About Ontario

Ontario’s vibrant multiculturalism and varied landscapes make this a great place to live and to visit. Find out more about Ontario’s people, places, and history.

Ontario key facts

Ontario is a study in contrasts. The varied landscape includes the vast, rocky and mineral-rich Canadian Shield, which separates the fertile farmland in the south and the grassy lowlands of the north.

Here are some key facts about Ontario:

  • Ontario’s more than 250,000 lakes contain about one-third of the world's fresh water
  • in summer, temperatures can soar above 30°C (86°F), while in winter they can drop below -40°C (-40°F)
  • Ontario's industries range from cultivating crops, to mining minerals, to manufacturing automobiles, to designing software and leading-edge technology
  • cultures from around the world thrive and are celebrated in Ontario with festivals such as Caribbean Carnival, Oktoberfest and the Canadian Aboriginal Festival
  • travellers can enjoy the many experiences Ontario has to offer, from a wilderness expedition in the north, to a "shop till you drop into your theatre seat" city excursion

Ontario’s economy

Ontario’s economy thrives through its unique combination of resources, manufacturing expertise, exports and a drive for innovation. Ontario generates 37% of the national GDP and is home to almost 50% of all employees in high tech, financial services and other knowledge-intensive industries”.

Learn more about Ontario’s highly diversified economy.

Ontario and the North American market

Ontario lies in the core of the North American Free Trade area, which includes more than 460 million people and generates a combined gross domestic product of more than $18 trillion (purchasing power parity, current international $). In 2011, more than C$ 1.4 billion crossed the Canada-U.S. border each day and Ontario-US trade accounted for approximately C$ 716 million of that amount.

Manufacturing in Ontario

Ontario is part of the North American manufacturing heartland. Examples of Ontario's key manufacturing industries include autos, information and communications technologies, biotech, pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

Here are some key facts about Ontario’s manufacturing sector:

  • Ontario is the largest sub-national automotive assembly jurisdiction in North America
  • according to Statistics Canada, 88% of Ontario's vehicle production was exported (2011 figures), with almost all of the exports destined for the United States
  • in 2011, Ontario’s manufacturing businesses shipped more than $258 billion
  • after California and Texas, Ontario has the most manufacturing employees of any jurisdiction in Canada and the United States

Agriculture in Ontario

Ontario has more than half of the highest quality (“Class 1”) farm land in Canada. There are 51,950 farms in Ontario (Census of Agriculture, 2011) and they make up almost one-quarter of all farm revenue in Canada.

Ontario’s agricultural production includes:

  • fruit crops, such as grapes, apples, berries and other tender fruits
  • vegetables
  • cash crops, such as soybeans, corn, mixed grains, forage crops, wheat and barley
  • commercial poultry, hog, dairy and beef cattle farms
  • flowers and other ornamental plants

Forestry in Ontario

Ontario’s forests play a major role in the province’s economy. They contribute to a good standard of living by supporting more than 53,000 direct jobs in the forest industry (2011). In total, the forestry sector supports almost 200,000 direct and indirect jobs across 260 Ontario communities.

Mining in Ontario

Mineral production in Ontario was more than $10 billion in 2011. The mining industry in Ontario is a global leader in productivity and has world leading environmental standards. Ontario is among the top 10 producers in the world for nickel and platinum group metals. The province is also a significant producer of gold, copper, zinc, cobalt and silver. Southern Ontario produces non-metallic minerals including salt, gypsum, lime, nephelinesyenite and structural materials (sand, gravel, stone). The sedimentary rocks of the south are also the site of Ontario's oil and gas industry.

Ontario’s services industry

Although Ontario is a manufacturing powerhouse, the services sector is the largest part of Ontario's economy. It employs 79% (or 5.3 million people) of the province and makes up 76.9% of the province’s economy. Examples of Ontario's major services sector include business and financial services, professional and scientific technical services, and arts and culture.

Ontario’s history

People have lived in what is now Ontario for more than 12,000 years. Before the arrival of the European settlers, Algonquian- and Iroquoian-speaking Aboriginals had settled on the land.

