The 10 Oldest Cities in Canada

December 13, 2023

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Quebec City, one of the oldest cities in Canada

For thousands of years, the land of Canada was home to hundreds of First Nation communities. The Indigenous people lived off the land, hunting, gathering, and growing crops for food. However, their way of life was forever changed upon the arrival of European settlers.

From the 16th century onwards, European explorers established various settlements throughout the land. They built forts and formed trading posts to trade with the local Indigenous people. Over time, these basic settlements grew and became villages, towns, and eventually cities.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the ten oldest cities in Canada. We’ll cover the growth of Canada, from its humble roots as small settlements to the sprawling urban centers that the country has today.

1. St John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador (1497)

The harbour of St John's in Newfoundland
St John’s harbour

St John’s is Canada’s oldest city, founded in 1497. Spanish fishermen were the first to create a proper settlement in the area, which they used as a seasonal camp.

Sebastian Cabot wrote on his 1545 map that he and his father (Venetian explorer John Cabot) were the first Europeans to sail into the harbor on 24 June 1494. British and French historians believe the city is named after John Cabot, although this is often disputed. Some believe the name came from the Spanish fishermen as the bay looks similar to the Bay of Pasaia in Spain, which has a fishing town called St John’s.

It took until around 1630 before St John’s became a permanent community. As part of a deal with the West Country fishing industry, the English government had previously forbidden English fishermen from establishing a permanent settlement along the English-owned coast. The West Country fishing industry was worried that fishing settlements in Canada would threaten their monopoly of the fishing industry.

Fires ravaged St John’s in 1816, 1817, 1819, 1846, and 1892. Each time, large parts of the city were destroyed. Hundreds of houses and commercial buildings were destroyed and had to be rebuilt.

Newfoundland and Labrador were under British rule until 1949, when they joined Canada. St Johns and the surrounding area have a strong English and Irish heritage, as well as an Indigenous heritage.

2. Quebec City, Quebec (1608)

Iconic hotel Château Frontenac on top of a hill in Quebec City
Château Frontenac, Quebec City

Quebec City, Quebec’s capital city, was founded as a French settlement in 1608. Old Quebec has the only fortified walls that still exist north of Mexico. The area inside the walls became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.

The city is home to Fort Charlesbourg-Royal, North America’s earliest known French settlement. The fort was founded in 1541 but was only habituated for less than a year before it was abandoned. Quebec City is the oldest French-speaking city in North America.

It’s thought that the name ‘Canada’ comes from the indigenous word ‘kanata’, which means ‘village’ or ‘settlement’. Indigenous inhabitants who lived in what is now Quebec City used the word when they directed French explorer Jacques Cartier to a nearby village. Jacques Cartier used the misheard word ‘Canada’ to describe the village and surrounding area. It soon became the official name to describe the whole country.

Until the end of the 18th century, Quebec City was the most populated city in Canada. It currently has a population of around 550,000.

3. Saint John, New Brunswick (1631)

City skyline view of Saint John, New Brunswick
Seaport city of Saint John

Third on our list is Saint John, a seaport city in New Brunswick. Although founded 134 years after St John’s in Newfoundland and Labrador, Saint John is considered Canada’s oldest incorporated city. It was established by royal charter in 1785.

In 1604, French explorer Samuel de Champlain landed in the harbor on the feast of St. John the Baptist. The city is named after this event, as is the river, which flows from Maine in the United States into Canada.

A cholera outbreak hit the city in 1854, which killed 1,500 of the 30,000 population. Saint John was further hit by tragedy in 1877 when a fire destroyed 40% of the city and left 20,000 people without homes.

Today, Saint John is Canada’s third-largest port by tonnage. It has a population of around 70,000, which makes it the second-largest city in New Brunswick.

4. Trois-Rivières, Quebec (1634)

Ironworking forges of Les vieilles-forges, Trois-Rivières
Les vieilles-forges, Trois-Rivières

Not only is Trois-Rivières the fourth-oldest city in Canada, but it is also the second-oldest French-speaking city in North America. The city’s name means ‘Three Rivers’ in French, inspired by the Saint-Maurice River’s three mouths.

Jacques Cartier, a French explorer, described the area in his writing following his second journey in the ‘New World’ in 1535. The area was named Trois-Rivières in 1599, but a permanent settlement wasn’t established until 1634. Trois-Rivières became a key location for the French colony’s fur trade with First Nations peoples.

In 1908, a great fire destroyed large parts of the city, including buildings that dated back to the French colonial period. Following the fire, the city underwent major reconstruction and redesign. This attracted many new businesses, industries and residents to Trois-Rivières.

5. Montreal, Quebec (1642)

Panoramic view of Montreal city skyline
Panoramic view of Montreal

Canada’s fifth-oldest city is Montreal in Quebec, which was founded in 1642. However, archaeological evidence suggests First Nations peoples lived in the area around 4,000 years ago. French settlers named the area ‘Ville Marie’ or ‘City of Mary’ in honor of the Virgin Mary. The name ‘Montreal’ (Mount Royal in French) is thought to be named after the triple-peaked hill in the center of the city.

