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Gold Medal

2006 Recipient - The Atlas of Canada

Mapping memories

James White (ABOVE) mapped the territorial divisions of Canada (ABOVE LEFT) and produced the country’s first atlas.

Among map-makers, James White was a trailblazer. A slight man with a handlebar moustache, Canada’s first chief geographer published the inaugural edition of the Atlas of Canada in 1906, the second national atlas in the world (after Finland). In his 10 years as chief geographer, White also produced a standard base map of Canada and a 50-sheet set of topographical maps of the settled areas of the country. This year, the institution he launched celebrates 100 years of depicting our nation’s storied geography through cartography.

The Atlas of Canada, a program of the Earth Observation and GeoSolutions Division (EOGD) of Natural Resources Canada in Ottawa, continues to chart Canada’s ever-changing physical, economic and social landscape. Over the past century, it has published six editions of the national atlas, a feat few other countries have matched, says Claire Gosson, senior geographer at The Atlas of Canada. In honour of its long-standing contribution to our mapping heritage, The Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS) has awarded the organization its Gold Medal.

The evolution of the atlas mirrors the country’s development and Canadian ingenuity and innovation in cartography. The 1906 edition, for instance, focused on transportation and communication networks to entice European investment and immigration to Canada. Knowledge of Canada’s remote regions was still sketchy at the time, which accounts for many missing or inaccurately rendered Arctic islands. Rising concern for the environment and interest in socioeconomic matters, such as the national labour force, were reflected in the 1974 edition, which received the RCGS Gold Medal in 1976.

In the early 1990s, digital cartography and the collection of data through remote sensing revolutionized the way maps were created. The internet spelled the end of the atlas in book form; in 1994, The Atlas of Canada went online, one of the first online atlases in the world.

On its 100th birthday, the atlas "is at a crucial moment in its history" and is pondering its future, says Denis Hains, director of the EOGD. Keeping up with the staggering pace of change in information technology is an important challenge. The organization is looking into improving its online multimedia capabilities, says Hains, and is considering contributions to the atlas’s content from the public, similar in concept to Wikipedia, the web-based encyclopedia.

As for future editions of the atlas? "I don’t think there will be a new edition but, rather, a continual update of the online atlas," says Hains. "The online atlas of the future will be very dynamic."

— Monique Roy-Sole

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