Canada – Close to the Border

This installment provides an instance where something sounded simple but turned out to be much more complicated than originally expected. I’ve heard frequently that a disproportionately large percentage of the Canadian population lives near its southern border with the United States. U.S. sources generally cite a statistic based on 100 miles (about 160 kilometres) from the border while Canadian sources often cite one based on 150 kilometres (about 93 miles). Either way, depending on where you look and what you chose to believe, somewhere between 70% and over 90% of Canadians live within that narrow band along its southern border. Even reputable sources that would be expected to rigorously check their facts cannot seem to agree on a figure.

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The claim gains increased visual impact and meaning when one observes just how little of Canada actually fits within that slender ribbon. It’s a powerful image. This is the second largest country on earth after all, extending northward well above the Arctic Circle and the vastness of its territory is immense. A 150 or 160 Km slice is nearly inconsequential. Yet, eight of Canada’s ten largest cities (Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, Québec City, Winnipeg, Hamilton and London) hug the southern border within that wedge. The only two that do not are Calgary and Edmonton. This observation begins to give some credibility to the claims. However, it still doesn’t answer the question: What percentage of the population actually lives in that narrow band?

The World Fact Book published by the United State’s Central Intelligence Agency claims that “approximately 90% of the population is concentrated within 160 km of the US border.” But National Geographic contradicts this by stating that “an estimated 75 percent of Canadians live within 161 kilometers (100 miles) of the U.S. border.” For the tiebreaker I refer to Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada and their publication “Canada World View.” Specifically I reference their Winter 2005 article, “A Border People.” It’s a fascinating yet brief commentary by Norman Hillmer, a Professor of History and International Affairs at Carleton University. It’s worth reading in its entirety – and I encourage you to do so – but it also included a statement quite appropriate to this issue:

Seventy-five percent of Canada’s population resides in a narrow 150-kilometre band pushing up against the U.S., with close ties south of the line. We are a border people. The border is our livelihood. The border is our identity.

Sorry, CIA and all you other sources who publish dissenting statistics, but I believe I’m inclined to go with National Geographic and Professor Hillmer. However to hedge my bet, if anyone can provide a link to original research that leads to a definitive conclusion, I will gladly provide a retraction.

7 Replies to “Canada – Close to the Border”

  1. Tell the NBC commentator to get her facts straight. She just commented, during a weird clip about polar bears that aired during the Olympics, “We already know that 90% of the population lives between their border and ours.” Indicating that their is some little strip of land that belongs to no country, where almost all Canadians live. We had to look it up. Too bad NBC can’t even run a fact check on google.

  2. I know it’s probably negligible but what about the border with Alaska, do many Canadians live within a 100 miles of it?

    1. I’m not sure how I should have been able to read your mind 3.5 years ago when I wrote the post so that the answer you “expected” today would be here waiting for you. Perhaps you should lower your expectations.

  3. What is not mentioned is why people live where they do. Its not to be near to the US. Montreal and Quebec City were founded long before the US existed. The US moved close to them. Toronto was founded by Loyalists who wanted to get away from the United States, not to be close to it. As well Toronto is about 20 miles from the border but its located in the middle of Lake Ontario. Vancouver was founded to serve the interests of the local area around the time when the Oregon area was in dispute. As well, of the border between Canada and the lower 48 states, 55% is on water, with much of the land border going through mountains and wilderness. Alberta and Saskatchewan have larger populations then the bordering states.

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