On August 10, 1535, Jacques Cartier sailed up a river and into a bay, naming it St. Lawrence — only to have a cartographer later scrawl the name across the entire river, where it has remained ever since. But then even the mistakes in a map tell a story — of the land, and of a culture. The latest narrative: The Canadian Geographic Atlas of Canada, produced by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and Collins Bartholomew, a Glasgow-based division of HarperCollins renowned for its cartographic expertise. John Geiger, the CEO of the RCGS, spoke to the National Post‘s Joe O’Connor about how cartography works in the digital age, what stories the atlas tells about who we are now (from changes in industry to new territories) and what’s left to explore.
Q When did Canada get its name on a map?
A The first map to use the name Canada, indeed, the first map to use the name in any document — and that is important — was on the world map by Nicolas Desliens, dated 1541. Desliens was a mapmaker from Dieppe, France. There is some dispute among cartography scholars that 1541 is an accurate date, but certainly by 1544 Canada was on the map. Also, the first map to show a land mass that was likely part of Canada was drawn circa 1500, by Juan de Cosa. It shows the coast of Newfoundland.
Q Why, in a world of Google Maps, do we even need a new atlas?
A They are oddly interesting as an artifact. If you get an atlas, as an example, for graduation or birth, that atlas is a snapshot of our country at that very moment. This new atlas tells a story of Canada, and a history of Canada, until this moment. In 50 years things will be different, but the atlas will be no less interesting. Maps are also beautiful things. In a way, they are works of art.
Q What has changed on the Canadian map from 50 years ago?
A Some highlights would be the demise of fishing in Canada, particularly cod fishing as a major part of the economy, and the introduction of new crops, such as canola seed developed by Balder University in Manitoba in 1974, which is now Canada’s main cash crop. In industry, there’s the exploitation of Alberta’s natural resources, for example, or the diamond industry — non-existent 50 years ago, and now Canada is the world’s third largest producer. And administratively, Prince Edward Island was connected to the mainland with the Confederation Bridge opening in 1997, and the new territory of Nunavut was created in 1999.
Q Do mapmakers still do land surveys? Were there any boots on the ground in the atlas project?
A Unfortunately for the romantic notion of mapmakers, most cartography is now desk-based. There are many more experts on the ground specializing in measuring and examining things in such detail that the cartographer is now best placed taking direction from them. They provide the answers to specific local questions — the height of X mountain, for example. Atlas makers can then “scale” the satellite imagery.
Q Are the lines we now see on the Canadian map drawn in indelible ink, or are some borders and boundaries still in flux?
A There is a whole world, really, under the water in northern Canada that has not been mapped. For shipping safety reasons, we need to understand what is there. And we don’t. Only about 5% of Arctic waters have been charted.
Q Five per cent? That’s it?
A The Canadian Hydrographic Service is very active, but it is a vast area. One of the benefits of the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition, and earlier efforts led by Parks Canada to find the Franklin expedition ships lost in the 1840s, was to map substantial areas of Queen Maud Gulf, Alexandra Strait and also Victoria Strait. The process is ongoing.
Q Where does Canada end?
A That is an ongoing question. Canada recently restated its belief that our rights extend all the way up to the North Pole. These are not national boundaries, but boundaries related to sub-surface and seabed rights. But the North Pole claim is subject to dispute.
Q Toronto likes to imagine itself as the centre of the Canadian universe, but where is the actual geographic centre of Canada?
A It depends on how you are measuring it, whether it is the median, the centre of gravity or the mean centre. There are different ways you can measure. Having said that, the Government of Canada says that the geographical centre of Canada is just south of Yathkyed Lake, Nunavut — or about 240 km west of Hudson Bay. There are no people living there, and you probably need a guide to get there, just in case a bear ambles by.
This interview has been edited and condensed.