The River of Canada: The St. Lawrence River’s Pivotal Role in Opening the New World

1000 Islands Through the Clouds

@Ian Coristine/

Explore the history of the mighty St. Lawrence River, an essential navigational route into the New World!

The 1000 Islands region and areas surrounding the St. Lawrence River make great day trips or longer getaways in Ontario with a variety of fun ways to explore their unique environment. But what many people today may not know is that the St. Lawrence River was vital to forming Canada’s national identity. In fact, the history of the St. Lawrence River’s significance extends much further back in time than Canada’s nationhood!

Jacques Cartier

While Native Canadians had been living in the 1000 Islands and St. Lawrence River region for thousands of years, for Europeans, it all started in the 1500s with a French explorer named Jacques Cartier. Cartier was the first European to discover the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the St. Lawrence River, which he initially called “The River of Canada.” With the help of the natives, he learnt that the land that would become Canada stretched westward from the St. Lawrence River for the distance of a three-month-long journey. For the first time, the Europeans gained some knowledge of how vast the North American continent was.

Cartier had hoped to find gold in his exploration of the 1000 Islands region. While his mission failed in this regard, he did discover the potential value of the fur trade. When he returned to Europe, he reported Canada’s harsh winters, the native Iroquoian people, the teeming fisheries of the gulf and the abundant furs. This helped Europeans to form their first ideas of the Canadian environment.

Beavers, which are native to the 1000 Islands region, became a quick target for fur traders who wanted to sell their pelts to Europeans. As beaver pelts became increasingly popular in European fashion, explorers, traders and hunters had all the more reason to move to the St. Lawrence River and try their hand in the fur trade.

Samuel de Champlain

Following Cartier’s discoveries, French navigator Samuel de Champlain decided to explore the area further. As a mapmaker, Champlain added some important information to European knowledge of the North American region, including the Great Lakes, the route connecting the St. Lawrence River to the Hudson River through the lake that he deemed Lake Champlain, and much of the coastline.

Champlain also founded Quebec in 1608, which marked the transition from a seasonal fur trade into a permanent establishment. From Quebec, French settlers continued to expand westward around the Great Lakes and into what would become Ontario.

For about a century from the mid-1600s to mid-1700s, France and Great Britain competed to gain the most control of the fur-trading territories. This competition fueled deeper exploration of the regions, leading to the international navigation of what would become known as the St. Lawrence Seaway.

St. Lawrence Seaway

The St. Lawrence Seaway has since become a vital route of navigation to the global economy. Officially opened for navigation in 1959, the Seaway is now the world’s longest inland waterway connected to ocean shipping. The construction of the 306-kilometer stretch between Montreal and Lake Ontario is considered one of the most challenging engineering feats in human history.

Today, the St. Lawrence Seaway is used to transport virtually every commodity imaginable. An estimated 2.5 billion tons of cargo have passed through the Seaway in the last 50 years. About 25 percent of cargo transported through the St. Lawrence Seaway travels to or from overseas ports, including ports in Africa, the Middle East, Europe and South America.

Now, hundreds of years after Jacques Cartier named the great river he encountered “The River of Canada,” the St. Lawrence River continues to hold national and international significance. Not only does the river provide a vital waterway into the heart of Canada for global trade, but the environment is also a critical aspect of Canada’s national identity. The many dams and tributaries lining the St. Lawrence River are an important source of hydroelectric power, helping Canada transition into a cleaner source of energy. The unique plants and animals that live in the 1000 Islands are now able to thrive once again. By visiting us at the Aquatarium, you can learn more about this great river and discover some of the amazing things the waters of the St. Lawrence can do!


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