The States and Provinces of the USA and Canada

*The USA is made up of 50 states, the District of Columbia, and a number of overseas possessions.  Canada has ten provinces and three territories.

*In Canada, the Maritime Provinces refer to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, and sometimes to Newfoundland (although this is technically incorrect).

*Canada’s prairie provinces are its breadbasket; these are Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, although Alberta is also important for its oil and natural gas.

*Nunavut is the largest province or territory by area (but the smallest in population; just counting provinces, Quebec is the largest by area.  Ontario is the most populous province (the Northwest Territories are the most populous territory, but with about 42,000 people (now that Nunavut is separate), they have fewer people than Johnson City).  Prince Edward Island is the smallest province in both area and population.

*The Turks and Caicos Islands, a British possession in the Caribbean, have occasionally considered joining Canada as a new province or territory, or perhaps joining an existing province (Nova Scotia has offered to take them).

*Five of Canada’s provinces are divided into counties (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Ontario, and Quebec).  Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Newfoundland and Labrador have districts instead, as do the Northwest Territories and Nunavut (and even parts of northern Ontario and Quebec).  British Columbia has regional districts, and the Yukon Territory is one district.  Many parts of Canada also have municipalities, city areas that act as counties.

*Counties are generally less important in Canada than they are in the US, but Canada also has ‘ridings.’  Ridings are the popular name for electoral districts, often coterminous with the districts of the provinces.

*Of the USA’s 50 states, four are called commonwealths:  Virginia, Kentucky (formerly part of Virginia), Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania.  Although they call themselves commonwealths, they function just as the other states do. 

*Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands, two US insular areas, are also called commonwealths, and this means that they have a more structured relationship with the US government than do the other US overseas territories (like Guam, American Samoa, and the US Virgin Islands).

*The largest state in area is Alaska, the largest in population is California; Texas is second in both area and population.  The smallest state in area is Rhode Island, but it has the longest official name of any state:  The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantation.  The smallest state by population is Wyoming (with even fewer people than the District of Columbia), but Alaska, despite its size, is ranked 48th in size.  Tennessee is 34th largest by size and 16th largest by population.

*The 13 oldest states were British colonies, and most of the rest were created out of territories purchased or conquered by the United States government, but Vermont, Texas, and Hawaii were all independent republics that were annexed as states, and California also briefly existed as a republic before it became a state, although it was essentially a puppet of the US Army, and was never really independent.

*Article IV, Section 3 of the US Constitution says that states may only be formed with the consent of Congress, and of the state or states from which the new state will be formed (if it is formed from one or more existing states—if it comes from a territory, it’s all fair game).  This means that West Virginia violates the US Constitution, but people have mostly gotten over that.

*Most states are divided into counties.  Louisiana, however, is divided into parishes, Alaska has boroughs and census areas (census areas have no local government), and thirty-nine of Virginia’s cities are independent of county government (as are a few other cities in the US).  Texas has more counties than any other state (254) while Delaware has the fewest (3).  Tennessee, with 95, ranks 10th among states with the most counties.

*In both the US and Canada, the states and provinces (and to a much lesser extent, territories, the District of Columbia, and overseas possessions) have local powers and rights distinct from those of the national government.  However, in both countries, the national government supersedes the sub-national ones when necessary.

This page last updated 29 August, 2005.