Sunday, January 26, 2014

Canada: Nation of 3.41 People Per km2

Normally, my ESL teaching has the usual focus of courses in reading, writing, and speaking. This semester, I have the privilege of teaching a class called “Canadian Context.” I’m especially excited about this course because it lets me see Canada through the eyes of a newcomer.

Our first unit was Canadian geography. Looking over maps again made me think about how they give information at the same time that they mislead. Look again at the above map. Of course its purpose is to show provinces and capitals. But one might see this and think that the Canadian people are spread out over their provinces evenly, like butter over bread. Ontario is covered by its mustard population, a Nova Scotia by raspberry jam, and Saskatchewan/Manitoba by wasabi.

Now look at the real picture.

This is where people actually live. Wikipedia tells me that our population density is 3.41 people per km2. For two years I lived in a Toronto neighborhood called St. James Town, and we had more than 20,000 people in less than one km2. (In fact, St. James Town is the most densely-populated neighborhood in all of Canada, and one of the higest in North America). I’m not convinced that population density communicates any real information beyond the geographer's ability to use a calculator.

History has more examples of vast, unpopulated land claims. Take New France in the 1750s, represented by all of the shades of blue below.

Looks impressive! But even more impressive is that all of the American heartland was held by roughly 300 French soldiers, garrisoned in the forts sprinkled around the Mississippi River, and by no more than 600 voyageurs (fur traders). Historian J.L. Finlay concludes “Overall, then, fewer than 1000 persons secured a pattern of alliances that made more than half of the continent apparently loyal to France” (69).

On the British side of things, Rupert’s Land gives another example. In the 1660s, New France placed restrictions on the fur trade; the Catholic church was growing uneasy about rough young men going off into the wilderness for months at a time, having liaisons with Native women, and peddling liquor for furs. Two frustrated voyageurs, Medard Des Groseilliers and Pierre-Esprit Radisson, defected to England in 1665. They proposed to circumvent the expanding French trade by basing operations in Hudson Bay.

In 1670, at the stroke of a pen, all of the land with rivers flowing into Hudson Bay was granted to the new Hudson Bay Company. The land was named in honor of Prince Rupert, cousin of King Charles II, and one of the principal investors.

The area pictured above covers 3.9 million square kilometres. If I were to guess, its European population density would register somewhere in the neighborhood of 0.00/km2. Now that would be a fair statistic.

J.L. Finlay and D.N. Sprague, The Structure of Canadian History. Scarborough: Prentice-Hall Canada Inc., 2000.

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