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Review

Historical GIS Research in Canada

By Jennifer Bonnell and Marcel Fortin, Editors

September 23, 2014

Review By Deryck Holdsworth

This is a wonderful collection of thirteen essays, nine co-authored (twenty-seven authors all told), written by historians, geographers, librarians, archivists, cartographers, environmental scientists, and an architect, many of them acknowledging by name the other research team members who contributed to their output. Readers are pointed to webpages where vast quantities of generated data and other facets of research output are publically accessible. The large-format volume, printed on high-quality paper, is richly illustrated with 110 full-colour maps, graphs, and aerial photographs; the University of Calgary Press should be applauded for making this available for less than forty dollars. Most essays are long enough to lay out the intents, disciplinary contexts, and interim conclusions of the ongoing research project, as well as reflecting on problems encountered along the way. An effective eleven-page editors’ introduction and a twenty-seven-page bibliography are strong bookends.

Over the past decade, an array of articles and books have offered samples that hint at the promise of utilizing geographical information system (GIS) software and other spatial data-management approaches for historical inquiry. Now large enough of a research cluster to be labelled Historical GIS (sometimes also the digital humanities or the spatial humanities), the perspective values spatio-temporal visualization as analytically central to narratives. This collection is a confident assertion of promise realized.

Editors Jennifer Bonnell, a historian at McMaster University, and Marcel Fortin, a Map and Data Librarian at the University of Toronto, successfully “showcase the range of possibilities when researchers use GIS to develop and enrich their analyses” (ix). The fascinating array of topics, spread across the country from west to east in ten essays and then three pan-Canadian in scope, are written by graduate students, post-doctoral scholars, and all the ranks of academics and government scientists. It is an appropriately Canadian volume, given the pioneer work in computer cartography, mapping, and systematic aerial photography done by various Canadian federal and provincial agencies over many decades. Big data for a big country indeed, and now those data can be linked to many archival records through user-friendly geovisualization tools accessible in a laptop computer and smartphone era.

The collection opens with a study of Victoria that visualizes at a house-by-house level the nineteenth-century transition from an aboriginal and colonial town to a white city with a strong Chinese presence, effectively joining census and fire-insurance maps, and probing various conceptions of the racialized interactions of groups. In the next chapter, geo-referenced overlays of old maps on current Google Earth help identify various iterations of the Welland Canal and the lost villages of the St. Lawrence Seaway project. Then the volume’s editors trace the changing course of the Don River in Toronto, again using old maps scanned and geo-referenced to trace the changing alignment of the river, and simultaneously noting phases of industrialization and urbanization along the corridor through fire-insurance atlases. Still in Toronto, the pew rent books of Knox Presbyterian Church illuminate the changing residential locations of membership in the 1880s, with congregants from rich and less-well-off neighbourhoods possibly still pew neighbours. Further east, samples at a variety of scales from a regional environmental history atlas of south-central Ontario calibrate changes in resource exploitation, identifying sites for saw and grist mills along the region’s many waterways. Ottawa’s urban forest is tracked over three quarters of a century, specific canopies of street shade trees being traced from old air photos and ground-truthed with old photographs of neighbourhoods prior to urban renewal; changes are attributed to a pendulum swing of attitudes that regarded trees as a nuisance and then as healthy elements of urban life.

Three essays in Quebec continue the eastward sampler. Across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal, in the Mohawk community of Kahnawá:ke, an 1880s survey by the Department of Indian Affairs allows for a modern reconstruction of historical land-use, showing which areas were in sugar bush or in cultivation and shedding light on the clash between oral knowledge of indigenous irregular land parcels and the ultimately unsuccessful efforts to  systematically sub-divide the territory. St. Mary Street (now Notre-Dame East) in Montreal was a 1830s neighbourhood that burned in 1852, was rebuilt before being demolished to widen the street, and again rebuilt; the multiscale “zoom” of HGIS is showcased from neighbourhood to street to property parcel and even three-dimensional architectural re-imaging, aided by insurance maps, census records, and builders “specs.” Downriver, “the natural and cultural evolution” (182) of the St. Lawrence Estuary salt marsh reflects on a seventeen-year study of the shoreline of the Bay of Kamouraska, one that draws on maps dating back to 1781, early twentieth century aerial photographs, and fieldwork. Then, as the one Maritimes example, the changing mix of forest and farms on Prince Edward Island across the entire twentieth century employs cadastral maps and aerial photography to demonstrate that the census of agriculture underreported the extent of “improved” land.

Three pan-Canadian chapters close the volume. Chinese head tax records are used to reconstruct immigration histories, generating a groundbreaking map of 460 distinct Canadian destinations (many on the Prairies), identifying many of the specific home villages in southern China, and also showing a sample of those home region origins in the Chinatown totals for five Canadian cities. The last two chapters are something of a throwback to routine choropleth maps that aggregate census data, always a problem with the shape of Canada. An essay on changing fuel use, from wood to coal and electricity and gas, is accompanied by a suite of simple line graphs, column data, and national-scale maps, not a new approach at all, though new to the author. The final essay, on the Canada Century Research Infrastructure project (paralleling similar big data projects in the US and UK), reads more like a report to a grant agency than for use by this book’s audience, even though aggregate census microdata are important, for sure, and signal the potential scope of HGIS work. But the disconnect to people, streets, places of work, places of worship, or to land, land-cover, and landscape that so many of the earlier chapters promote makes these last two essays awkward bedfellows. It is that capacity to zoom in and out across multiple scales, and across time, that is so loaded with promise.

Historical GIS Research in Canada
Jennifer Bonnell and Marcel Fortin, editors
Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2014. 342 pp. $39.95 paper