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Land and Resources, Rivers and Lakes

Reindeer Lake, Great Slave, Lake Melville, Baffin Island, Lakes Superior

Canada contains more lakes and inland waters than any other country in the world. In addition to the Great Lakes on the American border (all partly within Canada except Lake Michigan), the country has 31 lakes or reservoirs of about 1,300 sq km (about 500 sq mi) in area. Canada’s two largest lakes are Lakes Superior and Huron, at 82,100 sq km (31,700 sq mi) and 59,600 sq km (23,000 sq mi), respectively. About one-third of Lake Superior and about three-fifths of Lake Huron are in Canada. The largest lakes wholly within Canada are Great Bear, at 31,790 sq km (12,270 sq mi), and Great Slave, at 28,570 sq km (11,030 sq mi), both in the Northwest Territories. Each of these immense lakes is larger than either Lake Erie or Lake Ontario. Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, at 24,390 sq km (9,417 sq mi), also compares in size with Lake Erie and is much larger than Lake Ontario. Other very large bodies of freshwater are Lake Athabaska and Reindeer Lake in Saskatchewan and the Smallwood Reservoir in Newfoundland and Labrador. Also significant in size are Nettilling Lake on Baffin Island, Lakes Winnipegosis and Manitoba in Manitoba, Lake Nipigon and Lake of the Woods in Ontario, and Lake Melville in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Canada’s two greatest rivers are the St. Lawrence, which drains the Great Lakes and empties into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and the Mackenzie, which empties into the Arctic Ocean and drains a large part of northwestern Canada. While the St. Lawrence is the largest river in Canada in volume of water discharged at its mouth, the Mackenzie is the longest. Through its tributary, the Peace River, and tracing to its source in the Finlay River of British Columbia, the Mackenzie is 4,241 km (2,635 mi) long and is one of the longest rivers in the world. The St. Lawrence and the Mackenzie are the second and third largest rivers by volume of discharge, respectively, in North America. Other large Canadian rivers in terms of both length and discharge are the Yukon, flowing from Yukon Territory across Alaska into the Bering Sea; the Nelson-Saskatchewan system, flowing across the Great Plains into Hudson Bay; the Churchill, also flowing into Hudson Bay; and the Fraser and the Columbia in British Columbia. Other significant regional rivers are the St. John, emptying into the Bay of Fundy between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick; the Churchill, in Newfoundland and Labrador; and the many rivers flowing into the St. Lawrence from the shield, including the Ottawa, the Saguenay, and the Saint-Maurice. All these rivers are navigable for at least some of their length, but only the St. Lawrence and Mackenzie are used for commercial navigation.

In general, all rivers and lakes in Canada have value as sources of water for agricultural, industrial, urban, and recreational uses; but some have more specific commercial uses. The St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes together form an important transportation network for eastern Canada, allowing oceangoing vessels to travel deep into the heartland. The Great Lakes are used to transport bulk materials, such as grain and iron ore, and have been important for the industrial development of the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes region. Many of the rivers emptying into the St. Lawrence are also important producers of hydroelectric power. In contrast, the rivers of the Arctic drainage basin have little commercial importance. Although the Mackenzie is navigable for most of its length and has been used for transportation, its isolation limits its usefulness. The rivers draining into Hudson Bay are important primarily as power sources, particularly the Nelson in northern Manitoba and the La Grande in northern Quebec. The fast-flowing rivers draining into the Pacific, such as the Fraser, are particularly suitable for power generation. They are also crucial for the salmon fishing industry, but these two uses are not compatible. For this reason, hydroelectric development has been prohibited on the Fraser.

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