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The Commonwealth


Caribbean and Americas

Did you know:

Canada was a founder member of the Commonwealth in 1931 when its independence was recognised under the Statute of Westminster, and Arnold Smith of Canada was the first Commonwealth Secretary-General (1965–75).

In 2013 short story writer Alice Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and Eliza Robertson won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

Three Canadians have won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize: Mordecai Richler, in 1990; Rohinton Mistry (born in Bombay, India), in 1992 and 1996; and Lawrence Hill, in 2008.

The Commonwealth Association for Public Administration and Management has its HQ in Ottawa, the Commonwealth of Learning in Vancouver and the Commonwealth Journalists Association in Toronto.

Key facts

Joined Commonwealth: 1931 (Statute of Westminster)
Population: 35,182,000 (2013)
GDP: 1.3% p.a. 1990–2013
UN HDI: world ranking 8
Official language: English, French
Timezone: GMT minus 8–3hr
Currency: Canadian dollar (C$)


Area: 9,976,000 sq km
Coastline: 202,100km
Capital city: Ottawa
Population density (per sq. km): 4

The second largest country in the world, Canada comprises the northern half of the North American continent, bordering with the USA to the south and north-west (Alaska). It is bounded by three oceans: the Pacific to the west; the Arctic to the north; and the Atlantic to the east. Indented shores and numerous islands (some very large) give it the longest coastline of any country at 202,100 km. Cape Columbia on Ellesmere Island is 768 km from the North Pole.

Canada is a federation of ten provinces and three territories. The provinces (and provincial capitals) are: Alberta (Edmonton), British Columbia (Victoria), Manitoba (Winnipeg), New Brunswick (Fredericton), Newfoundland and Labrador (St John’s), Nova Scotia (Halifax), Ontario (Toronto), Prince Edward Island (Charlottetown), Québec (Québec), Saskatchewan (Regina); and the territories (and capitals): Northwest Territories (Yellowknife), Nunavut (Iqaluit) and Yukon (Whitehorse). Nunavut was formed in April 1999 – from the eastern and central parts of the Northwest Territories – as a semi- autonomous region for the Inuit people.

Main towns:

Ottawa (capital, Ontario, pop. 883,391 in 2011), Toronto (Ontario, 5.13m), Montréal (Québec, 3.4m), Vancouver (British Columbia, 2.13m), Calgary (Alberta, 1.09m), Edmonton (Alberta, 960,015), Québec (696,946), Winnipeg (Manitoba, 671,551), Hamilton (Ontario, 670,580), Halifax (Nova Scotia, 297,943), Saskatoon (Saskatchewan, 222,035), Regina (Saskatchewan, 192,796), St John’s (Newfoundland and Labrador, 165,346), Fredericton (New Brunswick, 61,522) and Charlottetown (Prince Edward Island, 42,602).


The country has 1,042,300 km of roads, including an extensive network of expressways. The 7,821 km Trans-Canada Highway is the longest national highway in the world.

East–west routes predominate on both the privately owned freight railway systems. The total system extends over 58,345 km. Toronto and Montréal have underground urban railway systems, called the Subway and Metro respectively.

The St Lawrence Seaway, opened in 1959, provides a water transport system from the Atlantic Ocean to the head of the Great Lakes. It has a system of locks to lift vessels 170 metres between Montréal and Lake Superior. Of the many international ports, the busiest is Vancouver. Remote areas are accessible only by air. There are well over 1,000 airports, more than 800 with paved runways.

International relations:

Canada is a member of Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Organisation for Economic Co- operation and Development, Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, Organization of American States, United Nations and World Trade Organization.

With the USA and Mexico, Canada is a member of the North America Free Trade Association.


There are six physical regions. The largest is the Precambrian (or Canadian) Shield, the dominant geological feature of the country. It consists of ancient, very hard rocks to the north of the St Lawrence river, occupying nearly half of Canada’s total area and including plateau-like highlands with thousands of lakes and rivers. Almost a quarter of the world’s fresh water is concentrated here.

The second region is the Appalachian mountains to the east, which cover Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and part of Québec. The mountains have been eroded by glaciers, wind and water over 300 million years; their highest elevation, in Gaspe’s Shickshock Mountains, is under 1,300 metres.

The third region is the Great Lakes–St Lawrence Lowlands in the south-east, stretching from Québec City to Lake Huron. It is the country’s most productive agricultural area.

