Canadians don’t live as far north as you think

You form a picture of how people from other countries view the citizens of your own nation when you travel abroad. In my job as an academic geographer I have had opportunities to meet people from many countries and have come to realize that people often view Canadians as being true northerners, eking out their lives in the cold arctic tundra. I recall a conversation I once had with a German that I met at a conference I attended in Brazil a number of years ago. The topic of wine came up over the course of the dinner and my colleague refused to believe that I wasn’t joking about the fact that Canada produces wines. After some time I realized that it was pointless trying to convince him otherwise. I’m also reminded of the experience of a Canadian colleague who, when at a conference in Iceland, was offered profound sympathy by an Icelander because it must be ‘so brutally cold in Canada, even this time of year’. It was June.

I can understand why many people might view Canadians as being isolated, tundra-living northerners, wearing fur hats year ’round. After all, when you look at a map of the world, it’s difficult to miss the enormous, and largely arctic territories of Canada, second only in the world to that of Russia. Of course, the misrepresentation of high-latitude landmasses in most common map projections doesn’t help this situation any.


The problem is that when you only know a very little about a country and its culture it’s easy to make assumptions based on what you glean from a world map. But there’s a difference between a nation’s territory and its population. While it’s true that there are Canadians that do live at extreme latitudes within the arctic, the vast majority of Canadians live considerably farther south. Oh, and no Canadian lives in an igloo, although we all can build good snow forts and defend them with our accurate snowball throwing skills. The fact is that most Canadians live farther south than the citizens of many European nations. Many Canadians are more likely to visit higher latitudes by traveling to Europe than by visiting Northern Canada (a sad fact perhaps). The image of the Canadian Northerner is so deeply entrenched that even many Canadians would have a hard time believing otherwise. We have taken on the Northerner persona in our own cultural identity. But is it deserved? I decided to look at this a little deeper using the analytical capabilities of Whitebox GAT.

First, take a look at the figure below, which compares the population distributions of various Northern Hemisphere nations by latitude and ranked by their medians (i.e. the latitude below which 50% of a nation’s population lives).


Notice how far down Canada appears? It’s also evident from this figure that Russia, Canada, China, and the US have greater latitudinal population variation than the other nations represented in the analysis; they’re geographically large nations after all. However, in each case, the population distributions of these largest nations are heavily skewed to their southern territories, and none more so than Canada. If we’re a cold-loving winter nation, you wouldn’t know it from the latitudes we choose to settle.

There are several interesting facts about the Canadian latitudinal population distribution that can be gleaned from this analysis:

  1. 90% of Canadians live south of more than 90% of British citizens (bonus fact: London, Canada is nearly 1000 km south of London, UK).
  2. 65% of Canadians live south of 47°N while 65% of French citizens live below a more northerly 48.9°N (bonus fact: Paris, Canada is nearly 630 km south of Paris, France).
  3. About 70% of Canadians live south of the 49th Parallel, which forms the border between Canada and the US west of the Great Lakes (Lake of the Woods, actually).
  4. More than 30% of Canadians live at latitudes overlapping with Spain.
  5. More than a quarter of Canadians live south of the northern most 10% of Chinese citizens.
  6. More than 50% of Canadians live farther south than more than 28% of the Northern Hemisphere’s entire population.

This analysis can be further summarized with the following table, which compares nations by the proportion of their populations living south of various latitudes.

Table 1: The percentage of the populations of various northern hemisphere nations living south of 45.50°N, 49.25°N, and 51.25°N.


South of

45.50°N (%)

South of

49.25°N (%)

South of

51.25°N (%)

Iceland 0.0 0.0 0.0
Norway 0.0 0.0 0.0
Sweden 0.0 0.0 0.0
Denmark 0.0 0.0 0.0
Russia 10.7 17.9 21.0
Ireland 0.0 0.0 0.0
UK 0.0 0.0 9.5
Netherlands 0.0 0.0 4.4
Poland 0.0 0.0 43.2
Germany 0.0 18.6 51.3
Belgium 0.0 0.0 95.9
Ukraine 4.3 54.1 96.4
France 25.2 87.7 100.0
Austria 0.0 100.0 100.0
Hungary 0.0 100.0 100.0
Switzerland 0.0 100.0 100.0
Croatia 47.9 100.0 100.0
Canada 57.2 80.0 91.9
Italy 86.3 100.0 100.0
Spain 100.0 100.0 100.0
US 96.6 99.8 99.8
China 94.3 99.8 100.0

It is apparent that the vast majority of Canadians live farther south than the Nordic nations to which Canada is frequently compared. Given their (broadly) similar size and northerly geographic positioning, Canada is also frequently compared with the Russian Federation, while this analysis demonstrates that Russia populates its northern territories far more than does Canada.

