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What is north?

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Canadians have many definitions of north. A simple one is anything north of the 60th parallel. We also think of the North as Canada's Arctic-from Ellesmere Island, across the northern Arctic and into the southern Arctic just above the tree line.

For Montrealers, Val-d'Or, or Rouyn-Noranda are considered north, despite being a drive of just a few hundred kilometres. Many consider Chibougamau to be 'up north.' Yet, at 50° it is at about the same latitude as Kelowna, British Columbia.

Statistics Canada's geographers have also thought about where south ends and north begins. Their definition of nordicity uses 16 characteristics, which include: the southern limits of the boreal forest, the presence of discontinuous permafrost, the requirements for home heating, the community's isolation, the cost of living, and Revenue Canada's formula for tax benefits based on remoteness.

Map: Smoothed North-South and transition linesThe geographers also consider that traditional descriptions of the North have sometimes ignored the northern regions of some provinces, even though these areas may share a climate, physical attributes and settlement patterns with communities in the Far North.

This redefinition of north in January 2000 produced a boundary that cuts through the middle of Canada, and is bordered by transition zones. The northern transition line reaches south to nearly the middle of Manitoba and Ontario. The southern line cuts as far south as Calgary, Lake Winnipeg, Thunder Bay and the Gaspé Peninsula.

North is more than an abstract concept, since any definition has social, economic, environmental and political impacts. In 2007, about 25 nations, including Canada, will have the opportunity to continue the 'what is north' discussion during International Polar Year.