Experts aren’t sure about the exact translation of “Ontario”.  They know “Ontario” comes from an Iroquois word for beautiful water, beautiful lake or big body of water.

Beginning in the 1600s, French and British settlers arrived in Canada and began to work the land. After the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), most of the land in Canada belonged to the British. The British called this area the province of Quebec, which included Quebec, Ontario and part of the United States.

After the American Revolution (1775-1783), many American colonists who were loyal to Britain moved to Ontario. They were known as United Empire Loyalists. Many Iroquois also moved to Upper Canada from northern New York State.

In 1791, the British enacted the Constitutional Act, which split Quebec into two parts. Ontario was upstream of the St. Lawrence River so it became Upper Canada and Quebec became Lower Canada.

Upper Canada’s first capital was Newark, which is now Niagara-on-the-Lake. In 1793, the capital was moved to York (now Toronto) to protect it from American attacks. Upper Canada’s first Lieutenant Governor was General John Graves Simcoe.

Throughout the nineteenth century, many immigrant groups moved to Upper Canada, including Germans, Scots and Mennonites. By 1830, the population of Canada was about 235,000.  Toronto became the first city in Ontario in 1834.

In 1867, Ontario and Quebec became separate provinces.  They joined Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to form a federal union called the Dominion of Canada. This was declared in the British North America Act. The new country’s capital was the small town of Ottawa and the first prime minister was Sir John A. Macdonald.

Ontario’s geography

Ontario is Canada's second largest province, covering more than 1 million square kilometres (415,000 square miles) - an area larger than France and Spain combined. Ontario is bounded by Quebec  to the east, Manitoba to the west, Hudson Bay and James Bay to the north, and the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes to the south.

Here are some key facts about Ontario’s geography:

  • the longest east-west distance in Ontario is 1,568 kilometres (974 miles). The longest north-south distance is 1,691 kilometres (1,050 miles). The highest point is 693 metres (785 yards) above sea level, in the Timiskaming area
  • Manitoulin Island in Georgian Bay is the world's largest freshwater island, covering 2,766 square kilometres (1,068 square miles)
  • Ontario is home to 2 time zones: the boundary line between the Central Time Zone and Eastern Time Zone is just west of Thunder Bay, running north from the United States border to Hudson Bay
  • Ontario's most northerly communities are close to the same latitude as London, England and Warsaw, Poland. Ontario's southernmost point of land is Middle Island, in Lake Erie south of Point Pelee, roughly parallel to Barcelona, Spain or Rome, Italy

Ontario’s natural resources

Ontario’s varied landscape offers an abundance of natural resources. Learn more about these resources below:

Ontario's water and lakes

Ontario's many lakes, rivers and streams played a central role in the province's history and development. For Aboriginal peoples and the early European settlers, the lakes and rivers were a means of transportation and a source for food. Waterways determined the patterns of settlement as well as the patterns of industrialization.

Here are some key facts about water in Ontario:

  • the Great Lakes include Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario - combined, these lakes hold one-fifth of the world's fresh surface water
  • the combined shoreline of the Great Lakes is equal to about 45% of the earth's circumference
  • the 5 Great Lakes are the world's biggest continuous body of fresh water
  • the Great Lakes Basin covers an area of 750,000 square kilometres - this basin includes 8 US states, most of southern Ontario and extends into northern Ontario
  • more than 98% of Ontario residents live within the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River Basin
  • more than 80% of Ontarians get their drinking water from the lakes
  • the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River Basin supports nearly more than 75% of Canada’s manufacturing, and a third of the country's employment in agriculture and food processing

Ontario’s forests

70 million hectares – or 66% of Ontario’s land – is classified as forested land. By area, these forests represent about 18% of Canada's forests and 2% of the world's forests. Harvested wood is used to make building materials, pulp and paper and a wide range of other value-added products, such as furniture and flooring.