Montreal was incorporated as a city in 1832. The city became the capital of the British colony ‘Province of Canada’ from 1844 to 1849. During the prohibition years in the US (1920 to 1933), many Americans came to Montreal for alcohol.

Montreal’s population had passed the one million mark by 1951. Today, Montreal is Canada’s second-most populous city, with over 1.7 million.

6. Sorel-Tracy, Quebec (1642)

Aerial view of an industrial area along the Saint Lawrence River, Sorel-Tracy Quebec ,Canada
Industrial area along the Saint Lawrence River, Sorel-Tracy, Quebec

Sorel-Tracy (in southwestern Quebec) is the sixth-oldest city in Canada and the fourth-oldest city in the province of Quebec.  Charles Huault de Montmagny, the first Governor and Lieutenant-Governor of New France, built Fort Richelieu here in 1642 to defend French settlers against the local indigenous tribes.

The city consists of two cities: Sorel (on the east shore) and Tracy (on the west shore). The city of Tracy was founded in 1954 and the two formed a voluntarily united in 2001. The combined population is around 35,000.

There are over 100 islands in the Sorel-Tracy region, as well as the UNESCO site of Lac Saint-Pierre Biosphere Reserve.

7. Longueuil, Quebec (1657)

Bike path in the middle of flowering trees in Longueuil
Bike path in the middle of flowering trees in Longueuil

Longueuil is next on our list, having been founded by French officer and merchant Charles Le Moyne in 1657. However, it wasn’t until 1845 that the area became a parish, then a village in 1848, a town in 1874 and finally a city in 1920.

The city merged with the nearby Montréal-Sud in 1961 and Ville Jacques-Cartier in 1969. In both instances, Longueuil kept its name. Today, the city has a population of over 250,000 and covers 309 km2 (119 sq mi).

French is the primary language for over 70% of residents, while only 5.7% claim English as their mother tongue.

8. Kingston, Ontario (1673)

View of City Hall in Kingston, Ontario as seen from the water
City Hall, Kingston, Ontario

French settlers established Fort Cataraqui here in 1673 to create a better presence on Lake Ontario. The fort served as a trading and military base. Kingston continued to grow until it became the first capital of the united Canadas from 1841 to 1844. However, the city was too near the border and, therefore, vulnerable to American attack, so the capital moved to Montreal.

In the 20th century, Kingston was home to the Canadian Locomotive Company, the largest locomotive works in the British Empire. The Davis Tannery, the largest tannery in the British Empire, was also based in the city.

The Rideau Canal and Kingston Fortifications were listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2007. The canal is 202 kilometers (126 mi) long and links the Ottawa River to the Saint Lawrence River. It was built in 1832. The Kingston Fortifications are a series of 19th-century forts. Kingston is also home to 21 other National Historic Sites of Canada.  

9. Rimouski, Quebec (1696)

Panoramic view of Rimouski on the Atlantic Coast
Panoramic view of Rimouski on the Atlantic Coast

The city was founded by Sir René Lepage de Ste-Claire in 1696. Many historians believe the name ‘Rimouski’ comes from the local Micmac language and means ‘land of the moose’. The granddaughter of René Lepage de Ste-Claire, Marie-Agnès Lepage, built the Maison Lamontagne in 1750. The building is now considered one of the oldest half-timbered houses in Quebec.

In 1950, a fire destroyed 319 houses in Rimouski. The fire began on the left shore of the Rimouski River before strong winds caused it to cross over the water and spread. No one died in the fire, but the flames destroyed half the city’s infrastructure. The event is known locally as La nuit rouge (Red Night).

Rimouski’s current population is just under 50,000 over an area of 530 km2 (204 sq mi). The city’s industries include food processing and lumber, pulpwood, and mattress manufacturing.

10. Fredericton, New Brunswick – 1738

Single boat moored on St John's River which flows through Fredericton
Boat moored on St John’s River, Fredericton

Archaeological evidence shows that this area had a camp around 12,000 years ago. However, it wasn’t until the late 1600s that a French colony arrived and built a fort (Fort Nashwaak). Acadians (an ethnic group descended from the French) settled in the area in 1713 to escape British attack. The area was renamed Pointe Ste-Anne. The new settlement fell in 1758 following a British takeover.

In 1783, United Empire Loyalists established a settlement in the area. It was called ‘Fredericstown’ in honor of King George III’s second son. Between 1784 and 1869, the area was a British garrison town.

The Saint John River flows through the city. Many of the urban developments were based on either side of the river in the post-war years. Fredericton currently has a city population of around 63,200 in an area of 132.57 km2 (51.19 sq mi).

Summary: Canada’s Oldest Cities

Canada’s oldest city is St John’s in Newfoundland and Labrador. The city was founded in 1497 by Spanish fishermen, who used the area as a seasonal fishing camp. However, the area didn’t become an official community until 1630.

French settlers founded many of Canada’s oldest cities. Seven of the ten cities on this list were established by French explorers. As such, citizens in these cities mainly speak French as their primary language or are bilingual with English.

Over hundreds of years, these cities have withstood fires, disease and war to become the bustling hubs that they are today.

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