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.

Online Resource: Map showing extent of French territory up to 1763[ii]

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]

Online Resource: Map of the Province of Quebec, enlarged 1774[vii]

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).

Online Resource: Map of the Canadas that were created in 1791[x]

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.

[i] See for example, Archer Martin, The Hudson's Bay Company's land tenures and the occupation of Assiniboia by Lord Selkirk’s Settlers, with a list of grantees under the Earl and the Company (London: William Clowes and Sons, 1898), who describes locations in the settlement without the help of maps.

[ii] “French Expansion and British Conquests in North America to 1763,” University of Texas Libraries, University of Texas at Austin, http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/historical/ward_1912/america_north_french_british_1763.jpg.

[iii] See W.J. Eccles, "The Seven Years' War," Canadian Encyclopedia; and "Seven Years' War in Canada," L'Encyclopédie de l'histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia, Marianopolis College website. In 1763, the Treaty of Paris conceded all of New France to Great Britain, with the exception of the Saint-Pierre and Miquelon islands off Newfoundland (which were fisheries). See also "Treaty of Paris (1763)," L'Encyclopédie de l'histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia, Marianopolis College website.

[v]Sayer, Robert, 1725-1794 -- Cartographer ;Anville, Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d', 1697-1782 -- CartographerRobert de Vaugondy, Didier, 1723-1786 -- Cartographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, A New Map of North America (1763).

[vi] See William F. Maton, transcription, “The Quebec Act, 1774, 14 George III, c. 83 (U.K.),” Solon Law Archive, http://www.solon.org/Constitutions/Canada/English/PreConfederation/qa_1774.html; and the “Quebec Act, 1774,” Early Canadiana Online.

[vii] “The Quebec Act: Introduction,” Canada: A Country by Consent, http://www.canadahistoryproject.ca/1774/index.html.

[viii] Map of British North America after the Treaty of Paris, 1782.  Historical Atlas of the British Empire

[ix] The Constitutional Act, full text, Early Canadiana Online

[x] “1791,” Historical Maps of Canada, Canadian Geographic online http://www.canadiangeographic.ca/mapping/historical_maps/1791.asp.

[xi] “The Act of Union 1840,” Éditions Brault and Bouthillier, http://www.ebbp.ca/series/en_wallmaps/images_large/wallmaps_25.jpg.

[xii] William F. Maton, transcription, The British North America Act (renamed the Constitution Act in 1982), Solon Law Archive, http://www.solon.org/Constitutions/Canada/English/ca_1867.html.

[xiii] British Columbia confederated in 1871, largely due to the efforts of newspaper owner and politician Amor de Cosmos (a.k.a. William Alexander Smith, originally from Nova Scotia), and largely because of a promise of railway linkage to the east. Prince Edward Island finally joined in 1873. After having first considered joining the U.S., the colony was lured to Canada in part by the promise of a ferry link to the mainland, and the promise that the federal government would pay for the island's railways. View “Map of Canada, 1873,” after the inclusion of P.E.I. Newfoundland initially rejected confederation (see “Anti-Confederate Propaganda, 1869,” Morning Chronical, St. John's (29 Sept 1869), and did not agree to confederate until 1949. By then the transportation promise that held appeal was the extension of the Trans Canada Highway across the province.