Ontario is Canada's most populous and second-largest province. It stretches from Canada's southernmost point at Middle Island in Lake Erie in the south, to the Manitoba-Ontario border on Hudson Bay in the north, and from the banks of the St. Lawrence River in the east, to the Manitoba border in the west. The name Ontario, from a Huron word sometimes translated as meaning "beautiful lake" or "beautiful water," is apt, since lakes cover 17 per cent of the province's total area of just over one million km2.

Land and Resources

Ontario has the most varied landscape of any Canadian province. Two-thirds of the province lies under the Canadian Shield, which covers most of the north, with the exception of the Hudson Bay Lowland. The Shield’s southern-most boundary forms a triangular wedge, extending from Georgian Bay in the west to its apex near Brockville on the St. Lawrence River. To the east lies the eastern Ontario plain, between the Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers. To the west, from Kingston on, there are belted rolling hills and plains culminating in the flat country in extreme southwestern Ontario. The Niagara Escarpment, extends from Niagara north to Tobermory, and through Manitoulin Island in Georgian Bay.

Ontario is often considered to be three distinct regions: the Hudson Bay Lowlands, the Canadian Shield and the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Lowlands. Agriculture, as well as most of the population, is concentrated in the south. By comparison, northern Ontario, with nearly 90 per cent of the land, contains only six per cent of the population. Despite the tendency to divide the province in three, geology, climate, soil and vegetation combine to create distinct areas within these broad classifications.


The rocks of the Shield are among the oldest on Earth, dating from the Archaean and Proterozoic eons of the Precambrian era. The oldest sections, for example, are two billion years old, the youngest, 900 million. These formations contain the large mineral deposits that are so important to the economy of northern Ontario.

The sedimentary limestone, shale and sandstone underlying southern Ontario are more recent than the Shield, dating from the Paleozoic era, and are generally of the Ordovician, Silurian and Devonian periods. With the exception of the Niagara Escarpment, outcrops of these rocks are rare.

All of Ontario was, at one time or another, covered by glaciation. About 10,000 years ago the last ice sheet covering the province receded, resulting in the many lakes in the north and the beginnings of the Great Lakes along its southern and western borders. These early Great Lakes were considerably larger than their present descendants. As they evolved, they left behind a sand base along which many of the province’s first roads were located. The rivers that once drained them, such as the Grand River, now flow through broad valleys.

The effect of the ice age is still apparent. Scattered across southern Ontario are rocks left behind by the glaciers. Systems of moraines, marking the edges of stalled glaciers, run across the province. The Oak Ridge Moraine, forming the height of land between Lake Ontario and Georgian Bay, is the most prominent. The Horseshoe Moraines parallel the eastern shore of Lake Huron to the base of the Bruce Peninsula and southeast along the escarpment, then southwest toward Lake Erie. Other deposits, called drumlins, are especially frequent in the Peterborough region.


The Shield is mostly, but not entirely, unsuitable for agriculture. The podzolic soils in this northern region are extremely thin and low in fertility, but are still sufficient enough to support boreal forests. There are only a few areas, such as the clay belts in northeastern Ontario or the Rainy River area in the northwest, where enough farming is possible to create the impression of an agricultural landscape.

Northern Ontario’s forest cover is not uniform. In the extreme north stunted willows and black spruce struggle to grow in bogs; farther south, spruce, aspen and jack pine dominate the northern Shield. Farther south again, to the east and west of Lake Superior, the Shield is covered by a mixed forest, known as the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence forest region.

In the early 19th century magnificent stands of white pine, the foundation of the central Canadian forest industry, as well as hard maples, were found in eastern Ontario. However, due to these early logging practices, the abundance of white pine in northern Ontario remains dramatically reduced.

The grey-brown luvisolic soils of southern Ontario that developed under forest vegetation from till and glacial deposits are reasonably fertile. Deltas, left behind from the ice age, form sand plains, especially to the north of Lake Erie.


Ontario has over 250,000 lakes, which contain approximately one third of the world’s fresh water supply, and over 80 per cent of Ontario residents get their drinking water from them.

Ontario also has many rivers; those in Southern Ontario flow into the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River system and eventually to the Atlantic Ocean, while most rivers in Northern Ontario drain into James Bay and Hudson Bay. The St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes drew explorers, traders, soldiers and settlers into the heart of the continent. More recently, Ontario's abundant rivers and lakes allowed for hydroelectric power.

Ontario's water resources are fed by an abundant rainfall, and also by snow in most sections of the province. Precipitation is most regular in the southern and central parts of Ontario where seasonal temperature variations are not especially great. Northern and northwestern Ontario receive less precipitation during winter and spring compared to the rest of the province.


Ontario has a wide range of climates. The temperature can reach above 30°C in the summer and dip to -40°C in the winter, with regional variations in temperature throughout the province. In the north a bitter subarctic climate prevails, with mean daily temperatures of 16°C in July and -22°C in January. Winter temperatures are highest along the Great Lakes in southwestern Ontario and below the Niagara Escarpment, with January mean daily temperatures ranging from -3°C near Windsor to -3.7°C in Toronto. In July the area between Chatham and Windsor is warmest (22°C). The winters are severe and stormy through much of the province. The areas receiving westerly winds off the Great Lakes are often called the "Snow Belt;" the areas south of Owen Sound, around Parry Sound and west of Sault Ste Marie, receive snowfall in excess of 250 cm. By comparison, the areas around Toronto and Hamilton are in the partial rain shadow of the Niagara Escarpment and receive less than 150 cm of snow annually.

Although differences in relief are not great, they have a significant impact on climate. The upland areas of Grey County, the Algonquin Provincial Park area and the Superior Highlands are notably cooler than other areas of the province. In winter the Hudson Bay freezes over and makes northern temperatures even colder, while the Great Lakes moderate winter temperatures in southern Ontario.

