Capital Cities | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Capital Cities

Capital cities are the designated centres of formal political power and administrative authority in their respective territories.

Capital Cities

Capital cities are the designated centres of formal political power and administrative authority in their respective territories. They are also very often the chief focus of economic power and, therefore, of real political power, particularly in the form of head offices of business corporations and nongovernmental institutions of all kinds. They may as a consequence attract a considerable proportion of a nation's intellectuals and creative individuals. In short, capitals are usually the seats of the power elites that dominate public decision making. Through their control over the transportation and communications networks, capital elites have been able increasingly to ensure the dominance of their city over its politically dependent territories.

Capitals also serve as symbols of political identity and legitimacy. Public buildings (and commercial head offices too) are usually designed to impress the populace with the dignity of power, the majesty of the law, and, thereby, an implied assurance of personal identity and security. Most legislatures and court buildings are constructed in styles strongly influenced by some great kingdom, republic or empire of the past - to hint as it were that authority flows from a grand historical tradition and has, therefore, deep and time-honoured roots. The "capitol" of the Roman Republic is one such archetype, the medieval Gothic "Parlement" of the common people is another. A third derives from the more eclectic styles featured in the 19th century during the 2 French empires of Napoleon I and III.

Two Differing Evolutions

Canada's capital cities can be classed into 2 groups, according to whether the territory they now control politically was defined so as to reflect and enhance the political and commercial interests of an existing settlement, or whether the territory had been delimited already before the capital site was chosen. Cities of the first group are more likely to be totally dominant within their respective territories, having the great advantage of prior communications routes; those in the second are more likely to have had to compete for dominance with some other city in the same territory or elsewhere.

The first group includes ST JOHN'S, HALIFAX, CHARLOTTETOWN, QUÉBEC CITY, TORONTO, WINNIPEG andVICTORIA. All were originally founded at strategic locations as outposts of a European empire and, except for Winnipeg, were located under the constraints of sailing ship technology. St John's (founded 1583), Halifax (founded 1749) and Victoria (founded 1843) were all harbours of refuge for the large ships of the Royal Navy and of oceanic trade. Québec City (founded 1608) stands at a defensible location as far up the St Lawrence River as these large sailing ships of the 17th century could safely proceed. Toronto (founded as York 1793) was selected largely for its protected anchorage on the inland sea of Lake Ontario.

Because they are gateways to areas of staple resource production (agricultural lands, forests, mineral areas or fishing grounds), all of these capitals have developed significant commercial functions. Even Winnipeg (founded 1812) is a gateway - to the Great Plains - though its "shores" are defined today by topography (the CANADIAN SHIELD) and the US boundary along the 49th parallel. Charlottetown, the smallest provincial capital, has been the chief point of access to its small island territory since 1769, while DAWSON, the capital of the Yukon territory from 1898 to 1951, would also belong in this group, since it stands on the Yukon River gateway into the heart of the GOLD RUSH area, which had a population of as much as 30 000 in 1900, but which fell as rapidly as it had risen.

All of this first group were dominant in their official territories from the first, and except for Québec City and Victoria, still are. Québec City's rival for real power is MONTRÉAL, which though founded as an outpost upriver in 1642, remained in economic dependency until after the AMERICAN REVOLUTION. Its growth and financial power really "took off" after the introduction of steam boats, canals and railways in the 1820s and 1830s enabled entrepreneurs to take full advantage of its much better access to the interior of North America. The same is true of VANCOUVER, founded in 1886 at the terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway as Canada's gateway to the steam-powered trade of the Pacific basin, a role the senior city of Victoria could not well fulfil from its island location.

The other group of capitals includes FREDERICTON, REGINA, EDMONTON, YELLOWKNIFE, IQALUIT, WHITEHORSE and, indeed, OTTAWA. Except for Whitehorse and Iqaluit, each has a rival for real power - in the case of Ottawa, at least 2 - and have had from their inception a largely political role.

Fredericton (founded 1784) was placed well up the Saint John River in the new colony of New Brunswick, both for defence and to stimulate inland settlement; but as the Saint John River is not directly accessible to ocean shipping, New Brunswick's gateway has been the port of SAINT JOHN (founded 1785), the largest city in the province. Decline of its maritime trade role in favour of land transport corridors has allowed Moncton (incorporated in 1855) to grow rapidly in recent decades.

The capitals of Saskatchewan and Alberta were chosen in 1905 from among numerous claimants for the honour (and the perquisites) of accommodating the governments of the 2 new provinces. Even today Regina (founded 1882), the capital of the old North-West Territory (1883-1905) on the line of the original trans-continental railway, shares real power with SASKATOON (founded 1882), originally a river port, but lacking a trans-continental line for over 20 years. Edmonton (founded in 1796 as a fur-trading post; incorporated in 1892) competes with CALGARY (founded in 1875 as a police fort; incorporated in 1884). All 4 Prairie cities are on active transcontinental corridors.

Yellowknife (founded 1789) was the newest capital, designated in 1967; but the economic core of the Northwest remains predominantly at Edmonton. Iqaluit (founded 1956) was chosen over Rankin Inlet in a plebiscite in December 1995 as the capital of the new territory of NUNAVUT. Whitehorse (founded 1898) is the communications focus of the Yukon Territory, with connections to tidewater at Skagway, Alaska, and via the ALASKA HIGHWAY, built during WWII to link the Canadian Prairies with central Alaska. It was made the headquarters of the Yukon Territory in 1951, the only actual move of a capital since Confederation.


The timing of the choice of Ottawa places it in the second group. Though it became the capital of the Canadian Confederation in 1867, Ottawa had already begun to function as a political capital after a long struggle to decide the seat of government of the PROVINCE OF CANADA (today forming the southern parts of Ontario and Québec). This united province had been proclaimed in 1841, but because of political wrangling among supporters of Toronto, Kingston, Montréal, Québec City and eventually Ottawa (then called Bytown), the functions of the capital were moved among the first 4 places for over 20 years. Finally, the choice being left to the reigning monarch and her advisers, in 1858 Queen Victoria selected the newly incorporated city of Ottawa; it took another 6 years, however, before the PARLIAMENT BUILDINGS were ready for occupancy.

Meanwhile, CONFEDERATION had been agreed upon, with a view to incorporating into one polity both the Atlantic and Pacific shores of British North America. At the time, Ottawa was seen as more easily defended than Toronto or Montréal (the security issue was acute because of the AMERICAN CIVIL WAR). It was already a thriving city from the lumber trade, was equally accessible to both the major cultural communities of the time, and was well placed on the Ottawa Valley routeway to the western interior territories. It was also too conveniently close to Montréal and the transatlantic communications routes, and thus Ottawa has not been able to garner real power at a national scale to match its formal constitutional power. Montréal and increasingly Toronto continue to share such real national power, though western cities in Alberta and BC have also been gaining in this respect. Between 1951 and 1991 Ottawa's share of the national population rose from about 2% to only about 3.4%; this low figure of course fails to represent its political power share adequately, but it is a good indicator of its real power ranking.

However, the iconic or symbolic role of Ottawa is evident in almost every national news telecast. The austere grey stones of the Gothic-style buildings on Parliament Hill (emphatically not the "Capitol Hill" of a republic) cling to the land with a timeless gravity, while the thrusting central tower, a memorial to the Canadian dead of WWI whose sacrifices helped to consolidate Canadian national identity, draws attention to higher values, emphasizing Canadian commitment to "peace, order, and good government."


External Links