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Our history

Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) traces its beginnings back to the founding of the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) on April 14, 1842 - a full 25 years before Confederation.

As the forerunner of NRCan, the GSC laid the groundwork for the success of our natural resources sectors. Over the years, as Canada grew, its mandate was divided among a number of government agencies. Today, with the establishment of NRCan in 1994, the department mirrors the original GSC in many respects - dealing with a breadth of natural resources issues and helping ensure the sustainable development of our natural resources for the benefit of all Canadians.

Firsts and fascinating facts from our illustrious past

The GSC was established for the express purpose of preparing an inventory and assessment of the mineral wealth of the Province of Canada (then comprising southern Ontario and Quebec). It was also charged with observing its soils and waters. Indeed, the GSC's mandate was to gather information that would best foster economic development of mineral resources, stimulate new industry, and attract immigrants to agriculturally important lands.

The geologists responsible for carrying out this mandate faced a daunting task that grew as huge new territories were added to the evolving entity of Canada. Carrying out fieldwork in uncharted, trackless wilderness involved much hardship, deprivation and danger. As Sir William Logan, the founder of the GSC, was quoted in The Times of London in 1862,

Few persons can imagine the arduous nature of this work. Our indomitable geologist is often compelled to penetrate the trackless primeval forest, to force his way across the tangled cedar swamp, and brave the dangers of the Canadian Rapids in a frail canoe; and to these difficulties we may add that his path is disputed at every step by the most relentless and invincible foes with which man in these regions has to contend - countless hosts of mosquitoes and black flies. 1

The official duties of the early geologists - gathering data on Canada's land mass - became submerged in the broader role of explorer of new lands. Along with rocks, minerals, fossils, soils and waters, they brought back information on the flora, fauna and peoples that they met in their travels.

The specimens and artifacts that geologists sent back from the field are now part of collections held by NRCan, the Canadian Museum of Nature, the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Canada Science and Technology Museum. The three museums trace their beginnings to the small geological museum that Sir William Logan opened to the public in the 1850s.


The GSC was the first Canadian government agency to carry out forestry research and collect specimens for its museum as part of its exploration of Canada's geology. As Alfred Selwyn, GSC director, reported to Parliament in 1885,

Some time was devoted during the year to collecting good specimens of Canadian woods, and there were in the museum at the close of 1884 - 280 sections, representing 115 species of our useful forest trees. An extended catalogue of the trees and shrubs of the North-west was made out and furnished, by request, to the Minister of Agriculture, Manitoba, for publication in the report of his department." 2

Even after the government created the Federal Forestry Service in 1899 within the Department of the Interior - with one surveyor on staff and a budget of $1,000 - the GSC would continue some forestry-related duties. In 1900, Jim Macoun, a botanist and topographer working for the GSC, was put in charge of the Canadian forestry display at the 1900 Paris Exposition. His boss, George Dawson, directed him to "do all he could to promote Canada's forestry industry." More than 50 million people attended the exposition.3

In addition, the Department of Mines, created by an Act of Parliament in 1907, was tasked to "map the forest areas of Canada, and to make and report upon the investigations useful to the preservation of the forest resources of Canada." 4

Minerals and metals

William Logan's first official report to Parliament, submitted in 1843, featured his first analysis of the economic value of a deposit. As part of this report on limestone beds at Marmora, Ontario, Logan had sought the advice of one of Britain's principal lithographers, William Standidge, who proclaimed the discovery "an important one."

Along with an assessment of the possible economic value of the limestone, Logan reported it as a "discovery of unquestionable importance to the arts," and went on to give a short history of lithography, which was only 40 years old at that time, noting that "stone fit for the purpose of lithography, has thus become an article of commerce . and the French Government some years since has offered a premium for its discovery." 5

The success of the GSC in fulfilling its mandate - discovering the rocks and minerals that could be mined and put to useful purpose - was revealed in its 1863 publication of Geology of Canada. This exhaustive compendium - a landmark, first-ever report on Canada's land mass - got rave reviews. The illustrious head of McGill University, Sir William Dawson, wrote,

The practical man has all that is known of what our country produces in every description of mineral wealth; and has thus a reliable guide to mining enterprise, and a protection against imposture. Even in the case of new discoveries of useful minerals which may be made, or may be claimed to be made after the publication of this Report, it gives the means of testing their probable nature and values, as compared to those previously known. 6

In 1887, mining engineer Eugène Coste prepared Canada's first mineral statistics report. Entitled Statistical Report on the Production, Value, Exports and Imports of Minerals in Canada, it provides a fascinating snapshot of Canada's mineral wealth, including statistics on the annual production of gold in British Columbia from as far back as 1858. 7

