Pre-departure guide for international students

2. Canada: the basics

2.1 Overview

Canada is most famous for its natural beauty. To many in other countries, the word “Canada” evokes images of wide-open spaces, dramatic mountains, pristine forests and majestic lakes.

Canada is also known as a modern, progressive nation with open-minded citizens. We are a multicultural society with two official languages, English and French, and are proud of our ethnic diversity.

Canadians are widely regarded as friendly, polite, well-educated, interesting and healthy. We enjoy a very high standard of living—Canada has consistently ranked among the top 10 countries in the United Nations Quality of Life Index since 2004.

2.2 Geography

Canada occupies the northern half of the North American continent, with a landmass of 9,093,507 km2, making it the second-largest country in the world after Russia. Bordered by the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, we have the longest coastline of any country. To the north, the Arctic islands come within 800 kilometres of the North Pole. To the south, we share an 8,893-kilometre land border—the longest in the world—with the United States. Most of the population live within a few hundred kilometres of the southern border, in a long band that stretches between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Distinctive features include our vast mountain ranges: the Torngats, Appalachians and Laurentians in the east; the Rocky, Coastal and Mackenzie ranges in the west; and Mount St. Elias and the Pelly Mountains in the north. At 5,959 metres, Mount Logan in the Yukon is Canada's tallest peak.

Canada has more than two million lakes, covering about 7.6 percent of the country. In total, Canada has almost 900,000 km2 of fresh water. Many large lakes traverse the Canada-U.S. border, but the main Canadian lakes are Huron, Superior, Great Slave, Winnipeg, Erie, Ontario and Great Bear. The St. Lawrence River (3,058 km long) is Canada's most important river, providing a seaway for ships from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean.

2.3 Population

Canada’s population is approximately 35.8 million, with roughly 80 percent concentrated in cities and towns. The population density ratio is one of the lowest in the world at 3.7 persons per square kilometre.

As of 2014, these are Canada’s largest cities:

  • Toronto (6.1 million)
  • Montreal (4.0 million)
  • Vancouver (2.3 million)
  • Ottawa region (1.4 million)

Canada is a multicultural and diverse country. The majority of Canadians are of European ancestry, primarily descendants of the early French and British colonists, as well as later immigrants from eastern and southern Europe.

However, as patterns of immigration have shifted over the years so has the ethnic mix. The second half of the 20th century saw a great influx of people from Asia, the Caribbean and Africa. In the 2006 census, more than one third of Canadians reported having one or more of 200 ethnic origins and over 16 percent of Canadians classified themselves as a visible minority. Canada also has a diverse aboriginal population, which consists of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.

Many religions are practised in Canada, while almost 20 percent of Canadians claim no religious affiliation.

2.4 Language

Canada has two official languages, English and French. In 2011, 5.8 million Canadians reported being able to conduct a conversation in both of Canada’s official languages, making up 17.5 percent of the Canadian population. All federal government institutions and many businesses offer bilingual services.

Chinese dialects are the third most common native language in Canada, followed by German, Italian, Punjabi and Spanish. The most common Aboriginal languages are Cree, Inuktitut and Ojibway.

2.5 Provinces and Territories

Provinces and Territories
NameCapital CityPopulation
AlbertaEdmonton4,196,500
British ColumbiaVictoria4,683,100
ManitobaWinnipeg1,293,400
New BrunswickFredericton753,900
Newfoundland and LabradorSt John's527,800
Northwest TerritoriesYellowknife44,100
Nova ScotiaHalifax943,000
NunavutIqaluit36,900
OntarioToronto13,792,100
Prince Edward IslandCharlottetown146,400
QuebecCity of Quebec8,263,600
SaskatchewanRegina1,133,600
YukonWhitehorse37,400
Source: Statistics Canada, 2015

Dedicated to international students

The college staff and professors were very supportive of international students, attentive and patient with our grammatical mistakes and language issues. International students were treated as equals, which helped us integrate ourselves in the school environment.

Back in Brazil, my Canadian diploma was recognized by employers as Canada has one of the best educational system in the world.

I work today for a big compa ny from São Paulo and I believe my Canadian diploma, my English skills and my experience abroad helped me in getting hired.

Paula Funk Szinvelski
Vancouver Community College: Diploma in Interior Design (2010)

2.6 Political system

Canada is a constitutional monarchy and a federal state with a democratic system of government. This means Canadians recognize Queen Elizabeth II as their Head of State. Canada’s Governor General carries out Her Majesty’s duties in Canada on a daily basis and is Canada's de facto Head of State. Like many other democracies, Canada has clearly defined the difference between the Head of State and the Head of Government, the Prime Minister.

Canada’s Parliament, situated in the capital city of Ottawa, consists of the House of Commons with 308 elected members and the Senate, where 105 members are appointed. On average, members of parliament (MPs) are elected every four years. The Prime Minister, who is usually the leader of the party with the largest number of seats in the House of Commons, is the Head of Government. The Prime Minister appoints 20 to 30 ministers who make up the Cabinet. The Cabinet develops government policy and is responsible to the House of Commons.

Headed by Cabinet, the Government of Canada performs its duties through the intermediary of federal departments and agencies, boards, commissions and state-owned corporations. Each province/territory has its legislature under the leadership of a premier.

A number of important aspects of daily life are the responsibility of the provincial and territorial governments, including education, health care, drivers’ licences and labour standards.

Municipal and local governments also play an important role and are normally responsible for urban or regional planning, streets and roads, sanitation (such as garbage collection), snow removal, firefighting services, ambulance and other emergency services, recreational facilities, public transportation, and some local health and social services. Most major urban centres have municipal police services.

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