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Geological Survey of Canada

The development of an industrial economy in Canada was based on the creation of a mining industry, a decision that relied on a geological survey of the country. The Legislature of the Province of Canada (now parts of Ontario and Quebec) created the Geological Survey of Canada in 1842. The first director was William Logan, a Montréal citizen educated in Scotland. Logan had an excellent reputation as a geologist even though he never attended school, but learned his trade by managing a copper smelting company in Wales. He campaigned for the position with strong recommendations from prominent English scientists. Logan succeeded and was appointed to the position in April 1842. The headquarters for the Survey was in Montréal where he took on an assistant name Alexander Murray, a formal naval officer. Together, they began the task of mapping out the geology of a country that stretched from 5514 kilometres between coasts.

The science of geology for Logan and Murray meant many years out in the field collecting data. The first priority of the men was to search for coal deposits. From 1843 to the 1850s, the Survey reported that there were no coal deposits in either Upper or Lower Canada. This was disappointing as coal was considered to be vital to the development of an industrial economy. A positive note was the identification of several broad geological divisions: folded rocks covering Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula and Eastern Townships, the flat-lying limestone that extend west from Montréal to Lake Huron. Crystalline rocks extending north an unknown distance from Kingston, Ottawa, and Montréal soon proved to be part of the Canadian Shield holding many Precambrian mineral deposits that are still mined today.

The Geological Survey of Canada continued to expand into an organization with many employees conducting rigorous exploration, making maps, producing reports, and maintaining a public museum. Confederation in 1867 brought new challenges to the Geological Survey. The new provinces of Manitoba, British Columbia, and Prince Edward Island increased the area of operations. In 1871 the Survey mounted an expedition to investigate the geology and mineral resources along the proposed railroad routes. In 1870, Canada purchased Rupert's Land from the Hudson's Bay Company. This immense area stretched across the country from Ontario to the Rockies and north to the Arctic. This was the beginning of the age of Canadian exploration. The uncharted areas of the west and arctic were difficult and dangerous but exciting. The Survey collected observations on geology, botany, and zoology.

In the 20th century, the Geological Survey of Canada added the new provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland to their studies. Canada was expanding and so was the mandate of the Survey. The agency added the role of training ground for the Canadian geosciences community. Students interested in geology received experience through their employment as field assistants to the Surveys’ scientists. During the First World War, surveys were conducted to locate much needed minerals such as tungsten and mercury that were vital to the war effort.

For the Second World War, coal and oil were the focus of the Survey. Locating domestic fuel and energy sources became another wartime priority for the Survey, seeing as before the war Canada had imported 90 percent of its petroleum. The work of the Survey relating to energy resources took firm root at this time and continued to be a major part of its contribution to this day.

As a result of its new airborne capability, the Survey was able to mount numerous large-scale multidisciplinary reconnaissance operations during the 1950s and 1960s. The most ambitious was the 1955 "Operation Franklin" in the Arctic. The results of the work showed potential for oil in this remote part of Canada and triggered industry interest in northern oil and gas exploration. "Operation Franklin" also demonstrated how joint research using modern technology could be extremely productive.

Reorganization was again the order of the day in 1966, when Parliament created the Department of Energy, Mines, and Resources of which the Geological Survey of Canada is currently a part of. The new department carried on the scientific responsibilities of its predecessor, the Department of Mines and Technical Surveys, but through its new mandate to plan Canada's energy needs, was transformed into an important policy-making department.

Starting in the 1970s, international debate centring on the ownership of the ocean's resources required the Survey to provide geoscientific information necessary to support Canada's claims to an offshore "economic zone." New boundary areas came into dispute, such as the Gulf of Maine, the Grand Banks off St-Pierre et Miquelon in the east, and the Straits of Juan de Fuca off the West Coast. Canada's offshore boundaries eventually extended 200 miles (320 km) from the coast (or beyond, to the edge of the continental shelf). This immense area was, in effect, added to the Survey's field of operation.

Another major offshore initiative stemmed from growing concerns for the security of energy supplies and indications that the offshore contained valuable new resources. In response, the government charged the Survey in 1984 with establishing a knowledge base from which the oil and gas potential of the offshore regions and the Arctic could be determined. The work, carried out under the new Frontier Geoscience Energy Program, is now firmly entrenched as part of the Survey's marine responsibilities.

Greater accountability to the taxpayer and increasingly complex administrative demands were continuing trends through the 1980s. Coupled with government spending restraint and high inflation, the Survey was often restricted to meeting short-term objectives to accommodate rapidly changing priorities. The Survey adapted by moving more and more into cost-sharing, cooperative ventures that involved the participation of other governments, industry, and universities at both national and international levels.

The computerized Geological Survey of the 1990s was, of course, a very different organization from the one established by Sir William Logan 150 years earlier. Nevertheless, similarities between the Survey of today and of yesteryear are obvious. The mining and petroleum industries continue to be major clients, and mapping the geology of Canada remains a primary concern. However, geoscientific information is becoming increasingly important to environmental questions as it provides a crucial baseline against which we can measure and assess contemporary environmental changes. As well, the Survey, because of its reputation for excellence, continues to attract gifted scientists and staff who share a unique esprit de corps and provide an irreplaceable source of expertise that is one of Canada's scientific treasures.

A century-and-a-half after Logan set out on his first field trip the immense task of a comprehensive geological examination of Canada is still not complete. Today, however, we recognize that the task may never end. As new theories and needs emerge, and as new technologies are rapidly developed, the surveying of Canada's onshore and offshore will challenge scientists for many decades to come. 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, colourful, and exciting as in the past.

For a comprehensive history of the Geological Survey of Canada, read No Stone Unturned: The First 150 years of the Geological Survey of Canada by Christy Vodden, Ottawa 1992, on the GSC website http://gsc.nrcan.gc.ca/hist/150_e.php

The video clip from "Quest for Energy" relates the story of the Geological Society’s start in the new country of Canada. Watch


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