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Northern Ontario
Nord de l'Ontario (French)
Primary Region
██ Statistical area (geographic area north of French River) ██ Extended administrative area

██ Statistical area (geographic area north of French River) ██ Extended administrative area
Country Canada Canada
Province Ontario Ontario
 • Total 806,707.51 km2 (311,471.51 sq mi)
 • Total 780,140
 • Density 0.9/km2 (2/sq mi)
Largest city Greater Sudbury
161,647 (2016)
Highest point Ishpatina Ridge
(693 m)
Longest river Albany River
(980 km)
Government of Ontario

Northern Ontario is a primary geographic and quasi-administrative region of the Canadian province of Ontario, the other primary region being Southern Ontario. Most of the core geographic region is located on part of the Superior Geological Province of the Canadian Shield, a vast rocky plateau located mainly north of Lake Huron (including Georgian Bay), the French River, Lake Nipissing, and the Mattawa River. The statistical region extends south of the Mattawa River to include all of the District of Nipissing. The southern section of this district lies on part of the Grenville Geological Province of the Shield which occupies the transitional area between Northern and Southern Ontario. The extended federal and provincial quasi-administrative regions of Northern Ontario have their own boundaries even further south in the transitional area that vary according to their respective government policies and requirements. Ontario government departments and agencies such as the Growth Plan for Northern Ontario and the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation define Northern Ontario as all areas north of, and including, the districts of Parry Sound and Nipissing for political purposes, whilst the federal government, but not the provincial, also includes the district of Muskoka.

The statistical region has a land area of 806,000 km2 (310,000 mi2) and constitutes 88 percent of the land area of Ontario, but with just 780,000 people it contains only about six percent of the province's population. The climate is characterized by extremes of temperature, extremely cold in winter and hot in summer. The principal industries are mining, forestry, and hydroelectricity.

For some purposes, Northern Ontario is further subdivided into Northeastern and Northwestern Ontario. When the region is divided in this way, the three westernmost districts (Rainy River, Kenora and Thunder Bay) constitute "Northwestern Ontario" and the other districts constitute "Northeastern Ontario." Northeastern Ontario contains two thirds of Northern Ontario's population.

In the early 20th century, Northern Ontario was often called "New Ontario", although this name fell into disuse because of its colonial connotations. (In French, however, the region may still be referred to as Nouvel-Ontario, although le Nord de l'Ontario and Ontario-Nord are now more commonly used.)

Territorial evolution

Those areas which formed part of New France in the pays d'en haut, essentially the watersheds of the Ottawa River, Lake Huron and Lake Superior, had been acquired by the British by the Treaty of Paris (1763) and became part of Upper Canada in 1791, and then the Province of Canada between 1840 and 1867.

Canada provinces 1867-1870
Canadian provincial boundaries in 1867

At the time of Canadian Confederation in 1867, the portion of Northern Ontario lying south of the Laurentian Divide was part of Ontario, while the portion north of the divide was part of the separate British territory of Rupert's Land. The province's boundaries were provisionally expanded northward and westward in 1874, while the Lake of the Woods region remained subject to a boundary dispute between Ontario and Manitoba. The region was confirmed as belonging to Ontario by decision of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in 1884, and confirmed by the Canada (Ontario Boundary) Act, 1889 of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, which set the province's new northern boundary at the Albany River.

The remaining northernmost portion of the province, from the Albany River to Hudson Bay, was transferred to the province from the Northwest Territories by the Parliament of Canada in the Ontario Boundaries Extension Act, 1912. This region was originally established as the District of Patricia, but was merged into the Kenora District in 1927.


Gateway to North Bay, Ontario
North Bay is often considered to be the "Gateway" to Northern Ontario


Northern Ontario has nine cities. In order of population (2016), they are:

Until the City of Greater Sudbury was created in 2001, Thunder Bay had a larger population than the old city of Sudbury, but the Regional Municipality of Sudbury was the larger Census Metropolitan Area as Sudbury had a much more populous suburban belt (including the city of Valley East, formerly the region's sixth-largest city.) However, as the former Regional Municipality of Sudbury is now governed as a single city, it is both the region's largest city and the region's largest CMA.