Mine safety and energy efficiency

In 1870, a young government geologist named Edward Hartley began an examination and survey of the important coal district of Cape Breton and Spring Hill, Nova Scotia. His recommendations for expanding production and improving the health and safety of miners included some early advice on the benefits of energy efficiency. He wrote,

The smoke question is even more important than I thought. I have got every coal manager interested in it. Mr. Lawson has adopted one of the suggestions in my last report, and put perforated flask plates on the doors of a set of his boilers; the consequence is that he only gets one sixth of the smoke from those altered (and very roughly) that he does from the old ones, and this is without the most important alternation, viz: putting an air plate behind the grate. I am satisfied that I could increase the trade 150,000 tons the first year after this became understood.

To improve mine safety, Hartley recommended using coal-breaking machines instead of blasting the coal from the mine walls, a dangerous practice that had resulted in numerous fires and explosions. "If coal breakers had been used two years ago, the Foord Pit explosion would have been prevented, and $15,000 or $20,000 saved."

He also promoted the use of ventilating machines in the mines for safety reasons, caustically remarking that "in this country, with very few exceptions, the mines may be said to be ventilated by the miraculous intervention of Providence, as very little is done by any one else." 8 Tragically, Hartley died suddenly within weeks of this report.

Topographical mapping

In 1854, William Logan testified to a Select Committee of the Legislative Assembly, looking into the Geological Survey, about the difficulties of performing geological analysis without topographical maps:

The principal difficulties I have encountered, independently of those unavoidably incident to travelling in canoes up shallow rivers, and on foot through the forests, are those arising from the want of a good topographical map of the country. Accurate topography is the foundation of accurate geology. 9

The Select Committee gave unanimous support. "Your Committee think they may pronounce with confidence that in no part of the world has there been a more valuable contribution to geological science for such a small outlay (hardly £20,000 in all)." 10

Until the GSC established its Topographical Division in 1908, geologists often had to map the topography and the geology of an area at the same time. That was the case for Elfric Drew Ingall, who in 1886 created the first contoured topographic map made in Canada of the Silver Mountain region near Thunder Bay while making a geological map. 11

Albert Low, the director who oversaw the establishment of the Topographical Division, saw topographical mapping as an ideal area for increased cooperation with the provinces. In his 1908 report, he stated,

A contoured topographical map, while necessary for the proper representation of the geological features of a district, is almost indispensable from a provincial standpoint, in the development of its natural resources, and the study and carrying out of all engineering projects. 12

The Department of the Interior also carried out topographical work within its Topographical Survey unit in 1890.

Staff honours

Hundreds of places and important geographical features across the country have been named in honour of the people who worked for the GSC - a testimony to the integral role they played in Canada's development. Here are just a few examples:

  • Mount Logan, Canada's highest mountain, is named for Sir William Logan, the founding director of the GSC;
  • British Columbia's Selwyn Mountains honour Alfred Selwyn, the GSC's second director; and
  • Dawson City commemorates George Dawson, the GSC's third director, whose maps of the Klondike were the only reliable ones available to the Gold Rush prospectors.

Other honours came in the form of knighthoods and medals. William Logan was knighted by Queen Victoria and made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour by Napoleon III for his outstanding work in promoting Canada at the great international expositions in London (1851) and Paris (1855). For his scientific work, he was elected a Fellow of the prestigious Royal Society in 1851, with his name being put forward by one of Britain's most influential geologists, Sir Roderick Murchison. As his biographer Bernard J. Harrington says, "The honour seems to have been most gratifying to him, particularly as he was 'the first native Canadian elected for work done in Canada.' " 13

The explorer role of our geologists has continued, in some parts of the country, until recent times. Yves Fortier, GSC director from 1964 to 1973, received the Royal Canadian Geographical Society's Massey Medal in 1964 for his work in the Arctic, specifically for Operation Franklin, one of a series of Arctic reconnaissance expeditions carried out in the 1950s. In presenting the medal, Governor General Georges Vanier remarked, "Though familiar with canoe and dogsled, Dr. Fortier is the first winner of the Massey Medal to make use of the helicopter in his explorations. " Incidentally, the citation for the medal includes the fascinating footnote that Dr. Fortier was one of the "first individuals to circumnavigate Cornwallis Island by canvas canoe." Dr. Fortier, who lives in Ottawa, celebrated his 90th birthday on August 14. 14

