Terra Nostra, 1550 - 1950: The Stories Behind Canada's Maps

Terra Nostra, 1550 – 1950: The Stories Behind Canada’s Maps

By Ted Smith

A review of Terra Nostra, 1550 - 1950: The Stories Behind Canada's Maps by Jeffrey S. Murray

Published on October 1, 2006

Terra Nostra, 1550 – 1950: The Stories Behind Canada’s Maps
Jeffrey S. Murray

McGill-Queen's University Press
$70
cloth
192pp
978-2-89448-453-1

There are those who think maps are a tool for finding your way around. Then there are people like the young Austrian who once told me, “I love maps. Even when you’re totally lost you know where things are.” They were his religion, a place where everything had its appointed location and meaning, even if these weren’t always disclosed to him. As Jeffrey Murray puts it in Terra Nostra, some of us revere maps: as symbols of order, or ideals of clarity in graphic design, or doorways to history.

For Murray, a senior archivist at Library and Archives Canada, maps are also “artifacts with a fascinating history in their own right.” Terra Nostra showcases the Archives’ cartographic collection, from Canada’s beginnings to the satellite era. The illustrations range from a 1508 chart of Newfoundland’s coastline to aerial survey maps, from advertising posters to a basement-sized three-dimensional model of Quebec City. If you’re curious about the originals, Murray’s citations are always thorough. (You can find that Quebec City model at Artillery National Historic Park.)

The profuse illustrations and hefty price tag may have you thinking this is a birthday gift for Dad – a book to impress but probably not to read. This would be a misapprehension. It reminds me of the Archives’ National Library in Ottawa, where some of the map collection can be found; it’s a building whose massive walls and tiny windows suggest a prison for a king’s enemies. In fact, it’s a relaxed place whose real challenge is that the collection is dizzyingly huge and variably accessible, and its cataloguing sometimes obscure; you really need an archivist to help you get what you should be getting out of it. Murray is a well-informed and lucid guide to the collection, whose stories raise Terra Nostra well above gift-book level.

The stories are short essays based on the following questions: ‘Who were the people who made the maps? How were they made? Why were they made? How did this form of communication affect the lives of Canadians?’ The search for the Northwest Passage is covered, and also the role of military engineers in Canadian mapmaking, from Generals Murray (post-conquest of Quebec) to McNaughton (the Battle of Vimy Ridge, when he was still a Lieutenant Colonel). There’s as much again on private enterprise, from fire insurance maps to door-to-door salesmen. There’s also a series of sub-articles that amount to a short history of map printing, starting with woodblocks and ending with offsets.

As for the effect of maps on the lives of Canadians, and the perils of revering them, the essay “Free Farms for the Millions” is cautionary. In the early 1900s the federal government sent abroad well over a million free atlases promoting western settlement. Our attention is drawn to a 1928 map of Saskatchewan liberally dotted with towns all connected by railways, like a flatter New England. The illustrated atlas covers suggest a climate to match. In fact, the ‘towns’ were anything that had a post office, and not all the railways had actually been built. As for the climate, I once met a German immigrant who homesteaded a Saskatchewan farm in the 1920s. She remembered the blizzards, chiefly. “You could get lost in them,” she said, “and then you were lost for good, because there was nothing else out there.” I wonder what she thought of that atlas.

Murray’s “Selected Readings” appendix indicates that four of the essays – on bird’s-eye perspective lithographs, Canadian road maps, Klondike gold rush cash-ins, and the settlement advertising campaigns – are pioneering attempts at their subjects. There’s plenty more here to inspire the potential historian, or anyone who loves maps. mRb

Ted Smith is an Ottawa editor and writer.

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