The fertile Interior Plains or prairies, the fourth region, are a vast expanse of land and sky, rising gently from Manitoba to Alberta and spreading northward through the Mackenzie river valley to the Arctic Ocean.

The Western Cordillera, the fifth region, is a rocky spine of mountains along the Pacific coastline. The Cordillera stretches from South America to Alaska, and the Canadian portion includes many peaks over 3,000 metres, the highest being in the Rocky Mountains.

The Arctic region, finally, consists of hundreds of islands, covering an area of 2,800 km by 1,800 km and reaching to Canada’s northern tip.


In the High Arctic, temperatures rise above freezing for only a few weeks in July/August. The boreal forest area is snow- bound for more than half the year and precipitation is light, except along the Labrador coast.

The eastern Atlantic region has changeable winter temperatures and heavy snowfall. Fog is common, especially in Newfoundland and Labrador. July/August temperatures are 16–18°C. Winter also brings heavy snowfalls to the Great Lakes–St Lawrence region; but summer temperatures average almost 20oC, with heat waves.

The prairies have cold winters and hot summers, with rapid air flow bringing dramatic weather changes. Annual average precipitation in southern Saskatchewan is less than 350 mm, compared with 1,110 mm in Vancouver, to the west.

The coast of British Columbia has the most temperate climate in Canada.


The most significant environmental issues are damage to forests and lakes by acid rain, and contamination of oceans by waste and run-off from agriculture, industry and mining.


The Appalachian region is heavily wooded, with mixed sugar maple and spruce. Similar forests flourish in the Great Lakes–St Lawrence Lowlands, and white pine, spruce and fir thrive in the south of the Precambrian Shield. The far north of the Shield and the Arctic are too cold for trees, but mosses, lichens, short grasses and dwarf shrubs burst into life and quickly fade in a six- week summer.

A desert-like sweep of short grasses in the southernmost parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan is succeeded further north by fertile grasslands, where millions of ponds provide breeding grounds for half of North America’s ducks, geese, swans and pelicans, and for mosquitoes. British Columbia is heavily forested, containing some huge trees including some 1,000 year-old Douglas firs.

Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), thought to have arrived from Europe in the 1890s, is causing havoc to wildlife in marshes, ponds and stream banks. Arable land comprises five per cent of the total land area and forest 34 per cent, there having been no significant loss of forest cover during 1990–2012.


Canada has 34 national parks, including the Rocky Mountains NP. In the tundra of the far north are found seals, polar bears, the gigantic musk-oxen and caribou. In the extensive stretches of forest are moose, brown, black and grizzly bears, and beavers, one of Canada’s national symbols. The grasslands were once home to enormous herds of bison but extensive hunting means these are now only to be found in wildlife reserves. Some 11 mammal species and 13 bird species are thought to be endangered (2014).


From 1968 to 1984, Canadian politics was dominated by Pierre Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party and four times Prime Minister. During his administrations, social welfare was increased, immigration liberalised and multiculturalism promoted. After his retirement in 1984, his party was eventually ousted by the Progressive Conservative Party (PCP) under Brian Mulroney, who promoted more stringent social policies, some privatisation and free trade.

Brian Mulroney was succeeded in 1993 by Kim Campbell, Canada’s first woman Prime Minister. Campbell and the Conservatives were crushingly defeated in the October 1993 elections, winning only two seats. The Liberal Party, led by Jean Chrétien, won 177 seats. Recently established parties, the Reform Party (52 seats) and Bloc Québécois (54), did well in the election.

In an early general election in June 1997, Chrétien and the Liberal Party retained power with a reduced majority, winning 155 seats. The Reform Party took 60 seats, Bloc Québécois 44. The PCP recovered to 20 seats and the New Democratic Party also won 20, up from nine in 1993. The elections exposed the increasing regionalisation of Canadian politics, with 101 of the Liberal seats being won in Ontario and the remainder in a few large cities. The Reform Party’s seats were almost exclusively in the west of the country.

The Canadian Alliance became the official opposition in the federal House of Commons in March 2000 when the Reform Party joined it.


The Parti Québécois (PQ) was founded in 1968, with a separatist programme. It came to power in Québec in 1976 and a referendum on Québec sovereignty was held in 1980 in which 60 per cent of Québec voters rejected secession. However, Québec did not approve the new Federal Constitution of 1982, and the issue remained unresolved.