Smaller municipalities in Northern Ontario include:


Outdoor recreation is popular in the region year-round. In summer, fishing, boating, canoeing, ATVing, and camping are enjoyed by residents. Hunting remains popular in autumn, especially for moose, whitetail deer, and grouse, although goose hunting is exceptionally popular near James Bay. Group hunting for moose is a favourite social outing. In winter, snowmobiling, ice fishing, outdoor shinny, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing are popular activities. The region boasts extensive snowmobiling trails and many lakes are dotted with ice hut villages throughout the winter.

The region is home to numerous major cultural events, including Sudbury's La Nuit sur l'étang, Northern Lights Festival Boréal and Cinéfest, the Festival of the Sound in Parry Sound and the Red Rock Folk Festival in Red Rock. Many communities host festivals celebrating local ethnic groups such as French, First Nations, Finnish, and Italian. Other communities have celebrations of unique local heritage such as Kapuskasing's Lumberjack Days, Mattawa's Voyageur Days, Sioux Lookout's Blueberry Festival, Elliot Lake's Uranium Heritage Days, and Red Lake's Norseman Festival. Even the smallest First Nations in the region will have an annual pow wow, which bring in many people from outside the community as well, although by far the largest and most famous powwow in the region is held in Wikwemikong on Manitoulin Island. In winter, many towns will host a winter carnival celebrating the cold weather; the largest of these is Sault Ste. Marie's Bon Soo Winter Carnival.

As of 2015, LGBT pride events take place in Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Timmins, Elliot Lake and Kenora, and a committee is working toward the future launch of an event in North Bay.

There is no single regional culinary dish. Fish and wild game, such as walleye (pickerel) and moose, can be considered regional favourites. Roadside chip trucks are popular choices for meals for locals and tourists alike, and almost every community has at least one. Italian cuisine has had an influence on the culture of Northeastern Ontario, with porchetta considered a culinary signature of Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie, while Thunder Bay's food culture is distinctively Finnish, with the Hoito restaurant known internationally for its Finnish-style pancakes and other traditional Finnish dishes.

Although maple syrup is not produced in most of Northern Ontario, it is still made in some areas near North Bay, Sudbury, Manitoulin Island, and Sault Ste. Marie. St. Joseph Island near Sault Ste. Marie is noted for the large quantity of maple syrup produced there.

Since the demise of Northern Breweries, formerly the region's primary local brewery, in 2006, several new local craft brewers have emerged in the region, including Stack Brewing in Sudbury, OutSpoken Brewing in Sault Ste. Marie, Sleeping Giant Brewing in Thunder Bay, Lake of the Woods Brewing in Kenora, Manitoulin Brewing in Little Current and New Ontario Brewing Company in North Bay


The mining boom of the early twentieth century attracted many francophones to Northeastern Ontario, and French is still widely spoken there. While the Canadian constitution never required the province of Ontario to recognize French as an official language, the government provides full services in the French language to any citizen, resident, or visitor wishing it including communications, schools, hospitals, social services, and in the courts, under the French Language Services Act of 1986. Bilingualism is higher than the Canadian average – in 2011, 180,020 people, or 24.6% of the population, spoke both English and French. There were also 8,910 people, or 1.2% of the population, who only spoke French. All of Northeastern Ontario, with the technical exception of Manitoulin Island, is designated as a French language service area, as are a few individual municipalities in the Northwest; Manitoulin Island, while not officially designated as a French language service area, effectively functions as one anyway since it receives most provincial government services from the designated Sudbury District seat in Espanola rather than functioning as its own jurisdictional area.

The government of Canada provides French and English equally in all matters. In 2011, 10.2% of people in Northern Ontario spoke French most often at home, mostly in Northeastern Ontario.

The 2016 Canadian Census found that the population of Northern Ontario was 780,140. During the Canada 2011 Census, data was not included from 17 incompletely enumerated Indian Reserves across the region. Four reserves were not counted due to permission not being given, and another 13 in Northwestern Ontario were not counted due to evacuations caused by forest fires. The census was later adjusted with the figures for these reserves showing a total population of 11,435. The median age for Northern Ontario in 2011 was 43.9. There were 43,670 immigrants in 2011, representing 5.8% of the population, down from 6.8% in 2006.