Ontario’s climate greatly affects its agricultural patterns. Most specialized crops such as grain corn, soybeans and sugar beets are concentrated in the southwest. Fruit growing is associated with (but not confined to) the Niagara Peninsula and tobacco is grown in Norfolk County. The northern Clay Belt, a large flat area of fertile but poorly drained clay soil in the Timmins area, is suitable for a narrower range of crops, such as silage corn, hay, barley and potatoes. Frost is unusual in the south after the first week of May but in the north it can persist into June.


The majority of forest land in Ontario belongs to the Crown, but is managed by a combination of forest companies under sustainable forest licences, private land owners and the Ministry of Natural Resources. In 1994, the Ontario government passed the Crown Forest Sustainability Act. The purpose of the Act is to sustainably manage Ontario’s forests, “to meet social, economic and environmental needs of present and future generations.” The government established two sources of funding to help meet this goal, the Forest Renewal and the Forestry Futures trusts. Under the Forest Renewal program, for example, companies pay the trust a renewal fee for every cubic metre of wood they harvest. When it comes time to regenerate these areas, those doing the renewal work are reimbursed via the trust. In addition, the Act protects wildlife, plant life, ecosystems and biodiversity.

Consciousness of the value of the wilderness resulted in the establishment of a provincial park system, beginning with Algonquin Provincial Park (7,723 km2), established in 1893. There are now 334 provincial parks, accounting for 7.6 per cent of Ontario’s land base. They range from Rondeau Provincial Park on Lake Erie in the south to Polar Bear Provincial Park in the north. Located on the western shore of Hudson’s Bay, at approximately 2.4 million hectares, Polar Bear Park is Ontario’s largest park and is accessible only by air.

The government has encouraged the establishment of local conservation authorities and has promoted various schemes for channelling and controlling water flow. Of all provinces, Ontario has the largest and most complex government structure for dealing with land use, as the loss of agricultural land is a major concern and the subject of political controversy, as well as government study and planning.

Ontario also has four United Nations Biosphere Reserves, or areas recognized for promoting sustainable development through community initiatives and scientific research. The UN established Ontario’s first biosphere reserve, Long Point, in 1986, followed by the Niagara Escarpment, Thousand Islands-Frontenac Arch and, most recently, the Georgian Bay Littoral in 2004.

Governments have attempted to improve water quality along the lakes. In 1972 the Canadian and American governments signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement with the goal of maintaining and restoring the health of the Great Lakes. This policy has led to the creation of Lakewide Management Plans, which involve the cooperation of federal, provincial and state agencies in protecting and restoring Great Lakes ecosystems. This program has been successful in improving the environmental quality of several Great Lakes regions, notably Lake Erie’s Wheatley Harbour, which was de-listed as an environmental area of concern in 2010. This success combined with stringent regulations of both commercial and sport fishing has greatly enhanced fish stocks in the Great Lakes. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources now stocks the Great Lakes with over four million fish every year, and each Great Lake has its own set of regulations on catch limits and seasons.


Ten thousand years ago Ontario was populated by a few Aboriginal communities who hunted caribou. By 6,000 years ago Ontario’s climate was warmer and deer had replaced caribou. People began to catch fish in nets and weirs, and used mortars to grind nuts, berries and roots. This more reliable and varied food supply led to a population increase, and increased trade networks expanded across the region. Approximately 1,500 years ago farming was introduced, which led to more sedentary populations.

By the time Europeans came in the 17th century, the Aboriginal population was divided into the nomadic Algonquian hunting tribes of the north and northwest, and the more sedentary Iroquoian tribes of the south, including the Neutral, Huron and Erie. In the 1640s, the Iroquois Wars dispersed a confederacy of Iroquoian-speaking tribes (the Huron). In 1649, the wars also forced the abandonment of the Jesuit mission Ste Marie Among the Hurons – the first European establishment in present-day Ontario.

Large-scale European settlement of the province did not begin until the 1780s. There were scattered French settlements, especially around Detroit, but the first major non-Aboriginal immigration was that of the Loyalists, refugees from the American Revolution.

The Loyalists gave the province its Anglo-Saxon character, which was reinforced by waves of immigration from the United States and, during the 19th and early 20th centuries, from the British Isles. Beginning in the late 19th century there was localized immigration from Québec into eastern and northeastern Ontario, creating a French-language fringe along the province's frontiers. Although northern Ontario received some overseas immigration in the early 1900s, it was not until after 1945 that immigration from continental Europe, the West Indies and East Asia had a discernible impact on the main populated areas of the province.

Ontario was settled mostly by farmers, but in the mid-19th century, the population was channelling into the cities. By the First World War, Ontario was predominantly urban. In 2011, 86 per cent of the population was urban. By comparison, 160 years earlier, in 1851, the figures were reversed: 86 per cent of Ontario’s population was rural. Ontario’s total population is 13,448,494 (2016), making it the most populated province in the country.

Urban Centres

In addition to being the most populous province in the country, Ontario is also the most urban. The most outstanding feature of this urban pattern is the continuous network of communities around the western end of Lake Ontario— called the Golden Horseshoe—which includes St.Catharines-Niagara, Hamilton and Toronto. Over 50 per cent of Ontario’s population lives in or around these cities. Toronto is Canada's largest city and plays a dominant role in Ontario's economy.

The urban centres in southwestern Ontario lie around Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo and London. Both areas are regional centres for transportation, service and manufacturing. Windsor, the long-time home of the automotive industry, is geographically part of the Detroit urban complex. Apart from Kingston, the largest city on the eastern end of Lake Ontario, and Ottawa, eastern Ontario has no substantial urban concentration.

