bill or a motion of no confidence). Unless the government falls before four years have elapsed, a general election is now held on the first Thursday in the fourth October following the previous general election, or on a date within a week of the first Thursday in October if the first Thursday in October is a day of religious or cultural observance which might interfere with citizens' ability to vote. In the 2007 elections, a referendum proposing the intorductoon of a form of proportional representation was defeated.

The executive branch of government consists of the monarch and his or her representative in Ontario, the Lieutenant Governor. Provincial bills require Royal Assent to come into effect. Generally, the Lieutenant Governor, who is appointed by the Governor General of Canada on the advice of the federal prime minister, carries out the will of cabinet.

The legislative buildings are in Queen's Park in Toronto.

Further reading

For a much more extensive list, see the Bibliography subpage

  • Baskerville, Peter A. Sites of Power: A Concise History of Ontario. Oxford U. Press., 2005. 296 pp. (first edition was Ontario: Image, Identity and Power, 2002). online review
  • Hall, Roger; Westfall, William; and MacDowell, Laurel Sefton, eds. Patterns of the Past: Interpreting Ontario's History. Dundurn Pr., 1988. 406 pp.
  • Halpern, Monda. And on that Farm He Had a Wife: Ontario Farm Women and Feminism, 1900-1970. McGill-Queen's U. Press, 2001. 234 pp.
  • Johnson, J. K. and Wilson, Bruce G., eds. Historical Essays on Upper Canada: New Perspectives. Carleton U. Press, (1975). . 604 pp.
  • Kilbourn, William.; The Firebrand: William Lyon Mackenzie and the Rebellion in Upper Canada (1956) online edition
  • Landon, Fred, and J.E. Middleton. Province of Ontario: A History (1937) 4 vol. with 2 vol of biographies
  • Mays, John Bentley. Arrivals: Stories from the History of Ontario. Penguin Books Canada, 2002. 418 pp.
  • Montigny, Edgar-Andre, and Lori Chambers, eds. Ontario since Confederation: A Reader (University of Toronto Press, 2000).
  • Noel, S. J. R. Patrons, Clients, Brokers: Ontario Society and Politics, 1791-1896. U. of Toronto Press, 1990.
  • Ontario Bureau of Statistics and Research. A Conspectus of the Province of Ontario (1947) online edition
  • Parr, Joy, ed. A Diversity of Women: Ontario, 1945-1980. U. of Toronto Press, 1996. 335 pp.
  • Rawlings-Way, Charles, and Natalie Karneef.Toronto (2007)
  • Rogers, Edward S. and Smith, Donald B., eds. Aboriginal Ontario: Historical Perspectives on the First Nations. Dundurn, 1994. 448 pp.
  • Schull, Joseph. Ontario since 1867 (1978), narrative history
  • White, Graham, ed. The Government and Politics of Ontario. 5th ed. U. of Toronto Press, 1997. 458 pp.
  • White, Randall. Ontario since 1985. Eastendbooks, 1998. 320 pp.