Geological Survey
of Canada

History of Geology
James S. Aber

Founded 1842, Montreal; moved to Ottawa in 1881.

Table of Contents
Abstract Introduction
Origin of GSC Expansion of GSC
GSC in 20th century Related websites


The Geological Survey of Canada began as a provincial survey in 1842, when William Logan was appointed as its first director. He established the survey in Montreal, his home town. This was a time of industrial expansion in Great Britain and the United States based on coal and mineral resources, and there was great expectation for similar development in British North American provinces. The initial charge to the survey was completed with publication of Geology of Canada in 1863 accompanied by a magnificent map at scale 1" = 25 miles (1869). These along with other maps were the first comprehensive works on geology of what is now southern Ontario and Quebec.

The geographic size of Canada increased greatly with Canadian confederation in 1867, addition of territories in the 1870s, and acquisition of Arctic Islands in 1880. Under its second director, A.R.C. Selywn, the survey undertook many expeditions to investigate western and northern frontier lands. The survey became a permanent government agency in 1877 and was moved to Ottawa in 1881. The Neptune expedition to the Arctic, led by A.P. Low in 1903-04, represents the last of great survey explorations.

Survey activities then began to decline, due to poor leadership and other factors, reaching an extremely low level of bureaucratic status during the 1930-40s. After World War II, the survey reestablished its reputation and position as a leading scientific research organization. The survey played an important role in the national priority for development of mineral and energy resources with minimal environmental consequences. By the early 1990s, however, Canada had accumulated high debt, and the geological survey was forced to accept massive cuts in personnel and total budget. Some programs were eliminated and others reduced by half. The Geological Survey of Canada is now in a rebuilding mode, based on increased cost sharing with other governmental and industrial partners.

Introduction and creation of Canada

The Geological Survey of Canada celebrated its sesquicentennial in 1992, making it the oldest scientific survey/service organization in Canada. It started with two men and a budget of £1500 ($6000). It is now a leading scientific research and service agency within the world's second largest country, which possesses great mineral and energy wealth.

Following the War of 1812, the northern border of the United States was fixed from the Atlantic westward to Lake of the Woods (northern Minnesota). Several British colonies included Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, along with Upper (Ontario) and Lower (Quebec) Canada. The latter were united in 1840 as the Province of Canada.

Monument to Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry on Presque Isle, Pennsylvania. Perry built a naval fleet at Erie, protected by Presque Isle, and defeated the British in the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812.
Panoramic view from Presque Isle looking toward Lake Erie in the background. The Pennsylvania mainland appears in the right distance. Kite airphoto © J.S. and S.W. Aber.

Confederation of Canada took place in 1867, which included all eastern provinces plus British Columbia. Manitoba and the Northwest Territories (Saskatchewan and Alberta) were added in the 1870s. Finally the Arctic Islands were added from Great Britain in the 1880s.

Historical maps of Canada.

The unification of Canada was signaled by completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885. It began operation in 1886 linking eastern Canada with British Columbia and opening the prairie region for settlement and development.

Saskatchewan is a resource-rich province. Left: oil well in the Williston Basin. Right: Aerial overview of Old Wives Lake. Sodium-sulfate is present both in the brine and in salt deposits, mainly as the mineral mirabilite (Glauber's salt). Photos © J.S. Aber.

Origin of the Geological Survey of Canada

The Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) was established by the Province of Canada in 1841 and actually began in 1842, when William Edmond Logan was appointed as director. Logan was born in Montreal and educated in Edinburgh, Scotland. His geological interest developed through a family business in southern Wales. Alexander Murray became Logan's assistant, and headquarters were established in Montreal. This was a time of industrial expansion based on coal and iron in the United States, and there were great expectations for similar developments in Canada. The GSC had an immediate economic and mining emphasis on coal, copper, and other industrial raw materials.

Summer field surveys began in 1843 and have continued ever since. Logan explored the Gaspé area, and Murray worked in the Great Lakes region. Logan erected three broad subdivisions of bedrock.

A copper-rush in northern Michigan extended across the border into Canada in 1845-47. In this connection, Logan established a delicate balance between governmental agencies and private companies. The GSC provided general geological information as a basis for industry. Beginning in the 1850s, new staff was added in other fields, such as chemistry and paleontology. Logan organized mineral collections for international exhibitions—London (1851) and Paris (1855). The first maps and reports were prepared for these exhibitions.

This activity culminated with Geology of Canada. The text was published in 1863, followed by a magnificent map at scale 1 inch = 25 miles in 1869 (dated 1866). Four small-scale maps accompanied the text, including the first map of surficial geology. This essentially completed the original commission for the GSC, which had:

The map and report represent the first comprehensive description and illustration of geology in what is now southern Quebec and Ontario. Confederation in 1867 increased the geographic area of Canada ten-fold, 25 years after the survey was founded. Logan retired in 1869, and A.R.C. Selywn was appointed the second director.