The cities of northern Ontario are strung out along the railway lines to which most of them owe their origin. North Bay is still a transportation centre; Sudbury is at the heart of Canada's largest mining district; Sault Ste Marie is the country's second-ranked steel producer; and Thunder Bay is a major transshipment port. With the exception of Thunder Bay on Lake Superior and Windsor on the Detroit River, the other Great Lakes have no major urban centres along their Canadian shores.

Labour Force

Ontario’s labour force was once predominantly in the agricultural sector. Now, however, agriculture workers only account for about one per cent of a labour force totalling over 7.4 million people. While Ontario is often thought to be an industrial province, the main growth industry has been the service sector, which, in 2013, employed nearly 80 per cent of working Ontarians.

The industrial work force suffered serious attrition in the recessions of the early 1980s and early 1990s, as reflected in the drastic decline in numbers of the once-powerful steelworkers union. Due in part to a high exchange rate and globalization (i.e. industries migrating to places with lower costs) employment in the manufacturing sector has fallen rapidly since 2002, and now makes up about 12 per cent of total employment.

Language and Ethnicity

Approximately 200 different languages were reported as mother tongues in Ontario in 2011. English-speakers make up the majority of the population, followed by Chinese, French and Italian speakers. Bengali, Hindi, Persian, Tagalog, Arabic and Punjabi are among the fastest growing language groups in the province. Toronto has the highest number of non-native English or French speakers. More than four in 10 people in the Census Metropolitan Area of Toronto reported a mother tongue other than English or French, compared to Peterborough, for example, where native English speakers make up 93 per cent of the population. The Census Metropolitan Areas of Greater Sudbury and Ottawa-Gatineau have the highest share of French speakers, at about 28 per cent and 17 per cent, respectively.

Ontario has an ethnically diverse population. Although Canadian was cited the most often, the 2011 census reported over 200 different ethnic origins. After Canadian, the most cited ethnic origin is English, followed by Scottish, Irish, French, German, Italian, Chinese and East Indian. In 2011, about 26 per cent of the province’s population identified themselves as a visible minority, a number that represents more than half of Canada’s total visible minorities. Most visible minorities live in urban centres including Toronto, Markham, Brampton and Mississauga.


The majority of Ontario’s population continues to be Christian, with 65 per cent of the population identifying with a Christian denomination in 2011. Following Christianity, the religions with the most followers were Islam (5 per cent), Hinduism (3 per cent) and Judaism (2 per cent). Those claiming no religion affiliation numbered 23 per cent.


Aboriginal Settlement

The first residents of Ontario arrived during the last ice age, approximately 10,000 years ago. As the ice retreated Ontario's paleo-Indian inhabitants moved into the northern region of the province. For many years Ontario's Aboriginal peoples probably lived by fishing and hunting; deer, elk, bear and beaver could be found in the south, and caribou in the north. By 1000 BCE pottery had been introduced, and archaeological sites show a far-flung trading system with importations from as far as the Gulf of Mexico. By 100 CE the inhabitants of the province can be identified with the Algonquian tribes (Ojibwa, Cree, and Algonquin), and with the Iroquoian tribes of the south (Iroquois, Huron, Petun, Neutral, Erie and Susquehannock).


The first Europeans known to have approached the present frontiers of Ontario were Henry Hudson, who was cast adrift off the north coast, and Étienne Brûlé and Samuel de Champlain, who travelled along the Ottawa River in 1613 and reached the centre of the province in 1615. Brûlé was likely the first European to see lakes Huron and Ontario. Champlain allied the French with the Huron. After the dispersal of the Huron in the late 1640s, the Ottawa took the role of middlemen in the fur trade.

The Iroquois Confederacy, located across lakes Ontario and Erie in what is now New York State, dominated the region without significantly settling it. Despite the hostility of the Iroquois, the French continued their penetration of the Great Lakes region, utilizing both the Ottawa-French River-Lake Huron route to the west and the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes path.

French explorer René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle built and sailed the Griffon on the Great Lakes, and the Ontario region became a vital link between the French settlements in Québec and their fur trading posts on the Mississippi. During the 18th century the main French posts in the Great Lakes region were Fort Frontenac [Kingston], Fort Niagara, Fort Detroit and Fort Michilimackinac.

France's rivals, the British, did not successfully penetrate the region until 1758–59 when they burned Fort Frontenac and captured Fort Niagara. British occupation was not secure until the Aboriginal allies of the French were defeated after an uprising in 1763–64. The Great Lakes region also served as a base of operations for British forces during the American Revolution. A series of bloody campaigns and raids did not shake the British hold over their Great Lakes forts, but did result in the arrival of Loyalist and Iroquois refugees displaced from the American frontier. The Treaty of Paris (1783) divided the Great Lakes down the middle, and created the southern boundary of what is now Ontario.

European Settlement

The modern settlement of Ontario began with the arrival of some 6,000 to 10,000 Loyalists during and after the American Revolution. After them came other Americans, attracted by cheap land; crown land was available for sixpence an acre plus survey costs and an oath of allegiance. Under the Constitutional Act (1791), the old Province of Québec was divided and Upper Canada created.

A regular colonial government was established, with a lieutenant-governor, an elected legislative assembly, and appointed legislative and executive councils. The first lieutenant-governor was John Graves Simcoe, an English veteran of the Revolutionary War, who aimed to turn Upper Canada into a bastion of the British Crown in the heart of the continent.

Upper Canada continued to mark the northern fringe of the American frontier, but by 1812 approximately 80 per cent of the estimated 100,000 settlers in southern Ontario were of American origin. When the War of 1812 broke out with the US, the attitude of parts of the province's population proved highly ambivalent, and a few Upper Canadians actually sided with and fought alongside the invaders.

