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September 19, 2023

Where are the largest cities in Canada?

The US may dominate the largest cities in North America, but what about Canada?

By Silvia Pellegrino

Canada, the second-largest country in the world by land area, is a vast and diverse nation renowned for its stunning natural landscapes and multicultural society and cities. Furthermore, with a population of more than 38 million people, the country has developed a swath of successful industries.

Montreal, Canada's second-largest city
Montreal, Canada’s second-largest city. (Photo by Firefighter Montreal/Shutterstock)

Its abundant natural resources, including oil minerals and timber, have led to a robust energy sector. In addition, Canada’s financial sector, centred in cities like Toronto, is a vital component of the global economy. 

Speaking of cities, Canada boasts several vibrant urban centres. Vancouver, in British Columbia, is known for its picturesque setting and is a major player in the tech industry. However, according to Demographia’s World Urban Areas, the most populated city in Canada is Toronto, but what are the others?  

What are the largest cities in Canada by population?

Toronto – 6.8 million

With almost seven million inhabitants, Toronto is the biggest city in Canada. After the American Revolution, its transportation sector improved and gave the chance for many immigrants to find a new life after coming from the US and Europe. Today, Toronto remains a heavily cosmopolitan area. 

Because of its closeness to the manufacturing belt in the US, many outsider factories established plants in the city; to this day, it is one of the leading industries of Toronto. Thanks to the presence of the Canadian Pacific Railway, connecting the west side of Canada to Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, the exchange of goods like housing and farming supplies boomed. 

Toronto is also considered Canada’s business and financial capital, housing multiple bank headquarters and monopolising the country’s stock exchange with the Toronto Stock Exchange. The development of the tech manufacturing sector allowed the city to evolve as a major financial, real estate, educational and retail capital. Its growth is visible when looking at its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which has increased by an average of 2.4% annually since 2009.

Montreal – 3.75 million

In the second position, Montreal counts 3.75 million people. The economic boom that followed the Second World War attracted more immigrants and the city welcomed people of all nationalities. 

Like Toronto, Montreal’s transportation systems have allowed the city to grow its industries, from manufacturing to trade. With all the changes in the economy in the second half of the 20th century, new industries were born, such as the aerospace field. The International Air Transportation Association (IATA) is stationed in Montreal, alongside the International Business Aviation Council and the International Civil Aviation Organisation. Other important factors contributing to Montreal’s economy include food processing, engineering, telecommunications and pharmaceuticals. 

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The industries and the population are not the only thing that has been growing in Montreal. Its GPD, in fact, went from CA$159bn in 2009 to CA$234 in 2019 with a 0.4% overall increase in the Quebec region in 2023, signalling a significant improvement in its financial situation. 

Vancouver – 2.48 million

Located in the province of British Columbia, Vancouver is the third most populated city in Canada, counting almost 2.5 million people. Recent economic growth has exceeded that of the rest of the country, as Vancouver’s GDP grew by 0.5% year-on-year in 2023 reaching CA$158bn, according to the Conference Board of Canada. Overall, this means that this city contributes about 7.5% to the whole Canadian economy. 

The three major industries that expand Vancouver’s finances are international trade, technology and the entertainment scene. Indeed, the British Columbia region hosts Canada’s biggest port, which is used every day for trade across the Pacific Ocean. Port activity alone generates almost 150,000 jobs and provides almost $1.5bn in revenue every year. Similarly, the technology sector covers a large percentage of revenue in the city, with companies like Samsung, IBM, Microsoft and Amazon expanding their reach in Vancouver too. 

When it comes to film and television, Vancouver has built a reputation for itself. It is referred to as Hollywood North, as there is an average of 60 movies shot in the city every year, awarding it with the title of third biggest television production centre in North America. 

Calgary – 1.3 million

According to the 2021 census, Calgary registered 1.3 million people, positioning it in the fourth spot of the most populated cities in Canada. 

Calgary has gained a reputation as Canada’s energy hub, due to its leadership position in the oil and gas industry. In addition, over 70% of the province’s clean energy companies are based here. 

