What is the capital of Canada? If you’re well-versed in geographic knowledge, you know the answer is Ottawa. But why is that? After all, Toronto is much larger and Montreal is an international city with ties to Europe. Vancouver is a major city with a very strategic port, and Quebec City is centrally located.
Why were none of these cities chosen to be the capital of Canada?
As it turns out, choosing a capital city is more complicated than pointing to the biggest city on the map.
To understand why Ottawa is the capital of Canada, let’s take a brief look at the history of Canada as a colony.
Why Ottawa? A Look at the History of the Canadian Nation
Canada is a relatively new nation and it has a unique history compared to other former European colonies.
The first Europeans to arrive in Canada were not French or British explorers, but Vikings from Iceland who landed on the north-east coast of Newfoundland nearly 1,000 years ago. The next European to visit was John Cabot, an Italian explorer who was the first to map out Canada’s east coast.
Colonialism really began in the mid-1500s, when Jacques Cartier claimed the land for France and its king – Francis I. It was in the 1550s that the land became known as the Anglicized Canada – after the Iroquoian word Kanata, or “village.”
Canada remained under French control for over a century when King Charles II of England gave exclusive trading rights over the Hudson Bay to England’s Hudson Bay Company. The growth of trade was accompanied by the growth of the existing English settlements in the area, and before long, the English colonies were larger and more prosperous than the French areas of Canada.
By the 1700s, Great Britain was interested in gaining control of as much of North America as possible, and their armies defeated France in 1759 at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, which took place near Quebec City.
From that moment on, Canada was a British colony called the “Province of Quebec,” and British shipping would dominate. The British takeover would play an important role not only in balancing relations between the French and English-speaking Canadians, but also in deciding the capital in relation to another former British colony to the south – the United States of America.
Ottawa – The Capital of Canada
In 1857, a few cities laid claim to the status of capital city. It was a close competition because each had something to offer as the seat of government.
Ultimately, Queen Victoria chose Ottawa as the winner.
Why did she choose Ottawa?
Ottawa was a good choice because it was centrally located between two other major contenders: Montreal (which was predominantly French) and York (now Toronto, which was predominantly British). These two cities were the largest in Ontario and Quebec, which were at the center of Canada in the mid-19th century. Picking Ottawa was a good compromise, as the Queen did not want to appear to favor one major city over the other.
Also, unlike Toronto and Montreal, Ottawa is central but also a safe distance away from Canada’s southern neighbors in the United States, which meant the capital would be safer in the event the U.S. decided to attack again.
After all, it had only been 40 years since the War of 1812 when American troops had invaded as a result of their resentment of British interference in shipping. Although America was unable to capture Canada, the invasion was costly for the British government and crown was not about to let it happen again.
Hence, Ottawa was a great choice for the capital of Canada.
Got any interesting facts about Ottawa? Share them in the comments below.
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.