Ontario — History and Culture
Ontario boasts Canada’s most multicultural population, as home to over half of all newcomers to the country. One out of four Ontario residents was born outside of Canada and a large percentage of the province’s population speaks languages other than English or French at home. All of these immigrant groups have made their own unique contributions to Ontario’s culture alongside the province’s strong French speaking and First Nations communities.
In 10,000 BC, wooly mammoths and mastodons roamed the woodlands of present day southwestern Ontario alongside the province’s earliest known human residents. Ontario’s main First Nations groups were the Algonquin, who were migrant hunters, and the Iroquois, who farmed squash, corn, and beans.
While French explorer Étienne Brûlé became the first European to travel through southern Ontario, Henry Hudson claimed the Hudson Bay area, hundreds of miles to the north, for Great Britain in 1611. Iroquois warriors destroyed North America’s first inland French settlement, St Mary Among the Huron, in 1649 in a conflict with the Huron, who enjoyed a friendly trading relationship with the French. The Iroquois staged several more revolts against both the French and other First Nations groups during the next few decades.
In 1668, Sault Ste Marie became the first permanent European community in both present-day Ontario and the American state of Michigan. However, Ontario’s oldest English speaking community is the small northern settlement of Moose Factory, founded as a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post in 1730.
After Great Britain won the Seven Years’ War in 1763 and the American Revolution took place in 1776, present-day Ontario became home to roughly 9,000 Loyalist settlers, some of whom were more attracted by the territory’s cheap land than their loyalty to the British crown.
In 1791, present-day Ontario was officially named Upper Canada, while predominantly French-speaking Québec was Lower Canada. The small settlement of York became Upper Canada’s capital in 1796 and eventually changed its name to Toronto. Between 1785 and 1806, Upper Canada’s population soared from 6,000 to 46,000. Many of Ontario’s largest cities were founded during the early 19th century prior to the War of 1812, when American forces attempted - and failed - to conquer Upper Canada.
Shortly after the 1837 Upper Canada rebellion supporting responsible government, the territory joined with Lower Canada to become a single province in 1841. The province’s population continued to soar with the addition of nearly 100,000 Irish immigrants fleeing their country’s potato famine. By 1851, the province’s population was 952,000.
Following years of parliamentary deadlock between Canada East and Canada West, the two Canadas agreed to federal union with the other British North American colonies. Two of those colonies, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, joined Québec and Ontario as the first four provinces of the new nation of Canada in 1867. Ottawa’s Parliament Hill (111 Wellington Street, Ottawa) became the country’s new seat of government and construction of northern Ontario’s first Canadian Pacific Railway stretch began in 1875.
In 1976, Toronto’s 1,815 foot tall CN Tower (301 Front Street West, Toronto) became the world’s tallest free-standing structure and this modern city’s main landmark. Although Alberta has now surpassed Ontario as Canada’s most prosperous province, most immigrants to Canada still choose to come to Ontario because of the province’s strong multicultural history and central location in Canada.
English may be Ontario’s official language, but it is not the first language of millions of Ontario residents, 25 percent of whom were born in countries other than Canada. Today, Ontario is home to over a dozen different First Nations groups and over 50 percent of Canada’s new immigrants. Most of the 583,000 Ontario residents who speak French as their first language live in the National Capital Region, near the Québec border, or in northeastern Ontario.
Chinatown, Koreatown, Greek Town, and Little Italy are just a handful of the multicultural neighborhoods in Toronto. Ontario boasts more museums and art galleries than any other Canadian province, while Toronto hosts more live theater performances than anywhere else outside of London’s West End or New York City’s Broadway. Even the much smaller communities of Niagara on the Lake and Stratford host famous summer festivals dedicated to the works of George Bernard Shaw and William Shakespeare, respectively.