Lastly, ranking countries by their median population latitude, we find that Canada is perhaps much further down the list than one might expect, at number 36.

Table 2: Top 50 countries of the Northern Hemisphere ranked by the latitude of their median population (i.e. the latitude below which half their population live).
Rank Country Median Pop. Latitude (°N)
1 Svalbard and Jan Mayen 78.42
2 Greenland 65.53
3 Iceland 64.18
4 Faroe Islands 62.02
5 Finland 60.99
6 Norway 59.92
7 Estonia 59.38
8 Sweden 59.33
9 Latvia 56.96
10 Denmark 55.66
11 Russia 55.10
12 Lithuania 54.93
13 Belarus 53.91
14 Ireland 53.33
15 United Kingdom 52.47
16 Netherlands 52.09
17 Poland 51.76
18 Germany 51.22
19 Belgium 50.85
20 Czech Republic 49.91
21 Luxembourg 49.61
22 Ukraine 49.22
23 Slovakia 48.72
24 France 48.53
25 Mongolia 48.38
26 Austria 48.18
27 Hungary 47.50
28 Kazakhstan 47.24
29 Switzerland 47.19
30 Liechtenstein 47.17
31 Republic of Moldova 47.06
32 Saint Pierre and Miquelon 46.96
33 Slovenia 46.07
34 Croatia 45.63
35 Romania 45.58
36 Canada 45.51
37 Serbia 44.68
38 Bosnia and Herzegovina 44.20
39 San Marino 43.95
40 Monaco 43.73
41 Italy 42.92
42 Montenegro 42.69
43 Bulgaria 42.68
44 Andorra 42.52
45 Kyrgyzstan 42.51
46 Macedonia 41.92
47 Georgia 41.73
48 Albania 41.33
49 Uzbekistan 41.25
50 Azerbaijan 40.42

Does this mean that Canadians don’t experience harsh winters, as is often portrayed? Well, the fact is Canada is a very large nation and it’s hard to make sweeping generalizations about something as vaguely defined and variable as ‘the Canadian Winter’. Certainly there are places and times when Canadians experience extreme winter conditions (that’s how we develop those world-class snow fort building skills). At the time that I’m writing this (late February 2016), it is -24 degrees Celsius in Yellowknife, NT (62.4°N) with a snow pack of well over a metre, while where I live in Southern Ontario (43.6°N) it is currently +4 degrees Celsius and there isn’t any snow in my front yard at all. Last year at this same time it felt more like Yellowknife in Toronto. Variation is the norm. For many Canadians, the dominant factor affecting our weather is more the extreme continentality (distance to ocean) rather than the latitude. This is the same reason why we usually experience very hot summers, a fact that people outside of Canada frequently don’t realize as well!

A note on methods and limitations:

The data that I used to complete this analysis was taken from the Free World Cities Database provided by MaxMind. The database provides the latitude and longitude coordinates of world cities, along with their countries and populations. The accuracy of population estimates varies by country, but is expected to be high for the nations used in this comparison. The smallest Canadian settlement recorded in the database had 540 people (Mayo, Yukon), which is indicative the level of detail in the data.

The use of the World Cities data set also implies that rural populations are not accounted for in the analysis. While this is a limitation of the method, the fact that large urban settlements tend to grow within the richest agricultural regions suggests that the population distribution depicted by the data set should correlate well with the overall urban/rural population of nations.

The analysis was carried out using Whitebox Geospatial Analysis Tools. I wrote using script in Whitebox’s Scripter using the Groovy programming language. This short script digested the MaxMind database and calculated the cumulative frequency distribution of each country’s population by latitude and output a report table for each of the target countries used in the comparison. It was quite a fun way to procrastinate while marking mid-term exams and a good way to show off some of Whitebox’s capabilities for data science.