Its experimental personality is discernible in the fields of agri-technologies too, and the agribusiness sector is considered one of the fastest-growing aspects of the city’s economy. The latter saw a 2.9% GDP annual increase in 2023. 

Edmonton – 1.18 million

In fifth position for population in Canada and in second in Alberta, Edmonton is rich with diverse industries and fields, and it registered a GDP of CA$91.56bn in 2019.

Particularly promising are the nanotechnology and big data and analytics sectors, since the city houses The Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii), which researches in the areas of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Like in the rest of Canada, the scientific fields dominate the economy of Edmonton too. Indeed, Alberta Health Services (AHS) is the biggest and most efficient healthcare system in the country and is located in Edmonton. 

From a trading point of view, Edmonton is in the top three in Canadian exports of canola, oats and wheat, aided by the Fresh: Edmonton’s Food & Urban Agriculture Strategy, which not only safeguards the environment but also makes more efficient the production of agricultural goods. Speaking of the environment, Calgary also has a long-term plan in place to reach net zero by 2040. 

Ottawa – 1.08 million

Ottawa is the federal capital city of Canada and, due to its prestigious position, it holds some of the most important roles in the country. The headquarters of the federal government are based in this city, as well as foreign embassies, the Parliament of Canada and the Supreme Court. The hold Ottawa has on Canadian culture does not stop at politics; it is the city with the highest number of universities and colleges in Canada. 

Industry-wise, technology and healthcare are two of the most influential sectors in Ottawa, with five out of the 40 top hospital research institutions located here and the largest cardiovascular research centre embodied by the University of Ottawa Heart Institute. As a highly entrepreneurial metropolis, Ottawa also has a history of very successful companies. Some examples are Blackberry being Ottawa-born, as well as Shopify and Halogen. 

Outside of the corporate world, tourism also pushes forward Ottawa’s GDP and economy. It is estimated that almost 100,000 people are employed in this sector, and an average of over $2.3bn is brought in every year.

Winnipeg – 774,000

The first city on this list to drop below one million people is Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba. Within its region, it acts as the economic and cultural hub and has the highest population. 

When it comes to big companies, Microsoft, Bell MTS and Imaginet have operational branches in the city, as well as emerging talents like Bold Commerce and Farmers Edge. Speaking of farmers, the agribusiness sector is also an important element of Winnipeg and Manitoba’s economy. Winnipeg has also entered the aerospace sector since it houses the largest aerospace centre in Western Canada. 

According to Economic Development Winnipeg, this field’s contribution to the region’s GDP is the third highest in the country, and it supplies one-fifth of Canada’s oats, potatoes and soybeans. 

Quebec – 752,000

As a capital city driven by entrepreneurial principles, Quebec represents a centre of excellent education and innovative ideas. Interestingly, it has the highest ratio of researchers per capita in the whole of Canada, with more than 5,000 in various fields.

More than 50% of the Montreal metropolitan area’s GDP is covered by Quebec, which registered CA$391bn in 2022. This city, from an industrial point of view, is highly specialised in the manufacturing and service sectors. However, other popular fields are aerospace, transportation and tourism, which covers around 3% of Quebec’s GDP, and renewable energy, with it being the second biggest hydroelectricity producer in the world.

Additionally, Quebec is particularly focused on its environmental objectives. It is committed to not only protecting most of its territory and its biodiversity but also continuing to work on a net-zero target by reducing greenhouse gas emissions by adopting electric vehicles and putting in place a carbon tax

Kitchener – 538,000

Situated in the province of Ontario, Kitchener is the last Canadian city which recorded more than 500,000 inhabitants. 

Its economic environment thrives with technology and manufacturing, honouring its industrial roots. The Waterloo region’s manufacturing scene is considered the fourth largest in Canada, with almost 60,000 people employed across almost 2,000 companies. According to 2020 numbers, this sector produced over $6bn in revenue. This revenue contributes to the city’s GDP, which corresponded to CA$33.54bn in 2019. 

Statistics Canada Business Counts reported that there are more than 1,500 information and communication technology companies with over 11,000 employees. Furthermore, the Waterloo region also has the second-highest start-up density in start-ups after Silicon Valley. 

[Read more: Where are the largest cities in the US?]

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