Human Settlement in Canada

A human settlement is a place where people live. Settlement patterns describe the ways in which villages, towns, cities and First Nation reserves are distributed, as well as the factors that influence this arrangement. Throughout Canadian history, climate, natural resources, transportation methods and government policy have affected human settlement in the country. Today, the majority of Canadians live in cities in the southern portion of the country. (See also Human Geography and Canada.)

A human settlement is a place where people live. Settlement patterns describe the ways in which villages, towns, cities and First Nation reserves are distributed, as well as the factors that influence this arrangement. Throughout Canadian history, climate, natural resources, transportation methods and government policy have affected human settlement in the country. Today, the majority of Canadians live in cities in the southern portion of the country. (See also Human Geography and Canada.)


What Factors Influence Human Settlement?

There are three key factors that have influenced human settlement in Canada. They are: the kind of natural resources found in the area, the types of transportation methods available at the time of settlement, and government policy.

Scotia Junction

In 1885, the Grand Trunk Railway built a railway station in Scotia, a rural settlement near Parry Sound, Ontario. In 1899, the Canada Atlantic Railway created a junction point with the GTR. Transportation methods impact human settlement, and many Canadian towns and cities grew up along rail lines.

("Scotia Junction GTR station" by Toronto History is licensed under  CC BY 2.0)

Natural resources, including arable land, forests and minerals, play a key role in attracting settlers to an area. For example, an agricultural area like Winnipeg will develop a different population pattern than a forest-based economy like Prince George, British Columbia. The resource-based economy on which the original settlement was based on may change over time.

Areas in Canada that were settled before 1800 are typically situated on water. At this time, lakes and rivers were the main methods of transportation. The fact that Canada’s national, provincial and territorial capitals are all located on water is a testament to this. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, as railways were being built, towns and cities grew up along rail lines.


Government policy, both at the federal and provincial level, has also affected settlement in Canada. Governments have determined which lands would be settled, how, and by whom. They set the rules for the size and shapes of farms and aided in the development of primary source industries like mining. Governments also determined where roads, canals and bridges would be built, as well as the location of town sites, military bases, and First Nation reserves.

Types of Human Settlements

In Canada, types of human settlement categorized by geographers and the government include urban and rural settlements, census metropolitan areas, First Nation reserves, and Métis settlements.

In geography, the term urban describes a concentration of population at a high density. By comparison, the term rural is used where population is spread out at a low density. In Canada, a population centre has at least 1,000 residents and a population density of 400 persons or more per square kilometre. All areas outside population centres are classified as rural areas.

A census metropolitan area (CMA) is an urban area made up of one of more neighbouring municipalities located around a central core. A CMA must have a total population of at least 100,000.

Pauingassi First Nation

Boats line the shore of Fishing Lake, Manitoba, on 17 September 2014. Fishing Lake is the location of Pauingassi First Nation's reserve.

A reserve is land held by a First Nation. The reserve system is governed by the Indian Act. Most First Nations hold at least one reserve that serves as a settlement for their members, should they choose to live there. Reserves vary in population. For example, Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario has an on-reserve population of about 13,000 people, while Saskatchewan’s Canoe Lake First Nation has a population just under 900 (see also Reserves in Ontario; Reserves in Saskatchewan). An urban reserve is defined as a reserve within or next to an urban centre.

Unlike most First Nations, Métis and Inuit people do not hold reserves. In Alberta, however, there are eight Métis settlements. Roughly 60 per cent of Indigenous people in Canada live in rural areas.

Urban Versus Rural Settlement

The majority of Canadians prefer to live in urban areas. Of Canada’s total population, 82 per cent of live in cities. The three biggest census metropolitan areas in the country — Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver — are home to more than one-third of all Canadians. They have a combined population of 12.5 million.

The proportion of Canadians who live in rural areas has been dropping since the early 1990’s. At present, fewer than one in five Canadians live in a rural area. This is among the lowest of the G7 counties. The Atlantic provinces and the territories have the largest share of rural residents.

Population Distribution and Density

Population distribution refers to the pattern of where people live within a defined region. Canada’s population is not evenly distributed across the country.

Most Canadians live in the southern part of the country, within 160 km of the United States border. This pattern leaves northern areas sparsely populated or uninhabited.

The three largest concentrations of population in Canada are: the axis extending from Quebec City to Windsor, Ontario; the cluster between Vancouver and Victoria in British Columbia; and the area extending from Edmonton to Calgary in Alberta.

Population Distribution in Canada

Population distribution in Canada as of 1 July 2019, by census division.

As the second-largest country in the world, Canada’s population density is one of the lowest. Canada has a population density of four people per square kilometer. People tend to build permanent settlements where there is arable land, favourable climate, and economic opportunities. Census metropolitan areas with the highest population densities, namely Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Kitchener, Hamilton and Victoria, are all located in areas with productive farmland.

Impact of Human Settlement on the Environment

Human settlement affects the environment in many ways. Growing and concentrated populations need land, food and water, as well as other necessities like heat and sewage disposal. In Canada’s urban and rural communities these needs put stress on the natural environment. 

For example, wetlands in British Columbia’s southern interior were reduced by 92 per cent between 1800 and 2005. This reduction was initially due to agriculture. More recently, urban development has played a primary role. Similarly, in 2018, the city of Longueuil, Quebec was given the greenlight to dump more than 160 million litres of raw sewage into the St. Lawrence River. Finally, a 2019 study found air pollution levels near major roadways in Vancouver and Toronto to be toxic to human health.

Impact of Climate Change on Human Settlement

Climate change is impacting human settlement in Canada in many ways. For example, sea levels are rising due to climate change. Rising sea levels put coastal human settlements at risk, including Vancouver and several other Canadian cities and Indigenous communities.

Human settlements are also impacted by climate change in terms of extreme weather events. Extreme weather events include droughtsheat waves and extreme storms. In turn, increases in these events create conditions for other negative impacts such as forest fires and  crop failures. The 2016 forest fire around Fort McMurray, Alberta, is an example of how forest fires can impact human settlement. (See also The Background: Summer Wildfires in Canada.)


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