The region also has a significant First Nations population, primarily of the Ojibwe, Cree and Oji-Cree nations, with smaller communities of Nipissing, Algonquin, Odawa and Saulteaux.

In 2016, Northwestern Ontario was 71% white, 26.2% indigenous and 2.8% visible minorities. The largest visible minority groups in the region were South Asian (0.5%), Black (0.4%), Chinese (0.4%), Filipino (0.4%) and Southeast Asian (0.3%) Northeastern Ontario was 82.5% white, 15% indigenous and 2.5% visible minorities. The largest visible minority groups were South Asian (0.6%), Black (0.6%) and Chinese (0.4%).

A 2001 census showed Catholicism as the most commonly practiced religion in Northern Ontario (50.8%). The Precious Blood Cathedral in Sault Ste. Marie is the official cathedral for the diocese. However, the Pro-Cathedral of the Assumption in North Bay acts as the unofficial Episcopal See for the Diocese of Sault Sainte Marie.  

The languages that had at least 1,000 native speakers (single mother-tongue response) in Northern Ontario in 2006 were:

2011 % 2006 %
1. English 533,980 73.94% 525,230 70.98%
2. French 125,675 17.40% 131,450 17.76%
3. Italian 11,245 1.56% 14,560 1.97%
4. Ojibwe 10,570 1.46% 10,655 1.44%
5. Oji-Cree 6,325 0.88% 6,120 0.83%
6. Finnish 5,615 0.78% 7,130 0.96%
7. German 5,125 0.71% 6,275 0.85%
8. Cree 3,485 0.48% 3,150 0.43%
9. Polish 2,700 0.37% 3,655 0.49%
10. Ukrainian 2,475 0.34% 3,950 0.53%
11. Chinese 1,620 0.22% 1,945 0.26%
12. Dutch 1,400 0.19% 1,790 0.24%
13. Spanish 1,140 0.16% 1,035 0.14%
14. Portuguese 1,100 0.15% 1,395 0.19%
15. Croatian 945 0.13% 1,160 0.16%
Ethnic Origin (2016) Population Percent
Canadian 287,835 36.9%
French 204,775 26.2%
English 185,075 23.7%
Irish 142,055 18.2%
Scottish 138,470 17.7%
First Nations 104,945 13.5%
German 74,195 9.5%
Italian 62,405 8.0%
Ukrainian 42,795 5.5%
Métis 37,290 4.8%
Finnish 33,490 4.3%
Polish 28,160 3.6%
Dutch (Netherlands) 23,340 3.0%
Swedish 15,905 2.0%
British Isles, n.i.e. 13,340 1.7%
Welsh 11,145 1.4%
Norwegian 10,075 1.3%

Religion in Northern Ontario at the 2001 census

Religion People %
Total 729,210 100
Catholic 370,305 50.8
Protestant 241,145 33.2
No Religion 95,610 13.2
Other Christians 11,825 1.6
Other Religions* 3,540 0.5
Christian Orthodox 3,425 0.5
Muslim 990 0.1
Buddhist 820 0.1
Hindu 535 0.1
Jewish 505 0.1
Eastern Religions 455 0.1
Sikh 65 0.0

Note: Other religions mostly native spirituality

Fiction set in Northern Ontario


  • Shut Up and Eat Your Snowshoes (1970), by Jack Douglas
  • La Vengeance de l'orignal (1980), by Doric Germain
  • Le Trappeur du Kabi (1981), by Doric Germain
  • Loon (1992) and Freddy Dimwhistle's Northcountry Sketchbook (1997), by A. W. (Bill) Plumstead
  • Logan in Overtime (1990), by Paul Quarrington
  • Bastion Falls (1995), by Susie Moloney
  • No Great Mischief (1999), by Alistair MacLeod
  • Forty Words for Sorrow, The Delicate Storm, Blackfly Season, and By the Time You Read This (2000–2006), by Giles Blunt
  • Crow Lake (2002) and The Other Side of the Bridge (2006), by Mary Lawson
  • The Neanderthal Parallax (2002–2003), trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer
  • Three Day Road (2005), by Joseph Boyden
  • Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (2005), by Cory Doctorow
  • Voyageurs (2003), by Margaret Elphinstone
  • The City Still Breathing (2013), by Matthew Heiti