The British army, with assistance from Aboriginal peoples and local militia, succeeded in defending most of the province, repelling American invasions along the Niagara frontier in 1812 (Queenston Heights) and 1813 (Beaver Dams and Stoney Creek). In 1813 American forces thrust into southwestern Ontario and raided the provincial capital, York (Toronto), where the government buildings were burned. After several more bloody battles in 1814 the war drew to an end. The peace treaty that ended the war stipulated that the Americans and British each hand back what they had conquered, and the boundary remained unchanged.

Between 1825 and 1842 the population of Upper Canada tripled to 450,000, and by 1851 it had doubled again. Most of the immigrants came from the British Isles, made up roughly of 20 per cent English, 20 per cent Scottish and 60 per cent Irish immigrants. Settlement generally spread from south to north, moving away from the lakes as land along them became settled. Accessibility to land away from the lakes depended on roads — usually of terrible quality — many of which were built by the settlers themselves.

Rampant land speculation added to the irregularity of early settlement patterns. Southern Ontario's fertile land was substantially occupied by the mid-1850s, by which time the form of government had changed again. In the aftermath of the Rebellions of 1837, led in Upper Canada by Toronto "firebrand" William Lyon Mackenzie, the British government brought Upper and Lower Canada together in the united Province of Canada.

A further decade of fractious politics resulted in a measure of responsible government in 1848–49, by which time immigration, combined with a high birthrate, had raised Upper Canada's population to about 60,000 more than its partner, Lower Canada. The agitation for representation by population was led by George Brown. Representation by population would mean that Upper Canada would receive additional representation in the legislature, and this movement led to the increasing paralysis of the province's political system. The crisis was finally resolved in 1864 by the formation of a joint-party regime (see Great Coalition) to seek a union of the British North American colonies. This Confederation was gained in 1867, and Ontario became a province of the new Dominion of Canada.(See also Ontario and Confederation.)


In the 1850s Ontario's economy was primarily agricultural with an emphasis on wheat growing. Over time the balance shifted to dairy, fruit and vegetable farming. At the same time there was a drift away from farming areas, as emigration to the US, to the Canadian West or to the cities increased. Urban and industrial growth increased from the 1850s through the 1860s with the development of textiles and metalworking, farm implements and machinery. Toronto in particular grew as both a railway and manufacturing centre, and as the provincial capital.

Ontario's successive governments thereafter took up developing the province's natural resources — lumber, mines and later, hydroelectricity. There was a lengthy series of quarrels with the federal government over patronage, waterpower and the northern boundaries of the province — a problem settled in 1889, at the expense of Manitoba, by confirming Ontario's western boundary at the Lake of the Woods. The final boundary was drawn in 1912.


Ontario's economy began with hunting and trapping. It expanded with the arrival of the settlers and, until the latter part of the 19th century, remained predominantly rural and agriculturally-based. By the early 20th century rail lines built across Ontario's northland opened up rich mineral resources in places such as cobalt and Timmins.

The discovery and growth of hydroelectric power, combined with an export boom at the turn of the 20th century, stimulated industrial expansion and the growth of large and small cities. Ontario has been predominantly urban since 1911, and agriculture has shifted from mixed diversified grain and livestock to more specialized regional patterns serving broad urban markets, namely dairy products, corn to fatten livestock, vegetables, fruit and tobacco.

Ontario is a major exporter of the goods it produces —such as automobiles—but its principal market has been, and is, heavily-populated Ontario and Québec. Sales to the West and the Maritimes are marginal for the most part.

As with other parts of the country, the greatest expansion of recent years has been in service industries, while older, heavier industries have declined. After lagging behind the national growth rate in overall real domestic product for most of the 1970s, Ontario came out ahead in the mid-1980s. By 1987 the province had the lowest unemployment, the lowest per capita debt and the highest growth rate. However, the 1991 recession hit Ontario harder than most areas of Canada and the recovery in the province was slow.

In an attempt to remedy the province’s fiscal woes, then Conservative Premier Mike Harris began his “Common Sense Revolution” after his election in 1995. Harris believed tax cuts, less government, welfare reform and business investment would restore Ontario to fiscal order.

However, it was not long before another recession hit the province. As in 1991, the 2008 global recession — sparked in part by a crash in the US housing market — hit Ontario harder than most provinces. Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal Party — the government of the time — responded to the recession by contributing to the bailout of automakers General Motors and Chrysler, as well as with a budget aimed at stimulating the economy. Five years post-recession unemployment in Ontario remained relatively high, hovering around the 7 per cent mark. While this number is in keeping with the national average, it is higher than rates in the western provinces.


Ontario has just over 50 per cent of Canada’s best agriculture land, also known as Class 1 land. In terms of net farm income, Ontario ranks third in the country, after Saskatchewan and Québec. Most farming is done in the south, although clusters of farms on the Shield serve local dairy markets. Forage crops are the largest, but corn, mixed grains, winter wheat and barley are also grown. Because of these forage crops, Ontario is able to sustain commercial hog, dairy and beef livestock farms. It ranks second only to Québec in dairy farms, which are primarily located in the London-Woodstock region, the Bruce Peninsula and in eastern Ontario.

As in other jurisdictions, Ontario farmers are accustomed to selling their products through marketing boards which were established as far back as the 1930s. These boards do not command universal support, even among farmers, but they are intended to introduce a degree of regularity and predictability into the marketing of agricultural products. Ontario now has 20 agricultural marketing boards, including the Dairy Farmers of Ontario, the Chicken Farmers of Ontario, the Grain Farmers of Ontario and the Grape Growers of Ontario.


Ontario produces the most metals in Canada. The development of Ontario's mining industry is closely associated with the rise of Toronto as the financial centre of both Ontario and Canada. Beginning around 1900, the exploitation of minerals in northern Ontario made Toronto first a competitor and then a winner in its long-standing competition with Montréal.

