February 1, 1796: Why Was “Upper Canada” the Southernmost Part of Canada?

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A Brief History

On February 1, 1796, the British government changed the capital of Upper Canada from Newark to York. Oddly named to the casual observer, the province of Upper Canada is actually the furthest South of all parts of Canada, and no, it does not have a high elevation, either.

Digging Deeper

Occupying the central area of British Canada (Canada became independent in 1867, and the French claimed a large portion called New France until after the Seven Years War), Upper Canada was a province that today is the southern part of Ontario, from the 1000 Islands region North of the St. Lawrence River West to Lake Superior, on the Northern shore of the Great Lakes. The portion the British referred to as “Lower Canada” is now modern Quebec.

Canadian Provinces and Territories

These portions of Canada were so designated based on the “Upper” and “Lower” parts of the St. Lawrence River. The term “upstream” or “upriver” means going farther from the sea and closer to the source of the river, which because of physics is always at a higher elevation than the “lower” portion.

The city that had been the provincial capital, Newark, is now the modern Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. The new capital, York, became modern Toronto in 1834, growing to eclipse Montreal as the most populous city in Canada with a metro area population of about 6 million. In fact, Toronto is an incredibly vibrant city with new construction going on a high rate, boasting 52 buildings over 500 feet tall, 20 of which are over 200 meters tall! Only New York in the Western Hemisphere has more high-rise buildings than Toronto. Over 300 new high-rise buildings were under construction as of late 2015!

View on the central business district from the CN Tower

Of course, Upper Canada was at first the target of European fur traders, but after the American Revolutionary War it was also a settling place for British loyalists that were either evicted from the United States or left voluntarily. Today, 50% of the people in Toronto are some ethnicity other than White European, while the rest of the region (about 26%) only partially reflects that diversity. Nearly everyone in what was once Upper Canada speaks English, although a stunning 160 languages (or more) can be heard.

Unfortunately, the original human inhabitants of Upper Canada, the Native Canadian (Indian) tribes, the so called First Nations, Algonquin, and Iroquoian tribes, were largely forced out of their ancestral homelands by the influx of European Canadians. The population of Ontario today is only about 2.4% Native Canadian.

Question for students (and subscribers): Now that you know about Upper and Lower Canada, see if you can figure out why you park on a driveway and drive on a parkway! Or for that matter, why “Big Deal!” really means “No big deal,” or why “Fat Chance!” and “Slim Chance!” mean the same darn thing!!!  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Armstrong, Frederick H. Handbook of Upper Canadian Chronology (Revised). Dundurn Press, 1985.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.