Get to know a Great Lake: Ontario

By Jamie Bradburn - Published on October 7, 2016
Lake Ontario at Kingston
Overall population around Lake Ontario is estimated at 5.6 million. (Lake Ontario Park, Kingston/Toronto Public Library)

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As the Great Lakes Public Forum took place in Toronto this week, TVO.org profiles each of the Great Lakes— today, Lake Ontario.

“Lake Ontario was a huge animal with magnetic lines stretching out from it in all directions, pulling you towards it, a huge animal that wanted to be looked at and admired by the millions of tiny human fleas (four million Canadian and two million American) who lived around it and dumped their garbage into it … Lake Ontario was deep, cold, remote, ancient, and always full of strange beauty. You glanced at it from any angle and received your momentary blessing, a moment of clarity, and then you turned back into the murk of your life.”

– David McFadden, A Trip Around Lake Ontario, 1988.

Ontario derives its name from “kanadario,” an Iroquoian word meaning “sparkling water.” The south side of the lake was the heart of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, whose component nations include the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca and, from 1722, the Tuscarora. Originally an agrarian culture, the Haudenosaunee engaged in the Beaver Wars against the French and their Algonquian allies to control the fur trade. In 1710 four chiefs travelled to England to meet with Queen Anne to secure an alliance with Great Britain, on whose side the Confederacy fought during the French and Indian War. The majority remained with the British during the American Revolution, with many following Joseph Brant west from New York to the present-day Six Nations of the Grand River reserve.

Other Indigenous nations around the lake include the Mississaugas, whose settlement area included the present-day Greater Toronto Area, which was a nexus of Indigenous trade routes. Along with the Haudenosaunee, the Mississaugas were drawn into the War of 1812 — a warrior party was assigned to meet the landing Americans during the Battle of York. Later relocated to the New Credit reserve, the Mississaugas received a $145 million settlement in 2010 for the land claim in the GTA. 

Along with the Haudenosaunee, United Empire Loyalists moved into British-controlled areas of the lake. Their influence was key in establishing Upper Canada — the present-day province of Ontario — and their name lives on in the scenic Loyalist Parkway along the lake between Trenton and Kingston.

While cities grew along the Canadian shore, on the American side development was spurred further inland by the Erie Canal during the mid-19th century. The lone major American city located on the lake is Rochester (population: 209,802). By contrast, the Golden Horseshoe houses the largest concentration of people in Canada, led by Toronto (2,615,060), Mississauga (713,443) and Hamilton (519,949). Overall population around the lake is estimated at 5.6 million.

Though the construction of the Erie and Welland Canals expanded economic opportunities on Lake Ontario and made it a major shipping route, they also turned the lake into a conduit for invasive species like sea lampreys to enter the upper Great Lakes. Combined with the effects of overfishing and pollution, around 10 fish species have gone extinct, while 15 others have invaded.

Agricultural and industrial pollution, compounded by the pressures of urban development, resulted in eight zones around the lake being designated as “Areas of Concern” during the 1980s.Though Ontario’s reputation never sank as low as Erie’s it also became a chemical soup, containing toxins like DDT, lead, mercury and PCBs, as well as algae-promoting detergents. Legal measures implemented since the 1970s have facilitated the recovery of some fish stocks, and a sport fishery has emerged with introduced species like salmon.

Lake Ontario evolved out of glacial-era Lake Iroquois, whose legacy also includes the ridge Toronto’s Casa Loma sits on, and the Scarborough Bluffs. Water flows in from Lake Erie via the Niagara River, where over 168,000 cubic metres of water go over Niagara Falls every minute. It flows out to the St. Lawrence River, where the water continues its long journey to the Atlantic Ocean. While Ontario is the smallest of the Great Lakes in surface area (19,009 square kilometres), it ranks second in average depth (86 metres) and fourth in volume (1,639 cubic kilometres).

With 49 per cent forest cover, Ontario’s basin ranks in the middle among the Great Lakes. Its deciduous forest includes ash, basswood, beech, cedar, oak and sugar maple. The fertile land surrounding the lake has made areas like Niagara, Prince Edward County, and western New York into prime production and tourist areas for orchards and wineries.

Read more: 

Get to know a Great Lake: Superior

Get to know a Great Lake: Erie

Get to know a Great Lake: Huron

Get to know a Great Lake: Michigan

The Great Lakes: An ecosystem in peril

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