Canada is a young northern nation. Its recorded history began during the 1500s when the period of European colonization in North America commenced. Approximately 50% of the land area under claimed Canadian sovereignty is north of latitude 60°, including the many islands of the High Arctic, such as Ellesmere, Axel Heiberg, Baffin, Devon, Victoria, and Banks. These islands and the waterways between them are shared between the territories of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. This claim of sovereignty becomes a large undertaking in the presence of a very sparse population, and it will become increasingly difficult as the present global warming trend threatens to open the North West Passage to more and more international shipping. The United States, among other countries, contends that the northern waterways of Canada should be considered as international waters.

The topography of Canada's North is varied, with vast areas of Precambrian Shield outcropping through much of the boreal (coniferous forest) Subarctic and extending east through much of the Arctic areas of Nunavut, including Baffin Island. North of the tree-line, and bounded between the rocky Shield on the east and the Mackenzie Mountains to the west of the Mackenzie River, lie large areas of low-lying tundra.

The Subarctic is covered by the boreal forest in a continuous belt from Newfoundland in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west, and north into the Yukon and the Mackenzie region of the Northwest Territories. The region is marked by fast-flowing rivers and large, clear lakes. The northern border of the boreal forest is the treeline, where the forest gives way to the northern tundra. To its south, the boreal forest is bordered by the subalpine and montane forests of British Columbia, the grasslands of the prairies, and the Great Lakes-St Lawrence forests of Ontario and Québec.

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