Traditional knowledge

Robert Bell, a geologist whose career spanned 50 years, voyaged aboard the SS Neptune to investigate the Labrador Coast and Hudson Bay in 1884-85. One of his reports provides an early example of how traditional knowledge was used to further investigations. He wrote,

I also endeavoured to obtain from the natives information as to the occurrence of useful minerals, which, although not very definite, may in some cases lead to valuable discoveries. The Eskimo are intelligent and good observers, especially of such matters as affect their own mode of living and although rocks and minerals would not be expected to interest them much, still I found that in some instances they had taken notice of them. In order to facilitate enquiries, I had provided myself with a collection of all the ores, minerals and rocks which might be expected to occur in regions we were to visit, and on allowing the natives to inspect them, they would point out those which they thought similar to certain kinds which they had noticed in their own districts. 15

Vilhjalmur Stefansson employed this same technique in his 1908-12 Arctic expedition, which received funding of $200 plus $300 for expenses. This was the first ethnological research funded by the GSC, and set an important precedent for future government funding for this type of research. 16

Common complaints

Adequate funding levels are a continual concern for government managers, and it is easy to empathize with Alfred Selwyn (GSC director from 1869 to 1895), when he wrote in 1881,

the Director desires to call attention to the fact that while the cost of publishing the results of the labour of the Geological Corps, and likewise the salaries of the Staff are annually increasing, no corresponding increase has yet been made in the annual appropriation for the work, which has continued for the past four years at the sum of $50,000, which, to carry on explorations extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific, to support a Museum, Laboratory and Library, and to publish the results of the work accomplished, in two languages, is, it is submitted, wholly insufficient. 17

A trend that never caught on

Sir William Logan was one of Canada's wealthiest citizens in his day, and often dipped into his own pocket to keep his employer afloat. At the time of his death in 1875, the Canadian Government owed his estate $8,532 for the purchase of his library and surveying instruments.

His successor Alfred Selwyn noted,

Besides the cost of the library and instruments, he [Logan] expended $8,434.38 in various items on account of the Survey; and the commodious offices, on St. James Street [in Montréal] built at a cost of upwards of $30,000, and now occupied by the Survey, are likewise due to his liberality. 18

And you thought you were good at multi-tasking!

Our geologists were among the earliest government workers to multi-task, and they were champions at it. When Robert Bell toured the Labrador Coast and Hudson Bay aboard the SS Neptune in 1884-85, he wore the hats of geologist, mineralogist, zoologist, botanist, medical officer, taxidermist and photographer. He also took along "the instruments necessary for various methods of surveying, in case opportunities for using them should occur." In his spare time, he corresponded with the famed American anthropologist Franz Boas, who at the time was "studying the Eskimo and exploring southern Baffin Island, about the geology of the interior of that island". 19


  1. Extract from an article about William Logan by Dr. Percy of London in The Times, July 24, 1862, Life of Sir William E. Logan, B.J. Harrington, 1883, p. 348
  2. GSC Annual Review 1885, p. 30A
  3. The Field Naturalist, W.A.Waiser, 1989, p. 137
  4. The National Museum of Canada, W.H. Collins, 1928, p. 68
  5. GSC Annual Review 1843, p. 45
  6. Reading the Rocks, M. Zaslow, 1975, p. 80
  7. GSC Annual Review, 1887, p. 32S
  8. GSC Annual Review 1870-71, p. 2-4
  9. Life of Sir William E. Logan, B.J. Harrington, 1883, p. 284
  10. Life of Sir William E. Logan, B.J. Harrington, 1883, p. 283
  11. A Century in the History of the Geological Survey of Canada, F.J. Alcock, 1948, p. 65
  12. GSC Annual Review, 1908, p. 9
  13. Life of Sir William E. Logan, B.J. Harrington, 1883, p. 270
  14. Canadian Geographical Journal, vol. 68, 1964, p. 6-7
  15. GSC 1882-83-84 Annual Review, "Observations on the Geology, Mineralogy, Zoology, and Botany of the Labrador Coast, Hudson's Strait and Bay", p. 8
  16. GSC Annual Review 1908, p. 2
  17. GSC Annual Review 1879-80, p. 9
  18. GSC Annual Review 1875-76, p. 7
  19. 1882-83-84 GSC Annual Review, "Observations on the Geology, Mineralogy, Zoology, and Botany of the Labrador Coast, Hudson's Strait and Bay. 1884, on board the "SS Neptune" p. 1, and Reading the Rocks, M. Zaslow, 1975, p. 171

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