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Dictionary Project, Volume X: Western Canada

The Dictionary Project is a post-a-day exploration of The Century Dictionary and Cylopedia, a twelve-volume set printed in New York in 1901. The Project runs from October 1, 2014 to September 30, 2015, and matches volume numbers to calendar months. Volume X is The Atlas, and today is Day 6.

I included this map not just because it’s got my home (Vancouver) on it, but because of its title: “Manitoba, British Columbia, and the Northwest Territories”. Old maps are never simply a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional area; they’re also an expression of the cartographer’s art, and of contemporary politics, governance, and relative significance. The title of this map illustrates this beautifully.

If you read from left to right, as we do in English, you might expect British Columbia to be named first in the title. BC would also come first alphabetically. If you were listing in descending order of size, then the Northwest Territories would be listed first. But no, it’s tiny Manitoba that’s named first. Well, it could be that places are listed in ascending order of size. But what about all the places that aren’t in the title?

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I think Manitoba’s titular primacy signifies its greater relative importance at the time. Look at all the rivers and roads that touch Winnipeg, a city that lies almost dead centre in the continent. Sitting at the junction of two navigable rivers, between Hudson Bay to the north and the great American marketplace to the south, it’s not surprising that Winnipeg would be a hub for traders, trappers, and travellers of all kinds. Vancouver, isolated out west, is still tiny by comparison, though it’s bigger than Calgary and Edmonton.

Speaking of Alberta cities, its northern border falls on the 55th parallel rather than the 60th. Saskatchewan’s, too, though its southern border is also in the wrong place to my modern eye. Regina and Moose Jaw are both in Assiniboia. Saskatoon is the southernmost place I recognize in this tiny, misshapen Saskatchewan. What’s up with that?

Well, I’ll tell you. The Hudson’s Bay “owned” and administered much of what is now northern and western Canada, for decades before the Canadian Government acquired it from them and called it the North-West Territories. The NWT shrank in area in the years following 1870, as other provinces joined Confederation. Alberta and Saskatchewan became provinces in 1905, and their northern borders were moved to the 60th parallel at that time (perhaps to maintain the line begun by British Columbia). Manitoba’s borders continued to shift north and east up until 1912. There was still a lot of border-wrangling to be done at the time of publication of this Atlas. Nunavut (the eastern three-fifths of the former NWT) didn’t come into existence until more than a hundred years later.

All that said, I have no idea why the bits in the middle — Alberta, Assiniboia, Athabasca, and Saskatchewan — aren’t mentioned in the title, except perhaps for reasons of space, or why the title isn’t more broadly inclusive (e.g., “Western Canada”). Cartographers, eh? Who understands ’em but other cartographers? I have a friend whose husband is a cartographer. Maybe I’ll ask him.

Do you have a theory or an insight? Tell me about it?

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