  • 1932, la ville du nickel by Jean-Marc Dalpé and Brigitte Haentjens (1984)
  • Le Chien by Jean-Marc Dalpé (1987)
  • The Rez Sisters by Tomson Highway (1988)
  • Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing by Tomson Highway (1989)
  • Wildcat by Charlie Angus and Brit Griffin (1998)
  • The (Post) Mistress by Tomson Highway (2009)


  • Captains of the Clouds (1942)
  • Roadkill (1989)
  • Termini Station (1989)
  • Highway 61 (1991)
  • Dance Me Outside (1994)
  • Men with Brooms (2002)
  • Looking for Angelina (2002)
  • Phil the Alien (2003)
  • Shania: A Life in Eight Albums (2005)
  • That Beautiful Somewhere (2006)
  • Snow Cake (2006)

North Bay inventor Troy Hurtubise was the subject of the documentary film Project Grizzly (1996).

Television series

  • The Forest Rangers (1963–1965, CBC)
  • Adventures in Rainbow Country (filmed 1969, first aired 1970–1971, CBC)
  • Spirit Bay (1984–1987, CBC)
  • The Rez (1995–1998, CBC)
  • Wind at My Back (1996–2001, CBC)
  • Total Drama Island (2007–2008, Teletoon)
  • Météo+ (2008-2011, TFO)
  • Les Bleus de Ramville (2012–present, TFO)
  • Hard Rock Medical (2013–present, TVOntario)
  • St. Nickel (2016, Unis)
  • "Letterkenny" (2016 - ) CraveTV - set in the fictional Letterkenny, ON and filmed in Sudbury
  • Cardinal (2017, CTV)
  • What Would Sal Do? (2017, HBO Canada)

Television series The Red Green Show (1991–2005) and its spinoff theatrical film Duct Tape Forever (2002) are set in the fictional town of Possum Lake. The animated sitcom Chilly Beach (2003–2008, CBC), set in a fictional town of unspecified location in Northern Canada, was produced in Sudbury.


In the comic strip For Better or For Worse, Elizabeth Patterson attended North Bay's Nipissing University, and subsequently taught school in the fictional reserve of Mtigwaki on Lake Nipigon. Lynn Johnston, the strip's cartoonist, lives in Corbeil, near North Bay in real life, although the strip is set primarily in Southern Ontario.


Science north building in 2007
Science North in Sudbury.

Sudbury is the dominant city in Northeastern Ontario, and Thunder Bay is the dominant city in Northwestern Ontario. These two regions are quite distinct from each other economically and culturally, and also quite distant from each other geographically. As a result, Sudbury and Thunder Bay are each the primary city in their part of the region, but neither city can be said to outrank the other as the principal economic centre of Northern Ontario as a whole.

In fact, each city has a couple of distinct advantages that the other city lacks—Sudbury is at the centre of a larger economic sphere due to the city's, and Northeastern Ontario's, larger population, but Thunder Bay is advantaged by air, rail and shipping traffic due to its prime location along major continental transportation routes. The Thunder Bay International Airport is the third busiest airport in Ontario after Toronto Pearson International Airport and Ottawa Macdonald–Cartier International Airport, carrying some 600,000 passengers in 2004 with over 100 flights and four international flights daily. Sudbury's economy, in which the largest sectors of employment are government-related fields such as education and health care, is somewhat more diversified than Thunder Bay's, which is still based primarily on natural resources and manufacturing. Yet in the era of government cutbacks, Thunder Bay's economy has been less prone to recession and unemployment.

Under the staples thesis of Canadian economic history, Northern Ontario is a "hinterland" or "periphery" region, whose economic development has been defined primarily by providing raw natural resource materials to larger and more powerful business interests from elsewhere in Canada or the world.

