The second largest country in area after Russia, Canada has coastlines on the Atlantic, Arctic, and Pacific Oceans, giving it the longest coastline of any country. In area, Canada is slightly larger than the United States, but has only 11 percent as many people. It is one of the least densely inhabited and most prosperous countries. A vast region of swamps, lakes, and ancient rock, known as the Canadian Shield, radiates out from Hudson Bay to cover half of the country; it is agriculturally poor with few people but rich in mineral deposits and forests. The shield stretches from the Arctic to the Great Lakes and Labrador, cutting the country in half and contributing to a division between easterners and westerners. The Canadian Shield and rugged western mountains experience subarctic climates, resulting in a near empty north—an estimated 75 percent of Canadians live within 161 kilometers (100 miles) of the U.S. border.

France pioneered settlement, but Britain gained control in 1763. In 1867 the British North America Act united English-speaking Upper Canada (Ontario) and French-speaking Lower Canada (Quebec) with Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in a self-governing confederation—with independence in 1931. Canada is a multicultural society dependent on immigration for growth. Some 28 percent are of British descent, 23 percent claim French descent (concentrated in Quebec), 2 percent are aboriginal peoples—other minorities include Italians, Germans, Ukrainians, and Chinese. Canada's population is highly urbanized, with most people living in four areas: southern Ontario, Montréal region, Vancouver city and southern Vancouver Island, and the Calgary-Edmonton corridor. The urban economy has a large manufacturing base, and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has brought an economic boom—about 80 percent of Canada's trade is with the U.S.