From the late 1880s to the mid-20th century, mineral discoveries dotted northern Ontario. One of the world's largest deposits of nickel and copper, along with lead, zinc, silver and platinum, were found in the Sudbury Basin in 1883. Near the town of Cobalt, a major discovery of high-grade silver was made in 1903. Large gold deposits were discovered near the towns of Porcupine and Kirkland Lake from 1906 to 1912, Red Lake in 1925 and most recently, near Hemlo in 1981. In 1953, one of the largest uranium deposits in the world was found at Elliot Lake. A major copper, zinc and silver deposit was discovered near Timmins in 1964. Rounding out the list is the iron ore mined in the Algoma district north of Lake Superior.

Southern Ontario has fewer minerals, although iron ore was mined near Marmora and uranium was extracted near Bancroft. There are also minor oil and gas deposits in southwestern Ontario. Limestone, sand and gravel are available in many parts of southern Ontario as a result of glacial deposits.

Mining is still extremely important in the provincial economy, although the 1980s and early 1990s were less prosperous for the industry as downturns occurred in the international market for one major metal after another. Even so, today Ontario produces more gold, nickel, copper, platinum metals, copper and salt than any other province in the country.


Ontario is and always has been an importer of energy. The primeval forest provided sufficient fuel for early settlers, but with urban and industrial growth, Ontario's energy needs were met by coal from the nearby pits of Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. This coal was of a higher quality than that from Nova Scotia and cheaper to ship. Ontario has its own coal deposits near James Bay, but these deposits are uneconomical to extract. Oil and gas were also possibilities, and here Ontario had a slight initial advantage. The oil fields around Petrolia were first exploited in the late 1850s. Natural gas came somewhat later and for many years, Ontario ranked first as a Canadian producer of these commodities. Production, however, is now insignificant in the province’s overall energy picture.

For these reasons, oil and gas also have to be imported. For many years this meant imports from the United States or through East Coast ports. This could prove precarious, as American shortages of oil, gas and coal sometimes placed Ontario heating at risk. During the 1950s the federal and provincial governments made it a priority to connect Ontario with western Canadian oil and gas fields. Oil came first, followed by gas through the Trans-Canada Pipeline, completed in 1958.

Technological advances during the 1880s and 1890s brought Ontario its first large and significant energy source from within the province itself: hydroelectricity. Ontario has many streams, rapids and falls, for example, Niagara Falls. First used for sawmills, these falls could be put to work to generate electricity. The harnessing of Niagara Falls’ power gave southern Ontario a significant advantage over rival industrial areas. In 1906 most electricity in Ontario was nationalized under the aegis of the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario, now known as Hydro One, and its aggressive and dynamic founder, Sir Adam Beck. In 1999, Hydro One was reorganized into three companies, joining Great Lakes Power in the privatized electricity market.

In the 1950s and 60s, Ontario began building thermal—or steam driven—power plants, raising the proportion of thermally-generated power from practically none in 1960 to over one-third in 1970.

At the same time, in conjunction with Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, the federal government's reactor arm, Hydro One began to build nuclear power stations. The first full-scale nuclear power station, at Douglas Point, was opened in 1966, and others have followed at Pickering and Bruce. Nuclear power accounts for most of Ontario's generated electricity. The province has also started to incorporate increasing amounts of energy from renewable sources such as wind turbines, which made up three per cent of Ontario’s total energy output in 2012.


There are 71 million hectares of forested land in Ontario, 80 per cent of which are owned by the Crown. Commercial logging takes place on nearly half (47 per cent) of these Crown forests.

In 2011, the value of Ontario's forestry sector (total shipment revenues of primary and secondary wood products) was $11.9 billion. The industry also directly employs approximately 53,000 people in the province, and supports approximately 200,000 direct and indirect jobs.


During the 1920s, approximately 10,000 people were employed by Ontario's inland fishery. However, fish populations began to decline due to pollution, overfishing and the invasion of sea lamprey in the 1920s, and early government efforts at restocking the Great Lakes with fish from hatcheries failed. The Great Lakes Fisheries Commission was established in 1956 to develop sustainable fisheries policies and implement sea lamprey control programs. There are now over 500 active commercial fisheries in Ontario, and the Great Lakes commercial fishery harvests approximately 26 million pounds of fish per year, with a value of $33 million in 2011. Many of the more than 60 Aboriginal communities in the Great Lakes Basin fish the lakes for food, and several also participate in the commercial fishery. Recreational fishing is a popular pursuit in Ontario, with over one million people participating annually.


Ontario is, and always has been, the leading manufacturing province in Canada. This situation was well established at the time of Confederation, as the desire was to place industry in a province favoured by ample transportation, abundant natural resources and accessibility to export markets in the US. Today, as home to over 31,600 manufacturing establishments, the province produces over 45 per cent of the gross domestic product of manufacturing industries in Canada, or about $75 billion in 2011.

Historically, proximity to the American automotive industry encouraged the location of manufacturing plants in Ontario. The establishment of Ford, General Motors and Chrysler spawned a series of related industries dotted all across southern Ontario.

During the late 1970s Ottawa, frequently seen as a staid national capital completely dependent on the largesse of the federal government, confounded its critics by emerging as Canada's equivalent of California's Silicon Valley, a centre for high technology industries, producing computers, communications technology and software. More recently, the Waterloo region also established itself as an advanced manufacturing and innovation centre, known in particular as headquarters for BlackBerry Ltd the makers of BlackBerry smartphones.


Toronto's Bay Street area is the centre of the Canadian financial system. All the principal Canadian chartered banks have their head offices in Toronto, as do many of Canada's major corporations and brokerage firms. The Toronto Stock Exchange is the country's largest. First Canadian Place, chock-full of lawyers, accountants and executives, is Canada's tallest office building at 290 m. At 553 m the CN Tower, another monument to commerce, was the world's tallest tower for over three decades, and remains the tallest in the Western Hemisphere.

