"The Nature of Canada" is the course title of a program that I have the privilege of co-teaching at Lakehead University in Orillia. This is a summer program to bring hundreds of university-level Mexicans to Canada as part of their International Students curriculum.
First challenge in preparing the lesson plans was to determine what is meant by 'nature'? The great outdoors is what immediately comes to mind, yet the word can also mean 'personality', as in "he is cheerful by nature". Turns out that both definitions can be applied: we are looking at both the personality and natural resources of Canada.
Our country has many ecozones, those geographically and biologically defined areas that support certain communities of wildlife and people. There are a myriad of lines drawn on a plethora of maps that try to delineate where one ecozone ends and the next begins, so it was pared down to nine rather large areas. These are Arctic, Tundra, Mountains, Prairie, Boreal Forest, Mixed Wood Plain (also known as Great Lakes-St. Lawrence hardwoods), Carolinian, Maritimes, and Coastal.
While my assumption is that most readers of this column will have encountered some or all of these labels within their public or secondary school teachings, you were probably tested on provincial and territory boundaries moreso than ecozones. So now's your opportunity to enrich your knowledge... read on.
Each of these nine zones are the result of glacial action and/or shifting geological plates. About 12,000 years ago the landscape paused for a rest and the global warming of the time melted the great glacier that covered the area we currently call Ontario. As the puddles dried up and water found new ways to travel to the sea, plants began to grow on their preferred substrate. Wetland plants grew in muddy areas, shrubs and trees ventured north and put down roots in gravel or soil deposits, and lichens and mosses clung onto rocky ridges.
As the plants established themselves across Canada, with each species growing where the light, moisture, temperature, and soil provided their needs, wildlife soon followed. Musk oxen, seals and polar bears found their home in the north, bison and antelope loved the prairies, whales basked in coastal waters that were shared by millions of codfish, and deer and moose settled in to the wooded zones.
After 4,000 years of establishing these plant and animal communities along came humans, about 8,000 years ago. It is still debated whether they came on foot from current day Russian through Alaska and then south and eastwards, or by rafts and seacraft from lands on both sides of this continent. No matter the point of entry, these immigrants began finding areas where they could survive with the skills they had: fishing, hunting or growing crops.
Of course the land had already dictated where the plants would grow that attracted the wildlife which now attracted the humans. And so for about 7,000 years these first humans interacted with their natural environment, surviving and thriving as best they could.
Then came the white man (catchy, someone should use that line in a song, eh).
Just 526 years ago (1492) a European ship bumped into this continent and the hired guns mistakenly called it India. And surprise, people were already living here so were quickly labeled as Indians.
Despite a total lack of g-mail, twitter, or CNN, word quickly got back to Europe of this new land and the rich resources that were laying about waiting to be claimed, because, like, nobody was there, eh. Well hardly anybody... shouldn't be a problem.
The St. Lawrence River soon became as crowded with boats as today's Lake Couchiching's Chief Island on a sunny Canada Day weekend. British, French, Dutch, Italian, German, and Portuguese explorers flooded into the eastern ecozones, amazed at the easy pickings of cod, beaver pelts and lumber.
Shoreline trading parties were set up with the Native peoples, as a gesture of goodwill and a way to check out the attitude (and weaponry) of the locals. So far so good. Trade was good, so permanent trading posts were established. Of course the above countries each thought that their trading posts should be the only ones in the neighbourhood, so several wars were fought to figure out who had the best walls.
All this fighting over trading posts meant military forts had to be built. The military forts needed staff, so regular folks from the homelands were invited to come settle in Canada (the free land gimmick was to get some able-bodied men living near the forts should the need arise again to put the opposition down).
Trails between these forts became roads and along the way taverns and blacksmith shops were set up. Along these roads lumber camps and mining sites (and more taverns) were established. Some of these camps became villages, then towns, then cities. The roads went from hacked clearings to corduroy logs to gravel topped to paved highways. If you want to see where these pathways were first established, just look at a roadmap of today: same routes.
And so Canada became established. Where people live today, and what people do for a living, are all based on the land and what it provides. In just over 500 years what was once considered wasteland (hinterland) has become valuable due to oil and diamond deposits. What was once productive soils has become paved streets winding through houses within (much) subdivided land.
And for recreation, we Canadians explore the natural world by fishing, hunting, swimming, ATVing, snowmobiling, hiking, and birdwatching. It's our nature to do so.