North America is the third largest of the world’s continents, lying for the most part between the Arctic Circle and the Tropic of Cancer. It extends for more than 5,000 miles (8,000 km) to within 500 miles (800 km) of both the North Pole and the Equator and has an east-west extent of 5,000 miles. It covers an area of 9,355,000 square miles (24,230,000 square km). North America occupies the northern portion of the landmass generally referred to as the New World, the Western Hemisphere, or simply the Americas. Mainland North America is shaped roughly like a triangle, with its base in the north and its apex in the south; associated with the continent is Greenland, the largest island in the world, and such offshore groups as the Arctic Archipelago, the West Indies, Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands), and the Aleutian Islands. North America is bounded on the north by the Arctic Ocean, on the east by the North Atlantic Ocean, on the south by the Caribbean Sea, and on the west by the North Pacific Ocean. To the northeast Greenland is separated from Iceland by the Denmark Strait, and to the northwest Alaska is separated from the Asian mainland by the much narrower Bering Strait. North America’s only land connection is to South America at the narrow Isthmus of Panama. Denali (Mount McKinley) in Alaska, rising 20,310 feet (6,190 metres) above sea level, is the continent’s highest point, and Death Valley in California, at 282 feet (86 metres) below sea level, is its lowest. North America’s coastline of some 37,000 miles (60,000 km)—the second longest of the continents after Asia—is notable for the great number of indentations, particularly in the northern half. North America contains some of the oldest rocks on Earth. Its geologic structure is built around a stable platform of Precambrian rock called the Canadian (Laurentian) Shield. To the southeast of the shield rose the ancient Appalachian Mountains; and to the west rose the younger and considerably taller Cordilleras, which occupy nearly one-third of the continent’s land area. In between these two mountain belts are the generally flat regions of the Great Plains in the west and the Central Lowlands in the east.
Canada is the second largest country in the world in area (after Russia), occupying roughly the northern two-fifths of the continent of North America. Despite Canada’s great size, it is one of the world’s most sparsely populated countries. This fact, coupled with the grandeur of the landscape, has been central to the sense of Canadian national identity, as expressed by the Dublin-born writer Anna Brownell Jameson, who explored central Ontario in 1837 and remarked exultantly on “the seemingly interminable line of trees before you; the boundless wilderness around you; the mysterious depths amid the multitudinous foliage, where foot of man hath never penetrated…the solitude in which we proceeded mile after mile, no human being, no human dwelling within sight.” Although Canadians are comparatively few in number, however, they have crafted what many observers consider to be a model multicultural society, welcoming immigrant populations from every other continent. In addition, Canada harbours and exports a wealth of natural resources and intellectual capital equaled by few other countries. Canada is officially bilingual in English and French, reflecting the country’s history as ground once contested by two of Europe’s great powers. The word Canada is derived from the Huron-Iroquois kanata, meaning a village or settlement. In the 16th century, French explorer Jacques Cartier used the name Canada to refer to the area around the settlement that is now Quebec city. Later, Canada was used as a synonym for New France, which, from 1534 to 1763, included all the French possessions along the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes. After the British conquest of New France, the name Quebec was sometimes used instead of Canada. The name Canada was fully restored after 1791, when Britain divided old Quebec into the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada (renamed in 1841 Canada West and Canada East, respectively, and collectively called Canada). In 1867 the British North America Act created a confederation from three colonies (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Canada) called the Dominion of Canada. The act also divided the old colony of Canada into the separate provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Dominion status allowed Canada a large measure of self-rule, but matters pertaining to international diplomacy and military alliances were reserved to the British crown. Canada became entirely self-governing within the British Empire in 1931, though full legislative independence was not achieved until 1982, when Canada obtained the right to amend its own constitution.