Because banking is a national business in Canada, there is no study that shows whether Ontario as a whole secures any quantifiable benefit from the location of banks in its provincial capital beyond the employee’s economic contributions to the community. There is, however, a discernible architectural impact as the banks compete in raising skyscrapers.


There are few roads in the north, and the most reliable form of transportation in this part of the province is still by air or water. VIA Rail offers passenger rail transportation to numerous cities and has major stations in Toronto, Ottawa, London, Kingston, Niagara Falls, Windsor, Sarnia and Sudbury. The Ontario Northland Transportation Commission, a provincial agency, provides train and bus services to northern communities.

Many municipalities in Ontario have public transit services, most of which include services operating on fixed routes and schedules for the general public and specialized door-to-door transit services for those with disabilities. The Toronto Transit Commission, or TTC, is the largest transit system in Ontario and the third largest in North America. Metrolinx, an agency of the Ontario government, was created in 2006 to improve the coordination of transportation in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area. In 2009 Metrolinx merged with GO transit, a regional public transit service, and in 2011 introduced PRESTO, an electronic fare card with the goal of allowing passengers to transfer easily between different transit systems.

Ontario has a large navigable water system, the St Lawrence Seaway, along its southern frontier. The Welland Canal, an important part of the seaway channel, links Lakes Ontario and Erie. The advent of the seaway, and subsequently the practice of "containerization" of cargo unloaded at East Coast ports, have had a considerable negative impact on the structure of Ontario's water transport. The most notable casualty has been the port of Toronto, where the number of tonnes shipped and the number of employed dropped drastically—Montréal, Saint John and Halifax being the beneficiaries. Two other Ontario ports, Hamilton and Thunder Bay, are ranked in Canada's top 10 in the amount of cargo handled. Thunder Bay moves mainly coal, wheat and canola, while Hamilton, unsurprisingly, handles iron ore, iron, steel, alloys and coal.

Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson International Airport is Canada’s largest and busiest airport. Other airports of note include Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, the Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airport and Hamilton’s John C. Munro International Airport.

Government and Politics

Provincial Government

Ontario's governmental structure is similar to that of other Canadian provinces. A Lieutenant-Governor, appointed by the federal government, nominally heads the administration, assisted by an executive council or Cabinet, led by a premier. The Cabinet governs as long as it maintains the confidence of the legislative assembly or provincial parliament, a unicameral body of 107 members. Provincial elections are held on the first Thursday of October every four years. All Canadian citizens over the age of 18 who live in Ontario can vote in elections.

There are three major political parties in Ontario with representation in the provincial legislature. The first two, the Progressive Conservative Party ("Tories") and the Liberal Party ("Grits"), date back to before Confederation. The third party, the New Democratic Party, grew out of the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation.

Ontario’s first premier was John Sandfield Macdonald (1867–71); its second, Edward Blake (1871–72). Sir Oliver Mowat’s Liberal government (1872–96) succeeded Blake’s, and Mowat led the way in advocating provincial rights against the overriding powers of the federal government under Sir John A. Macdonald. He also extended government services for a province thriving on intensive agriculture, widening resource activities and making industrial advancements. The Liberal regime gradually declined beginning in the late 1890s under the leadership of Arthur Hardy and George Ross. In the 1902 election the Liberal Party engaged in patronage, and won the election with a small majority. Shortly after the election, the Liberals were accused of bribery and, although found innocent, the party was defeated in the 1905 election.

The Tory government under Sir James Whitney (1905–14) made its mark by establishing the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario. Whitney's successor, Sir William Hearst, was defeated by a political revolution among the province's farmers, who, with labour support, took office in 1919 as the United Farmers of Ontario. The UFO government was successful in implementing some of the legislation prepared by the previous government, such as a minimum wage for women, increased funding for education and better health services. However, the party was politically accident-prone and quickly fell victim to a revitalized PC Party under Howard Ferguson (1923–30). Ferguson was a determined man, as well as an able and wily politician. He tapped Ontarians' desire to enhance provincial revenues through the provincially-owned Liquor Control Board of Ontario, which was designed to promote temperance as well as generate revenue. He also defused a long-standing controversy with the province's French-language population by reintroducing official French classes in schools. He also, as his predecessors had done, continued a policy of developing provincial resources, including the colonization of the Ontario northland.

Ferguson's successor, George Henry, had to cope with the ravages of the Great Depression, not to mention attacks from a reinvigorated provincial Liberal Party under Mitchell Hepburn. In 1934 Hepburn swept Henry out of office with promises of reform and economy. Neither goal was really achieved, although Hepburn did succeed in legislating the pasteurization of Ontario's milk despite the cries of opposition from dairy farmers.

Hepburn battled against the appearance of industrial unionism from the US, and in 1937 fought and won a provincial election on the issue. His regime is principally remembered for Hepburn’s violent attacks on his fellow Liberal, Prime Minister Mackenzie King, and for his obstructionist attitude towards attempts to solve Canada's constitutional problems. Hepburn resigned in 1942, and his party was turned out of office in the 1943 election that made the PCs under George Drew the government and the Socialist CCF the official opposition.

Drew's government vigorously promoted immigration, especially from the British Isles, and a series of reforms. Like Hepburn, Drew combated Ottawa and its "centralizing" schemes such as a program of federal welfare, or “baby bonuses,” which he saw as a violation of provincial jurisdiction. It was only after Drew's departure in 1948 that Premier Leslie Frost adopted a more co-operative attitude with the central government, a major reversal in Ontario's policy. Frost shared the developmental objectives of Liberal ministers in Ottawa such as C.D. HOWE, and the two governments co-operated on major projects such as the St. Lawrence Seaway, the TransCanada Pipeline and the development of nuclear power.