Northern Ontario has had difficulty in recent years maintaining both its economy and its population. All of the region's cities declined in population between the censuses of 1996 and 2001. (This coincides with the discontinuation of the operation of the subsidized government airline norOntair in March 1996.) Although the cities have tried with mixed results to diversify their economies in recent years, most communities in the region are resource-based economies, whose economic health is very dependent on "boom and bust" resource cycles. Mining and forestry are the two major industries in the region, although manufacturing, transportation, public services and tourism are represented as well. After 2001 the major cities returned to patterns of modest growth in the censuses of 2006, 2011 and 2016, although many of the smaller towns saw further declines.

The cities have, by and large, been very dependent on government-related employment and investment for their economic diversification. The Liberal government of David Peterson in the 1980s moved several provincial agencies and ministries to Northern Ontario, including the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (which maintains a large office in Sault Ste. Marie) and the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines (whose head office is in Greater Sudbury).

Sault canal NHS adjusted
Sault Locks in Sault Ste. Marie.

As well, many of Northern Ontario's major tourist attractions (e.g. Science North, Dynamic Earth, the Sault Locks, etc.) are agencies of the provincial or federal governments. Further, much of the funding available for economic development in Northern Ontario comes from government initiatives such as the federal government's Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario (FedNor) and the provincial Northern Ontario Heritage Fund.

Over the past several years, there has been a renewed interest in mining exploration. McFaulds Lake in the James Bay Lowlands has attracted the attention of junior mining exploration companies. Since the 2003 investigation of the area for diamonds, some 20 companies have staked claims in the area, forming joint ventures. While still in the exploration phase, there have been some exciting finds that could bring prosperity to the region and the First Nations communities in that area. New mining sites have also been investigated and explored in Sudbury, Timmins, Kirkland Lake, Elliot Lake and the Temagami area. In Chapleau Probe Mines Limited is in the advanced stage of exploration and was recognized in 2013 with the Ontario Prospectors Association 2013 Ontario Prospector Award.


Although many sports are played in the region, ice hockey and curling are the most popular. Almost every community is home to both a hockey and curling rink. In fact, Northern Ontario is the only provincial or territorial subregion in Canada that sends its own teams to the Brier and the Tournament of Hearts separately from its province. Hockey is often played on artificial outdoor rinks, and sometimes on frozen lakes.

The North Bay Battalion, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and Sudbury Wolves play in the Ontario Hockey League.

The Algoma Thunderbirds, Lakehead Thunderwolves, Laurentian Voyageurs, and Nipissing Lakers compete in U Sports as members of Ontario University Athletics.

Also, the Thunder Bay Chill soccer teams play in North America's USL League Two.

Northern Ontario has hosted the 1981 Canada Summer Games, 1988 World Junior Championships in Athletics, FIS Nordic World Ski Championships 1995 and 2003 Continental Cup of Curling.

In 2018, the Sudbury Five were launched in the National Basketball League of Canada.


See also: School car

The region is home to five universities: Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Laurentian University in Sudbury, Nipissing University in North Bay, Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, and the Université de Hearst in Hearst, Kapuskasing and Timmins. All except Lakehead began as federated schools of Laurentian University, before being rechartered as independent universities at different times.

The region also has six colleges: Confederation College in Thunder Bay, Sault College in Sault Ste. Marie, Northern College in Timmins, Canadore College in North Bay, and the anglophone Cambrian College and francophone Collège Boréal in Sudbury. Several of the colleges also have satellite campuses in smaller Northern Ontario communities.

A large distance education network, Contact North, also operates from Sudbury and Thunder Bay to provide educational services to small and remote Northern Ontario communities.

In the early 2000s, the provincial government announced funding for the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, which opened in 2005. This school, a joint faculty of Laurentian and Lakehead universities, has a special research focus on rural medicine. In 2011, Laurentian University was granted a charter to launch the McEwen School of Architecture in Sudbury, and Lakehead University was granted approval to launch the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law in Thunder Bay. As with the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, each was the first school of its type ever established in the region, as well as the first new school of its type launched in Ontario since the 1960s.

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