But there is more than one kind of forest in Ontario. These include the deciduous forest of southern Ontario and the Great Lakes - St. Lawrence Forest of central Ontario. Northern Ontario is home to both the Boreal forest and the Hudson Bay Lowlands forest. A very small region of southern Ontario also includes Carolinian forest, which is home to the Kentucky coffee and sassafras trees – both species that can’t be found anywhere else in Canada!

Ontario's fish and wildlife

Ontario's varied climate and geography support habitat for more than 3,600 species of plants, 154 species of fish, 50 species of amphibians and reptiles, 483 species of birds, and more than 81 species of mammals. In Ontario's southernmost regions, you will find prickly pear cactus and sassafras trees, while polar bears roam our northern tundra.

Common fish in Ontario include yellow perch, bluegill, northern pike, and walleye. The mammals that call Ontario home include beavers, black bears, muskrats, gray wolves, white-tailed deer and walrus. Familiar birds include blue jays, northern cardinals, great blue herons, red-tailed hawks, great horned owls and pileated woodpeckers. Look carefully and you might see some reptiles and amphibians, including eastern garter snakes, northern leopard frogs, eastern massasauga rattlesnakes, midland painted turtles or one of 11 types of salamanders and newts.

Ontario’s provincial parks and protected areas

Algonquin Provincial Park, established in 1893, was Ontario’s first provincial park. Since then, Ontario's provincial parks have stood for protection of the natural environment and enjoyment of the great outdoors. Today, Ontario's vast system of parks and protected areas totals over 9 million hectares, and includes areas of magnificent old-growth forest, woodland caribou ranges, wilderness rivers, wetlands and habitat for rare and endangered plants and animals.

Our parks attract about 10 million visitors each year and provide places for outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, swimming, canoeing, nature viewing and fishing. Parks are also important for scientific research, environmental monitoring and outdoor education. Most importantly, Ontario's provincial parks will protect and conserve our rich natural and cultural heritage for the benefit of future generations.

Minerals and mining in Ontario

Since Ontario’s first gold rush in 1866 near the town of Madoc, Ontario has been Canada’s leading metals producer. It produces more than 25 different metal and non-metal mineral products. In 2011, Ontario produced 43% of Canada’s nickel, 52% of its gold, 38% of the country’s copper and 84% of its platinum group metals.

Ontario stone was used to build the Ontario legislature, the federal parliament buildings in Ottawa, and the Canadian Embassy Washington, DC.

The ancient rocks of the Canadian Shield cover two-thirds of Ontario and host many mineral deposits. Younger sedimentary rocks also contain valuable minerals and unconsolidated glacial deposits are another important source of mineral riches.

Amethyst, a variety of 6-sided purple quartz crystal, was adopted as Ontario's official gemstone in 1975. Amethyst, while occurring worldwide, is in rich supply along Lake Superior's north shore near Thunder Bay. It is also found in the Bancroft and North Bay areas.

Ontario energy

Ontario is an important Canadian petroleum refining region, ranking second behind Alberta in refinery production in 2011. Six facilities (4 fuel refineries, a petro-chemical facility, and a lubes plant) produced 26.7 billion litres (168 million barrels) of petroleum products in 2011. Last year, the province relied on imports to meet about 20% of petroleum product demand of 33.3 billion litres.

With the exception of transportation, natural gas is the major fuel used by all sectors of the economy, including residential, commercial and industrial heating. In 2009, it provided almost 30% of Ontario's energy. Petroleum accounted for about 40%, and electricity for almost 20%.

There are about 120 generating stations connected to Ontario’s power grid – nuclear, hydroelectric, gas, wind and bioenergy-fuelled. Together, these stations are capable of generating approximately 35,000 megawatts of electricity.

Ontario’s 5 nuclear plants have a capacity of about 11,000 megawatts. Ontario’s 70 hydroelectric generating stations have a capacity of over 7,900 megawatts.

Ontario now has more than 1,000 wind turbines with a capacity of more than 2,000 megawatts, making Ontario the Canadian leader in wind power.

Ontario’s people and culture

With a population of more than 13.5 million, Ontario is home to about 2 in 5 Canadians. More than 85% live in urban centres, largely in cities on the shores of the Great Lakes.