Frost's successors, John Robarts and William Davis, were cast in his low-key, down-to-earth mold; both strove to minimize conflict between Conservative Ontario and the usually Liberal federal government. Robarts tried to work out an accommodation that would satisfy Québec and keep it in Confederation through his Confederation for Tomorrow Conference in 1967. In 1981–82 Davis strongly supported Pierre Trudeau in patriating and reforming the Canadian Constitution. However, David Peterson, whose Liberal Party had signed an accord with the New Democratic Party to form a minority government after the 1985 election, had a rocky relationship with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. A reluctant supporter of Mulroney's 1987 Meech Lake Accord, Peterson strongly opposed the federal free trade initiative with the US the same year. Peterson lost the next election to Bob RAE, who formed the first provincial NDP government in Ontario's history. After serving his mandate Rae lost to Mike Harris, who led his Conservatives to back-to-back victories in 1995 and 1999.

Harris’ "Common-Sense Revolution," which included lower taxes, reduced social services and smaller government lost some support from the public, but his government still won re-election in 1999. The PCs captured 59 out of the newly reduced legislature of 103 seats, but carried only 45 per cent of the popular vote. Mike Harris resigned suddenly as premier of the province and was replaced by former deputy premier and Minister of Finance Ernie Eves in March 2002. Although more moderate than Harris, Eves and the PCs were criticized for a failed effort to privatize the province’s power system and the presentation of the 2003 budget in an auto-parts plant rather than in the legislature. The 2003 election was a landslide victory for the Liberal Party under Dalton McGuinty, which won 72 of the legislature’s 103 seats and 47 per cent of the popular vote. McGuinty won another majority in 2007 after his main opponent, Conservative leader John Tory, damaged his own campaign by making a controversial pledge to extend public funding to faith-based schools. In his second term McGuinty implemented the unpopular harmonized sales tax (HST), which replaced the provincial sales tax and the federal goods and services tax. Support for the Liberal Party began to slip, and in 2011 voters gave the party only 53 seats -- one seat shy of a majority government. McGuinty resigned as premier in October 2012 with his party facing criticism for its handling of labour relations with the province’s teachers and questions about the cancellation of two gas-fired power plants. Kathleen Wynne was elected the leader of the Liberal Party in January 2013 and became both Ontario’s first woman premier and Canada’s first openly gay premier.

In the spring of 2014, the PCs and NDP refused to accept the budget Wynne’s minority government tabled, triggering a snap election. Both the NDP and the PCs hoped to gain ground on the scandal-plagued Liberals. Wynne’s campaign, however, was ultimately successful, as she and her party formed a majority government, winning 59 seats to the PC’s 27 and the NDP’s 21.

See Ontario Premiers: Table; Ontario Lieutenant-Governors: Table


The judiciary, as in other Canadian provinces, is appointed by the province only at the lowest level "provincial judges," formerly known as magistrates. All other levels of the judiciary are appointed by the federal government. These judges' salaries are paid by Ottawa; the other costs of the courts are borne by the province.

Federal Representation

Ontario has 106 members in the House of Commons and 24 senators. Metropolitan Toronto and its environs have more Members of Parliament than most provinces, excluding Ontario and Québec. When judging its political "clout" it is useful to see Ontario as an assemblage of sub-regions that seldom vote together federally or provincially.

It is difficult for any single federal politician to say that he or she "represents" Ontario in the federal government, as Mackenzie King was once able to claim. Mackenzie King, a Torontonian by upbringing, was able to make up most of his governments from 1921–30 and 1935–48 with little or no representation from Toronto. Nevertheless, since then federal prime ministers have given adequate representation to Toronto and the regions of Ontario in forming their Cabinets.

Public Finance

Much of Ontario's history has been concerned with obtaining what the province considered to be adequate tax resources from the federal government in Ottawa. This traditional rivalry abated considerably after 1948, when Premier George Drew left for federal politics in Ottawa.

Ontario derives large revenues from such items as the taxation of liquor and cigarettes (much higher today than in earlier times), as well as the more commonly thought of forms of revenue, such as personal and corporate income tax. Ontario's income and corporate income taxes are collected by the federal government as part of its national tax system, and the proceeds remitted to the province.

Municipal Government

For many years the basic structure of local government in Ontario was dictated by Robert Baldwin’s Municipal Corporations Act of 1849, which divided the southern part of the province into counties, cities, towns and villages. However, the growth of the urban population in the 20th century began to strain these traditional jurisdictions. Rather than let the province's cities expand indefinitely into the surrounding suburbs and countryside, the provincial government looked to the creation of super-municipalities that could operate on a regional basis and encompass a variety of jurisdictions.

The Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto, for example, was created on 1 January 1953. It was a federation of Toronto and its suburbs carved out of the southern half of York County. Using the Toronto model, in the 1960s and 1970s various "regional municipalities" were created, sometimes to the intense resentment of the local citizenry.

On 1 January 1998, the seven local governments of the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto — Metro Toronto, East York, Toronto, Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough and York — were amalgamated into a single, unified City of Toronto.

The vast majority of municipalities in the province, including all cities, towns, villages and townships, enjoy powers of local taxation based on property. Only "improvement districts" and police villages have no independent taxation powers. All Ontario municipalities are subject to the review of their actions by the Ontario Municipal Board, which must approve any bylaws creating debt, and which acts as the court of last resort for appeals against municipal actions.


Ontario's health services and their financing are similar to health services found in other provinces. Federal acts in 1958 and 1966 first established hospital insurance, paid for by the general public from compulsory premiums, and then comprehensive medical care services, or medicare. These acts are federal-provincial in nature, as is the co-operation necessary to make them work. The two levels of government frequently debate the amount that each should put into the system, as well as the ways it should be spent.

Ontario's public health insurance system is now consolidated in the Ontario Health Insurance Plan, paid for through taxes, and which covers most health services, with the exception of those that are not medically necessary.