A way forward was apparently found by the Meech Lake accord in 1987. Its main points were the recognition of Québec as a ‘distinct society’ and new provincial powers. However, Manitoba and Newfoundland failed to ratify the accord before the 1990 deadline and New Brunswick then halted its own ratification process. Many Québécois were antagonised by what they interpreted as a rejection of their interests, culture and language. Extensive public consultations on constitutional reform followed, culminating in the Charlottetown accord of 28 August 1992. Among other things, this accord recognised Québec as a distinct society and also recognised aboriginal rights to self-government within Canada. However, the Charlottetown Accord proposals were rejected in a national referendum in October 1992.

Despite the clear practical difficulties of secession, the PQ, winning the provincial elections of 1994, held a referendum on the separatist option on 30 October 1995. The result was a narrow defeat for the secessionists: a majority of less than one per cent voted to remain within the federation of Canada.

In August 1998 the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that under both federal and international law Québec only had the right to secede with the agreement of both federal and seven of the ten provincial legislatures. However, it did stipulate that should a clear majority of the people of Québec vote to secede, then the federal and provincial governments should enter into negotiations with it in good faith.

In Québec’s provincial elections in November 1998, the vote was evenly divided between the PQ and the Liberals, although the PQ was returned with 75 of the 125 seats – but only 43 per cent of the votes cast. With voters divided, it seemed unlikely that the PQ would risk another referendum in the near future.

During 2000, the federal parliament passed legislation giving it the right to approve questions to be posed in future referendums on secession by individual provinces.

History of Canada

A Documentary about Canada

Learn more about Canada on The Commonwealth site Society, Economy, Constitution & politics, History and Travel.

Learn lots about Canada at

Tourists Discover... CANADA

Canada Day 150! From Coast to Coast to Coast

Business in the Commonwealth
Web site of the Country

Canada and the Commonwealth

The modern Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 53 countries, most with historic links to the United Kingdom and home to over two billion citizens.

Canada joined the Commonwealth in 1931 and has played an important role in its evolution into the modern Commonwealth of today. Canadian diplomat Arnold Smith served as the first Commonwealth Secretary-General from 1965 to 1975. The current Secretary-General is the Rt Hon Patricia Scotland QC. She is the sixth Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, and the first woman to hold the post.

The mandate of the Commonwealth is to serve the needs of its member governments and their citizens in political, economic and social development. The Commonwealth also provides a forum for deliberation, problem solving, consensus decision-making, and action on matters of importance to the organization.

The Commonwealth sees itself as an advocate for small and vulnerable states, helping to strengthen their resilience and inclusion in the global order. Each year, the Commonwealth selects a theme. The theme for 2018 is “Towards a Common Future”.

Canada funds the Commonwealth and its institutions through assessed and voluntary contributions as a member state of the Commonwealth. Canada is one of the top three donors, and contributed $8.1 million to the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Commonwealth Foundation in 2016-17. In 2015-16, Canada renewed its institutional and project support to the Commonwealth of Learning for $7.8 million over three years (2.6 million in 2016-17), for a total contribution of $10.7 million to the Commonwealth in 2016-17.

Canada participates in the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) every two years. Leaders review the progress of previous commitments, discuss matters for mutual participation, and provide direction to the organization. CHOGM 2018 will be hosted by the United Kingdom and it will be held the week of April 16th, 2018.

The Commonwealth includes three intergovernmental organizations – the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Commonwealth Foundation and the Commonwealth of Learning (COL), (located in Burnaby, B.C.) and over 80 accredited civil society organizations.

Commonwealth of Learning

The Commonwealth of Learning (COL) focusses on strengthening institutions in developing Commonwealth countries that are striving to provide affordable education to larger numbers of their citizens. It is the only intergovernmental organization dedicated to the development and sharing of open learning and distance education knowledge, resources and technologies. COL is helping developing members improve access to quality education and training. Canada is the largest donor, and provides one-third of its annual funding.

Commonwealth Foundation

The Commonwealth Foundation is dedicated to supporting civil society so that success stories may be shared, learning enabled and cooperation fostered in order to influence the institutions that shape people’s lives. The Commonwealth Foundation strives for more effective, responsive and accountable governance with civil society participation, which contributes to improved development outcomes.

See also

Return to our Commonwealth Page


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