For Canadians in the 21st Century, their country has always had the outline of this map, as if to say that the extent of Canada was predetermined and simply grew to fit limits set by three bounding oceans. The story of organizing the internal divisions is far more complicated and uncertain, however, reflecting competing claims by a variety of interested authorities over many generations.
A striking feature of the modern map of Canada (interactive map: Boundary Changes, 1670-2001) is the geometry of the internal divisions. Saskatchewan is a rectangle, distorted only because simple surveying instruments in the Victorian era were inadequate for drawing a perfect rectangle on the earth’s spherical surface (static map: Proposals for the Prairie Provinces, 1905). The meridians converging at the North Pole tell us so. Straight lines and sharp angles are the hallmarks of the division of empty land by politicians sitting at desks with T-squares and rulers far away in London or Ottawa, unfamiliar with occupants’ interests or the landforms themselves. At the local level straight lines predominate too, the simplest way to lay out individual farm lots, neglectful of the land’s rumpled surface. “Straight lines in curved space” is the way one author has spoken of the squared-off local townships in southern Ontario.*
In thoroughly explored regions provincial boundaries are more likely to follow natural features. But how to do it? The Ottawa River divides Quebec and Ontario, yet is a natural artery that once drew together from both sides woodsmen on timber rafts in a common enterprise. The southerly portion of the Alberta - British Columbia line follows the watershed divide yet cuts across the cultural artery that was the Canadian Pacific Railway, completed in 1885 as an act of unification. National Parks on both sides of this provincial line suggest that there may be unity in this borderland too.
The story of the evolution of boundary lines is really the story of the evolution of the lands they enclose. Combine this map with maps from the Chapters on Ecological Regions, on Native Reserves, on resource use (The Economy) and on Population growth, to explore where boundaries unite and where they divide. They do both.
*Marilyn G. Miller, Straight Lines in Curved Space: Colonization Roads in Eastern Ontario. (Toronto: Ontario Ministry of Culture and Recreation, 1978).