Until 1998 education in Ontario was a joint provincial and local responsibility. The provincial government established goals, standards and guidelines. In 1998, the Harris government introduced Bill 160 to overhaul Ontario's education system. In effect Bill 160 took most of the responsibility for education from the local level of government and transferred it to the provincial government. Instead of having full-time, salaried, locally-elected trustees, trustees now work for an honorarium, and the curricula and guidelines are designed by the provincial government. The basic system is further divided between two kinds of public schools: public, in the strict sense, or non-sectarian; and "separate" or Roman Catholic. Within both of these systems are French-language school boards or French-language sections. Each system is run by boards elected by members of the public. This is the result of a compromise at the time of Confederation, when rights for Catholics in Ontario were traded off against those for Protestants in Québec.

Since 1899 Ontario has provided public funds to support education in the Roman Catholic separate schools to the end of grade 10. However, the Confederation bargain did not include complete and full financial support for separate schools. This was the cause of occasional political protest and action, most notably during the provincial election of 1934.

In the 1960s the government extended its full support of elementary separate schools to grades 9 and 10, but for years it steadfastly declined to go further. In 1984 Premier Davis startled Catholics and non-Catholics alike with a sudden announcement that his government would cover all the costs of separate school education in the remaining grades. This policy was implemented between 1985 and 1987.

The education system is organized into elementary and secondary levels. In general, elementary schools provide programs for children from junior kindergarten to grade 8. As of September 1994, all school boards were required to make junior and senior kindergarten programs available. In 2010, the government introduced a program to provide full-day kindergarten across the province. The program is being implemented in phases, and its expected completion date is September 2014. Secondary schools serve students enrolled in grades 9 to 12. In 2011–12, there were over 1.3 million students enrolled in elementary schools in Ontario, and nearly 700,000 enrolled in secondary school.

Private schools are permitted to operate in accordance with the Education Act but do not receive any funding. Parents may also obtain permission from their local school board to educate their school-age children at home.

Although French-language schools existed in eastern and northern Ontario long before 1968, boards since then have been able to set up French schools "when numbers warrant" (see separate school). The interpretation of this phrase has caused much dispute in certain parts of the province, Penetanguishene being a notable example.

In 1984 the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that every francophone (and anglophone) student in the province has a right to education in his or her mother tongue. Linguistic minorities, the court also made clear, must be guaranteed representation on school boards and a say in minority-language instruction. The government immediately moved to comply with the court's ruling, which was based upon the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The post-secondary system expanded greatly during the 1960s, at a time when politicians held education in high regard as a motivator of economic growth. Today, there are 20 Universities and 24 colleges of applied arts and technology in the province.

Cultural Life

Aboriginal groups in present-day Ontario have complex cultures with long histories. Despite challenges, Aboriginal communities in Ontario have growing arts and culture scenes, and the province has numerous Aboriginal arts organizations. Later settlers brought their own cultural heritage with them, derived from European models. The artistic forms of the mid-19th century, embodied in contemporary handicrafts, still enjoy a considerable popularity and sale with tourists. Artistic and cultural endeavour is encouraged through a variety of government subsidy programs, some federal and some provincial, such as the Ontario Arts Council (founded 1963), an independent government agency that gives grants to individuals and organizations.

There are symphony orchestras in Toronto (the Toronto Symphony Orchestra), Ottawa, Hamilton and Kitchener-Waterloo. A major Shakespearean festival called the Stratford Festival was founded in 1953 and is held each year in Stratford. Niagara-on-the-Lake’s annual Shaw Festival produces plays by Bernard Shaw or those from or about the era in which he lived. The Art Gallery of Ontario, one of the largest art museums in North America, and the Royal Ontario Museum, created in 1912, are both located in Toronto. Each fall Toronto hosts the Toronto International Film Festival, which in 2012 showed 372 films from 72 countries and attracted over 400,000 people.


Toronto is home to three of the country’s major newspapers—The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail and The National Post. Toronto is also home to the majority of Canada's large magazines, including Maclean's, Chatelaine and Canadian Business, all owned by Rogers Media, and Canadian Living Magazine. The city is also the headquarters of the larger national publishing firms, such as McClelland & Stewart and the University of Toronto Press.

The main English-language facilities of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the private networks CTV and Global are also in Toronto. There are three French-language TV stations in Ontario, plus numerous repeater stations and radio stations, not to mention stations broadcasting in a variety of other languages. TVOntario, a public station, broadcasts in both official languages, and the TFO television station offers educational French language programming.

Historic Sites

Ontario has long enjoyed a vigorous historic site program. Provincial legislation makes possible the designation of heritage buildings, and while not an absolute protection, this has made possible the preservation of various historic buildings throughout the province.

The mid-17th-century Jesuit missions to the Hurons were among the first historic sites opened to the public. Having supported research in the area since 1890, the Ontario government undertook the reconstruction of Ste Marie Among the Hurons near Midland in 1964, and opened it to the public three years later. Picturesque forts, the legacy of a long period of tension along the American-Canadian border dating from the beginning of the American Revolution, dot the southern reaches of the province. At Kingston, Fort Henry, whose stone walls were originally completed in the 1830s, is perhaps the best known, but Fort George and Fort Erie on the Niagara Historic Frontier, Fort Wellington (Prescott), Fort York (Toronto) and Fort Malden (Amhertsburg) have also been restored to their appearance at the time of the international crises and conflicts that marked the first part of the 19th century.

The life of the province's pioneers is depicted in reconstructed town sites, including Upper Canada Village near Morrisburg and Black Creek Pioneer Village in northwest Toronto. In 1973 the Ontario government began to rebuild Fort William (at Thunder Bay), a fur trading post established by the North West Company in 1803. Boating enthusiasts enjoy two 19th-century canals – the Rideau Canal, built from 1826–32 by the Royal Engineers for the movement of troops and military supplies, and the Trent, which dates back to 1833.