Canada is a country of big numbers. With a land mass of 9,984,670 square kilometres, the world’s longest coastline at 243,042 kilometres and over 2 million lakes, you can bet there are also lots of islands. In fact, there are over 52,000 islands, and some have really interesting stories.
Located about 175 kilometres from mainland Nova Scotia, this crescent-shaped island sits far out in the North Atlantic. During its 400-year history, Sable Island has been the site of more than 350 shipwrecks, earning the nickname Graveyard of the Atlantic. It was also the first lifesaving station established in Canada.
Today the island is a protected national reserve managed by Parks Canada. Along with hundreds of wild horses who adapted to the harsh and isolated environment after being introduced to the remote location back in the 18th century, it’s home to three park staff and the world’s largest colony of grey seals. Day visitors can enjoy the island from June through October.
The Magdalen Islands are a small archipelago of eight islands (six are linked by sand dunes and a highway) in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Part of Quebec, the islands are actually closer to the Maritime provinces than to the Gaspé Peninsula. The Magdalens boast stunning scenery, with white sand beaches and sandstone cliffs that attract visitors year-round. Ecotourism, camping, bike tours, windsurfing, kitesurfing, hiking and sightseeing are among the most popular activities.
During the Grand Derangement of 1755, the islands became home to a couple dozen Acadian families, who worked fisheries and hunting walrus for a British trader. Today, many Madelinots still identify as Acadian.
What makes this northern Quebec island so unique? Well, it’s a perfect circle visible from space. Sometimes referred to as the Eye of Quebec, René-Levasseur Island is actually bigger than the lake that surrounds it, Lake Manicouagan. The island is 2,020 square kilometres and the lake is 1,942 square kilometres.
Around 214 million years ago, a meteor slammed into the area and created a hundred-kilometre-wide crater, which eventually eroded, and two lakes formed around the edge. In the 1960s the Manicouagan River was dammed to create Lake Manicouagan – which is actually a reservoir.
Located at the northern tip of Lake Huron, Manitoulin Island is the largest lake island in the world. It also has the unique distinction of containing more than 100 inland lakes, some with their own islands. Lake Manitou, at 104 square kilometres, is the largest lake on a freshwater island in the world. Treasure Island in Lake Mindemoya is the largest island in a lake on an island in a lake in the world (yes, you read that right).
Manitoulin means “cave of the Great Spirit” in Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe) and is home to the administrative office of the Sheshegwaning First Nation band government. Activities for visitors include camping, fishing, boating and hiking, but a definite must is the Great Spirit Circle Trail, which allows tourists to experience Manitoulin Island from an authentic Indigenous perspective.
The largest island in Canada, Baffin Island is located in Nunavut in the Arctic. The first written records of Baffin were made by Martin Frobisher in 1576, during his search for the Northwest Passage. However, it’s believed that Norse explorers were the first Europeans to visit in the 11th century. The reference to Helluland from the Viking Sagas is likely Baffin Island.
Baffin Island is rugged, with awe-inspiring scenery. Popular with adventurers from around the globe, it’s home to two of Canada’s largest national parks, Sirmilik and Auyuittuq. The Penny Ice Cap in Auyuittuq National Park is believed to be the birthplace of the last ice age. Admiralty Inlet is one of the world’s largest fjords, and the Baffin Mountains, part of the Arctic Cordillera mountain range, feature many named after Norse gods, like Mount Odin (the largest at 2,147 metres), Mount Asgard, Mount Loki and Mount Thor, which has the highest vertical drop in the world.
Also located in Nunavut in the high Arctic, Beechey Island is barren and windswept, framed with a narrow beach and small hill. An important archeological location, it was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1993. The ill-fated Northwest Passage expedition by Sir John Franklin and his crew in 1845 led to years of exploration to find out what happened. In 1851, explorers found the remnants of the Franklin 1845–46 wintering camp on Beechy Island, including a few small buildings, a cairn and the graves of three of Franklin’s crew, all of which remain there today. The investigations into the Franklin crew’s disappearance helped map half of the Canadian Arctic, as well as leading to the discovery of three Northwest Passages.
Until very recently, this tiny Arctic island (1.2 square kilometres) was at the centre of a decades-long dispute over which country it belongs to. Barren and uninhabited, it’s situated in the Nares Strait between Greenland and Ellesmere Island, within the territorial waters of both Canada and Denmark – for 49 years both countries laid claim to it. The Whiskey War, which began in the 1980s, saw Canadians planting a Canadian flag and leaving a bottle of Canadian whiskey beside it. The Danes retaliated by leaving a bottle of schnapps and a raised Danish flag. Both sides continued the tradition as friendly provocation until 2022, when Denmark and Canada finally resolved the dispute. They divided the island roughly in half … and now Canada shares a land border with Denmark.
The Hochelaga Archipelago, also known as the Montreal Islands, is the most populated group of islands in Canada. Just over 2.5 million people live there, mostly on the islands of Montreal, Île Jésus (Laval), Île Bizard and Île Perrot. Here’s a list of the most populous islands in Canada.
 Statistics Canada, Geography archived www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11-402-x/2011000/chap/geo/geo-eng.htm (accessed January 18, 2023)