The largest concentration of people and cities is in the "Golden Horseshoe" along the western shore of Lake Ontario, including the Greater Toronto Area, Hamilton, St. Catharines and Niagara Falls.

The “Greater Golden Horseshoe” describes the extended metropolitan area, including parts of central Ontario surrounding the core region. With more than 9 million people, this area is one of the fastest growing areas in North America. The wider region spreads inland in all directions away from the Lake Ontario shoreline, southwest to Brantford, west to the Kitchener-Waterloo area, north to Barrie and northeast to Peterborough.

Population hubs in southwestern Ontario include London, Kincardine and Windsor and Sarnia. In eastern Ontario, Ottawa and Kingston are the predominant cities. In northern Ontario, key municipalities include Greater Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, North Bay, Timmins and Kenora.

Ontario’s Aboriginal People

Aboriginal peoples – First Nation, Métis and Inuit – make up about 2% of Ontario’s population and about one-fifth of all Aboriginal people in Canada. First Nations peoples in Ontario include Algonquian-speaking Cree, Oji-Cree, Algonquin, Ojibwa, Odawa, Potawatomi and Delaware, plus the Iroquoian-speaking Six Nations (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora). 

Ontario’s languages

English is Ontario's official language, though there are several French-speaking communities across the province. French language rights have been extended to the province’s legal and educational systems. Government services are provided in English and French in many designated regions across the province.

Ontario's population growth has depended on immigration ever since the American Revolution sent Loyalists north to Canada. Even today, 40 % of the approximately 250,000 people who immigrate to Canada each year choose to settle in Ontario. Toronto has been called the most multicultural city in the world, where more than 100 languages and dialects are spoken.

Languages other than English often spoken at home in Ontario include Chinese, Italian, German, Polish, Spanish, Punjabi, Ukrainian and Portuguese.

Ontario demographics, education and labour

The median age for Ontarians is about 40 years. There are about 5 million households in Ontario and the life expectancy is about 79 years for men and 84 years for women.

The labour force aged 25 and over exceeds 6 million people and about 64% of Ontario residents between 25 and 64 have completed post secondary schooling.

There are 20 public universities and 24 colleges of applied arts and technology.

Ontario culture

Toronto has the largest variety of theatres and performing arts companies in Ontario, and the second largest in North America after New York. Dozens more fine theatres operate throughout the province. Seasonal festivals, like the Stratford Festival and the Shaw Festival, draw crowds from across Canada and the United States.

Ontario also has well-known art galleries, like the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg.

Ontario’s entertainment and creative industry is the third largest in North America by employment–ranking after California and New York.Within Canada, Ontario is the leading province for film and television production, book and magazine publishing, and sound recording. The Toronto International Film Festival, one of the largest and most influential film festivals in the world, is an annual event. As well, Ontario is an internationally recognized hub for the interactive digital media industry producing various cutting-edge digital products and services.

Sightseeing in Ontario

Most Ontario cities and towns have carefully preserved historic buildings. You can see accurately rebuilt forts and pioneer villages around the province, including Upper Canada Village in Morrisburg and Fort Wellington in Prescott.

Some towns, like Niagara-on-the-Lake and Elora, make a special effort to preserve the flavour of the past. Ottawa’s distinctive parliament building and Toronto’s impressive legislative building remind us of our history.

Touring Ontario is easy by highway, boat or rail. You can visit attractions throughout the province, from country fairs and museums to zoos, floral gardens, theme parks and special events. Don’t forget to visit Niagara Falls, one of the world’s natural wonders.

Summer and winter, Ontario's beautiful natural settings are home to all kinds of activities. Summertime brings swimming, boating, baseball, hiking, camping, fishing and tennis. Popular winter activities in Ontario include skating, skiing, tobogganing, curling and hockey.

Other sights include the Ontario Science Centre, Science North, Ontario Place, the Niagara Parks Commission, the St. Lawrence Parks Commission and many provincial parks.

Updated: July 8, 2014