Geography and history are closely related, even inextricably linked. In some respects geography is more tangible: as visual cues of the relation of past to present, maps can sometimes make history seem more directly relevant than written texts do, and in a much shorter span of time. The information coded on a map is often immediately graspable in instances where illustrating the same point via written description might require convoluted cross-referencing of details.[i]
The following selection of maps supplies a brief history of the changing geographical dimensions of Canada as a colonial possession of the British Empire, pre- and post-confederation, to 1870. What the maps make apparent is that, to that year, at no time was the western boundary of the Canadian frontier closer to Red River Settlement than 700 kilometers (as the crow flies). The straight line distance between the seats of government, Upper Fort Garry and Ottawa, was some 2,078 kilometers.
a) Pre-confederation of 1867 Geographical dimensions:
Prior to 1763 Canada was a colonial possession of the Ancien Regime of France.
In 1763, New France was ceded to Great Britain by the Treaty of Paris after “the first global war,” the Seven Years’ War.[iii] At the time of the Seven Years’ War, “Canada” was the name of a French colony, in New France, that stretched along the St. Lawrence River. New France also included the colonies of Acadia, Louisiana, and the “French Shore” of Newfoundland. Canada was the most developed of these colonies and consisted of three, separately governed districts: Québec, Trois-Rivières, and Montréal. The acquisition of New France by Britain is often referred to as “the Conquest” in Canadian historiography. By a royal proclamation issued by King George III, in 1763 Canada was renamed “The Province of Quebec.”[iv]
Online Resource: Map showing boundaries after the Royal Proclamation of 1763[v]
The Quebec Act of 1774 enlarged the territory of the Province of Quebec to include the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes region.[vi]
After the American War of Independence, during which thirteen colonies rejected British colonial rule, the extent of British North American possessions changed again.
With the Constitution Act of 1791, the British Colonies in North America were again reorganized.[viii] [ix] The Province of Quebec was essentially divided into two separate colonies: the Province of Lower Canada (within present day Quebec — on the lower reaches of the St. Lawrence River), and the Province of Upper Canada (within present day Ontario — up the river).
The Union Act of 1840 combined Upper Canada and Lower Canada into the single Province of Canada, which nevertheless retained division between Canada East and Canada West.
Online Resource: Map of British North America after the Act of Union, 1840[xi]
b) Post-confederation of 1867 Geographical dimensions:
In 1867, the British North America Act [BNA] stated that, "the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick shall form and be One Dominion under the Name of Canada."[xii] Sections 5 and 6 of the BNA Act then divided the Province of Canada into the Province of Ontario and the Province of Quebec.
Online Resource: “Map of Canada in 1867,” Library and Archives Canada.
Fairly soon afterwards there was a movement in Nova Scotia to exit the confederating arrangement. For at least seven years, confederation was not necessarily viewed as a lasting commitment. During the same period, the possibility of expanding the new Dominion of Canada’s territory in a westward direction was successfully realized.[xiii]
The country of Assiniboia entered into confederation in 1870 with a new name, Manitoba. This occurred only after exchanges of animosity in the press; an initial refusal to accede to the summary take over of Canadian political representatives; and the formation of a representative and responsible government by the people of Red River Settlement (following a republican model with a President, Louis Riel, an elected Legislative Assembly with twenty-eight members, and an executive council drawn from its members), which composed a list of conditions — including that a railroad connect Manitoba to Canada — that were to be agreed to by the Dominion of Canada.
Online Resource: “Map of Canada, 1870,” Library and Archives Canada. Note the geographical change since 1867.