GSC important early geologists.

Expansion of the Geological Survey of Canada

Under Selywn's leadership, tremendous expeditions were undertaken mainly in western and central Canada. The GSC was in the vanguard of mapping and assessing the new lands of Canada. For its first 35 years, the GSC lacked any guarantee of continuity; parliment renewed its budget on a 5-year or sometimes annual basis. Logan and later Selywn had to organize political support each time. Political crises, such as the U.S. Civil War, disrupted the funding process.

Finally in 1877, the GSC was assigned as a branch of the Interior Department and, thus, given permanent status and guaranteed continued funding. Employees became civil servants entitled to many benefits and pensions. The price to pay for this status was relocation to Ottawa, the capital. The move was opposed by universities and mining companies in Montreal, but was completed nonetheless in 1881.

As early as 1845, the GSC was directed to organize a museum. A steady growth of collections took place, to which botanical and zoological surveys were added in 1879-89. The combined collections became known as the "Geological and Natural History Survey of Canada," which includes the Haida Indian collection of Dawson from the Queen Charlotte Islands. The museum is now housed in a large limestone building (since 1910) in Ottawa.

The Neptune expedition to the Arctic, led by A.P. Low at the beginning of the 20th century, marks the close of an era for the GSC. In six decades time, the GSC had experienced remarkable growth. It played a dominant role in exploration, mapping, and scientific study of frontier lands. GSC operations had revealed the great diversity of Canadian resources and opened the tremendous geologic history from the oldest Archean crust to Quaternary glaciation.

Geological Survey of Canada during the 20th century

The GSC has experienced dramatic variations in response to changing political and economic fortunes. Following the Neptune expedition, the GSC underwent a long-term decline. By the 1930-40s, it had sunk to an extremely low bureaucratic level of influence and effectiveness within the government. This was due to a combination of poor leadership, shift away from basic research to applied (mining) emphasis, government reorganizations, the Great Depression, and World Wars.

Following World War II, the GSC was renewed to a leading position in scientific research. A balance was established between basic and applied studies, and development of mineral and energy resources became a national priority. During the 1970s and '80s, concern grew over environmental issues, such as the consequences of acid rain. The GSC also played a prominent role is providing scientific evaluation of Canada's offshore economic zone. In 1986, the Earth Physics Branch of Energy, Mines, and Resources was merged with the GSC, and in the following year the Polar Continental Shelf Project (an Arctic logistics organization) was linked with the GSC (Vodden 1992).

By the late 1980s, the GSC could rightfully claim to be one of the top geological surveys in the world. It employed about 1000 scientists and support staff with an annual budget of more than $C100 million. The GSC began to cooperate more closely with other federal, provincial and territorial surveys, as well as universities and private companies. At the time of its sesquicentennial celebration, the GSC was able to claim the following (Vodden 1992, p. 55).

As the Geological Survey of Canada continues to accept new responsibilities and to develop new areas of expertise, its contribution to the next 150 years of Canada's development should be as important, colorful, and exciting as in the past.

However, budget disaster struck soon after the sesquicentennial. Canada encompasses the second largest land area of any country, but has only one-tenth the population of the United States—most living near the U.S. border. At the beginning of the 1990s, the country had accumulated an unsustainable level of debt. In 1994 the Minister of Finance announced target budget reductions for governmental agencies, which were asked to respond with a schedule of program reductions or eliminations (Franklin 1999). GSC was forced to evaluate all its activities. In general, basic research fared well, while applied activities and expensive field operations were rated low.

Applied minerals and energy research suffered the greatest cuts; marine geology was severely trimmed also because of its high-cost field logistics. Some programs, such as paleomagnetism and meteorite studies, were deemed better suited for academic research. They were reduced or eliminated. Almost all senior scientists took advantage of early retirement options. By 1998, the GSC staff had been reduced from more than 1000 to about 700, and the annual budget had been cut from $C110 million to around $C60 million, a reduction of 45% (Franklin 1999).

The Geological Survey of Canada began rebuilding in the early 21st century. Cooperative partnerships have been established with other federal agencies, provincial surveys, universities, and some industries. Cost sharing and in-kind support are utilized to a much greater extent than before, as well as funding from the private sector. Major challenges remain, nonetheless, for example support of international and multidisciplinary initiatives in the geosciences. The GSC celebrated its 175th anniversary in 2017, which coincided with Canada's sesquicentennial of Confederation.

Related websites from Natural Resources Canada


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© J.S. Aber (2017).