Windsor (Ont) | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Windsor (Ont)

Windsor, Ontario, incorporated as a city in 1892, population 217,188 (2016 census), 210,891 (2011 census). The city of Windsor is Canada’s southernmost city. It is located on the Detroit River in the extreme southwest corner of the province. Lying directly south of Detroit on the rich agricultural peninsula nestled between Lakes Erie and  St. Clair, Windsor is an international gateway through which millions of foreign visitors enter the country each year.


The Windsor area was visited by Jesuit missionaries and French explorers in the 17th century. Permanent settlement followed Antoine Laumet de Lamothe Cadillac’s founding of Detroit. The first land grants for settlement were made in 1749. French settlers were augmented by English-speaking Loyalists in the 1780s. At the time of European settlement, First Nations living in the Windsor area were the Three Fires Confederacy ( Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi peoples) and the Huron-Wendat. To open the area between lakes Erie and St. Clair to settlement, the British colonial government asked an Indian agent at Detroit, Alexander McKee, to negotiate a treaty. The treaty, known as the McKee Purchase, was signed in 1790. In exchange for the land, the British gave the Chippewa (Ojibwe), Odawa, Potawatomi and Huron-Wendat signatories goods valued at 1,200 pounds.

By the 1820s the introduction of steamships on Lake Erie, the opening of the Erie Canal and Welland Canal, and regular stage service from the east stimulated frontier expansion westward. The ferry connection with Detroit led to the establishment of a small hamlet around the ferry dock. People called the settlement the Ferry, Richmond and south Detroit. In 1836, the community agreed on Windsor, with its Loyalist and British associations.


In 1854, the Great Western Railway was established in the area and the village was incorporated. Four years later, the village reached town status. Initially, there were barriers to international commerce and travel. For example, there was a difference of gauge between US and Canadian railways. However, in the 1860s standardized gauges and the development of huge ferries capable of transporting entire trains allowed cargoes and passengers to pass directly across the river. By then Windsor had also become a service centre for the surrounding agricultural area. The railway network was completed in 1910 with the opening of a railway tunnel under the river.

Industrial activity began upriver in Walkerville. Incorporated in 1890, Walkerville was a company town developed by Hiram Walker around his distillery. In 1904, the Ford Motor Company of Canada was established just east of Walker’s distillery. The company began the industry that would become the area’s economic lifeline (see Automotive Industry). Through the early 20th century, Ford, General Motors, Chrysler and a host of long-forgotten auto companies and parts plants helped make the area the “Auto Capital of the British Empire.”

With hundreds of American firms taking advantage of favourable tariff policies, the area experienced unparalleled prosperity and optimism. The new auto age was capped by the opening of the Ambassador Bridge (1929), the world's longest international suspension bridge,and the Detroit-Windsor Auto Tunnel (1930),the only international vehicular tunnel in the world.


The French system of land division had encouraged a stringing out of settlement along the Detroit River. Over time communities were established (e.g., Sandwich) or sprang up around some function. For example, Windsor grew around the ferry dock, Walkerville around a distillery, and Ford City around an auto maker’s plant. The transformation of the industrial base by the auto industry attracted rapid population growth. As the population grew, so did demand for administering the metropolitan area as a single, functioning unit.

Plans for zoning, waterfront beautification and other urban improvements were lost on those whose priorities were rebuilding the city’s tax base and providing new employment. The short-sighted, development-at-all-costs view resulted in a disillusioning experience with riverfront development, but the community learned a lesson. As a result there has been a heightened community commitment to the riverfront and its protection.


Windsor’s population grew from 21,000 in 1908 to 105,000 in 1928. This rise was almost entirely due to employment offered in the automobile industry. This industrial work force was young, had a high male to female ratio and a high percentage of foreign born. Another attraction was the opportunity of employment in Detroit. In 1927, over 15,000 Windsor residents held jobs there. During the Great Depression, 30 per cent of Windsor’s work force was unemployed. Immigration ceased and the area suffered an outmigration.

Production of war materials during the Second World War and postwar demand for automobiles meant employment and population gains. However, from 1953 to 1962 the number of auto workers dropped to nearly half. In 1965, following the signing of the Auto Pact, employment was high and immigration increased. Italian immigrants were the largest postwar group. Today, a large percentage of Windsor residents identify as French (20.8 per cent), according to the 2016 census. The other two most commonly cited ethnicities are Canadian (24.7 per cent) and English (18 per cent). Windsor also has a large population of racialized Canadians. In 2016, 26.9 per cent of Windsor’s population was considered a "visible minority" by Statistics Canada. Arab, Black and South Asian people make up the largest racialized communities. In addition, 2.6 per cent of Windsor residents identify as Indigenous.

Economy and Labour Force

Since its inception the auto industry has set wage and employment patterns for the Windsor area. While Chrysler and Ford continue to invest in the city, in 2010, General Motors closed its Windsor transmission plant. The closure marked the end of an over 90 year presence in the city.

Despite the departure of General Motors, manufacturing continues to dominate the local economy. In 2016, over 20 per cent of Windsor’s employed workforce worked in the manufacturing sector. In addition to automotive manufacturing, Windsor-based companies produce machinery, plastics, rubber and fabricated metal products.

Windsor also has significant employment in construction, transportation, trade and service industries. Much of the food and beverage industry consists in processing locally grown farm products. Windsor’s best-known distillery is Hiram Walker & Sons, makers of J.P. Wiser whiskey. Windsor is also one of Ontario’s tourist and convention centres.


Located in the heart of North America, Windsor is a transportation centre and Canada’s busiest land border crossing. Windsor is also deepwater port near the centre point of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The city is also served by the Windsor International Airport.

Government and Politics

In 1918, the labour movement entered Windsor’s municipal politics. During the 1918 election, the local Trades and Labor Congress ran a slate that captured one-third of the municipal government’s council seats. This form of union political action reached its apex in the 1935 election of George Bennett as mayor. Bennett was a trade unionist and Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation member. Much of the labour movement’s strength was siphoned off in Windsor by two Liberal mayors: David Croll and Arthur Reaume. Croll and Reaume dominated local politics from 1930 to 1954.

Windsor’s current government consists of a mayor and 10 councillors. Each councillor represents a ward.As with other municipalities in Ontario, Windsor holds municipal elections every four years.

Cultural Life

Windsor’s performing arts centres include the Capitol Theatre, home to the Windsor Symphony, and the St. Clair College Centre for the Arts' Chrysler Theatre, home of the Windsor Light Music Theatre. Windsor's stock of interesting and diverse historic architecture includes the Hiram Walker Historical Museum, Mackenzie Hall and Willistead Manor.

Windsor’s tradition in higher education began with the establishment in 1857 of Assumption College, which became University of Windsor in 1962. Windsor is also home to the main campus of the St. Clair College of Applied Arts and Technology.

Windsor’s special relationship with Detroit is marked by the Windsor-Detroit International Freedom Festival. The festival is a week of co-operative activities and events topped off with a gigantic fireworks display on the Detroit River. Windsor has one major newspaper, the daily Windsor Star, owned by the Postmedia Network.

Further Reading

External Links