Making Settler Space: George Dawson, the Geological Survey of Canada and the Colonization of the Canadian West in the Late 19th Century

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Grek Martin, Jason
Geography , History , Colonialism , Canadian West , Science , Exploration
This dissertation examines George Dawson’s efforts to traverse several of the significant blank spaces that pervaded the map of Western Canada in the two decades following Confederation in 1870-71 on behalf of the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC). By analyzing how Dawson went about making these vast, remote and hitherto poorly-known territories legible we can better understand how he and his GSC colleagues helped to transform the Canadian West into a settler space that miners, traders, loggers, ranchers and many more could inhabit and exploit. As Dawson’s survey work in British Columbia and the North-West Territories reveals, the GSC helped to transform the Canadian West into settler space in two important ways. First, his western reconnaissance surveys yielded a wealth of practical knowledge about travel routes, natural resources, soils, climates, existing Native populations, potential hazards and the overall suitability of particular districts for settlement and resource extraction. This information was widely distributed in published reports and maps and served to draw the lands, natural resources and Indigenous inhabitants of the West more fully into the administrative orbit of the Dominion government. Moreover, Dawson’s reports and maps often depicted colonization as both inevitable and imminent, giving scientific weight and tangible expression to a colonial imaginary that, in practice, was never as certain nor as swift to unfold as these depictions intimated. Second, the GSC’s scientific surveys signified Canada’s desire and capacity to assert its epistemological dominion over the West. In this context, the work of a publicly-funded scientific survey was a profound symbol of authority because a state’s power to explore and map its national territory signified its power to rule over that territory. By exploring and reporting on these lands, Dawson and the Survey helped to cement the Dominion’s authority over its recent territorial acquisitions and affirm their status as a Canadian West. By offering important practical and symbolic contributions to Canada’s colonization of the West in the decades following Confederation, the Geological Survey of Canada played a vital role in transforming this region into a Canadian settler space.
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