HGIS Bibliography

Bonnell, Jennifer and Marcel Fortin. Historical GIS Research in Canada (Calgary, Alberta: University of Calgary Press, 2014).

Please contribute to this dynamic annotated bibliography by adding your own reviews, comments, and observations about this work in the comment form below.


Review by Jessica DeWitt on niche-canada.org.

Table of Contents



1. Turning Space Inside Out: Spatial History and Race in Victorian Victoria by John S. Lutz, Patrick A. Dunae, Jason Gilliland, Don Lafreniere, and Megan Harvey

2. Mapping the Welland Canals and the St. Lawrence Seaway with Google Earth by Colleen Beard, Daniel MacFarlane, and Jim Clifford

3. Reinventing the Map Library: The Don Valley Historical Mapping Project by Jennifer Bonnell and Marcel Fortin

4. The Best Seat in the House: Using Historical GIS to Explore Religion and Ethnicity in Late-Nineteenth Century Toronto by Andrew Hinson, Jennifer Marvin, and Cameron Metcalf

5. Stories of People, Land, and Water: Using Spatial Technologies to Explore Regional Environmental History by Stephen Bocking and Barbara Znamirowski

6. Mapping Ottawa’s Urban Forest, 1928-2005 by Joanna Dean and Jon Pasher

7. “I do not know the boundaries of this land, but I know the land which I worked”: Historical GIS and Mohawk Land Practices” by Daniel Rueck 

8. Rebuilding a Neighborhood of Montreal by Francois Dufaux and Sherry Olson

9. Growth and Erosion: A Reflection on Salt Marsh Evolution in the St. Lawrence Estuary Using HGIS by Matthew G. Hatvany

10. Top-Down History: Delimiting Forests, Farms, and the Census of Agriculture on Prince Edward Island Using Aerial Photography, ca. 1900-2000 by Joshua D. MacFadyen and William M. Glen

11. The Irony of Discrimination: Mapping Historical Migration Using Chinese Head Tax Data by Sally Hermansen and Henry Yu

12. Mapping Fuel Use in Canada: Exploring the Social History of Canadians’ Great Fuel Transformation by R.W. Sandwell

13. Exploring Historical Geography Using Census Microdata: The Canadian Century Research Infrastructure (CCRI) Project by Byron Moldofsky

Appendix A: Historical GIS Studies in Canada

Select Bibliography

Notes on Contributors



  1. This edited collection demonstrates the various ways that HGIS techniques are being used in Canadian history projects. Many of the chapters emphasize the collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of this work, and the ways in which it develops local community interest. Several chapters were particularly engaging. John Lutz, et. alt., for example, argue that GIS reveals that Victoria’s Chinatown was not as ghettoized as previously thought. Government documents and negative media reports on race, while part of the rhetoric of the time, did not necessarily correlate to the complexity of racial relations on the ground. Visualizing space allows these researchers to question sources in an innovative way. In a similar manner, Daniel Rueck utilized the Walbank survey done in the 1880s to reconstruct indigenous land practices in Kahnawa:ke. Using a land survey that, as a colonizing tool, was used to change the community’s land management, Rueck re-imagines earlier practices. Finally, Sally Hermansen and Henry Yu reappropriate traditional sources, Chinese head tax data, to visualize a minority community’s migration patterns and kinship networks. Of particular interest is the accompanying website, Chinese Canadian Stories, which demonstrates the fruitful results of collaboration between spatial historians and digital media designers (hint: try the Gold Mountain Quest game).

  2. Bonnell, Jennifer and Marcel Fortin. Historical GIS Research in Canada (Calgary, Alberta: University of Calgary Press, 2014).

    Historical GIS Research in Canada highlights, in a Canadian context, the usefulness of HGIS in building both physical and ideological layers to our understanding of various themes in history. This collection of essays is inherently valued in a place like Canada; forged in fire and ice, host to millennia of human occupation, party to numerous waves of immigration, and the site of equally impressive urban and rural space. By studying maps that show scaled snapshots of this vast country, each of these historians has contributed to and expanded on Canadian history and geography in unique and important ways.

    This collection covers a diverse swath of themes in Canadian History. John S. Lutz’s discussion of social and racial landscapes in colonial Victoria challenges historians to use HGIS as a means to look beyond textual references, thus uncovering new avenues for understanding space. Similarly, Daniel Rueck’s use of colonial survey maps sheds light on undermined or marginalized data to help turn historical assumptions inside out. In doing so, developing newer, more accurate theories about land use. Dean and Pasher use aerial photography to document changes in the verdure of urban Ottawa, which can then be used to measure urban social, racial, and economical divides. Bonnel and Fortin summarize centuries of environmental and ecological change to Toronto’s Don River Valley by using HGIS to document human health, economic prosperity, class, land-use, and ecological impacts. Hinson, Marvin, and Metcalf provide HGIS insights on a much smaller scale by using church records to document social divides both within and without the church walls in an Ontario town. Dufaux and Olson rekindle the history of fire on a downtown Montreal street by using HGIS to reconstruct wooden structures lost to the several fires that plagued that streetscape. Beard, Macfarlane, and Clifford highlight the usefulness of Google Earth technology in making historical-geography and historical mapping an accessible and beneficial tool for those new to the field.

    Ultimately, these few examples merely scratch the surface on this book’s contribution to HGIS within a Canadian context. The thematic diversity in this collection highlight the many useful ways that GIS contributes when placed in a historian’s tool kit. This collection inspires interested Canadian historians to imagine ways that GIS can contribute to our understanding of Canadian history. Surely, in a place as geographically and historically diverse as Canada, one need not look far to find an application for historical mapping.

  3. This collection of thirteen essays illustrates how GIS has contributed to historical inquiry in Canada over the past decade. The editors broadly argue that GIS offers a powerful tool in geospatial analysis, offering new insights into old historical debates or encouraging questions that would have not otherwise been considered. For example, John Lutz et al challenge the interpretation that the late-nineteenth century Chinatown in Victoria, B.C. was a “Forbidden Palace,” admitting only Chinese immigrants who sought peace from peristent raicial discrimiantion. Using GIS, they reveal that Chinatown was not homogenously Chinese nor did Chinese poeple only reside in Chinatown. Chinatown was a transactional community that was multi-ethnic and was chracterized by economic exchange.

    Lutz et al’s article also illustrates a broad theme that crops up over the course of the collection: that although GIS can offer fascinating and unexpected insights, it is just one tool among many. Lutz et al also turn to quantative methods using newspapers to further explore the question of racial discrimination in nineteenth-century Victoria and whether the racial discourse described in primary documents created by middle- and upper-class Euro-Canadians actually played out on the ground. Their conclusion is that although exclusionary discourse existed, the presence of both positive and negative references suggests there was competing ideas of “Chineseness” among the immigrant elite of the colony. In their essay concerning urban forests in Ottawa, Joanna Dean and Jon Pasher argue that GIS analysis and statistics has to be supplemented with traditional archival sources to construct comprehensive historical narratives. Although the the former can illustrate the existence and changes in canopy cover, they cannot adequately address why these changes ocurred. Overall, the collection shows the usefulness of GIS as a tool and emphasizes that it should be one added to the histoirian’s toolbox. .

    On this latter note, the editors point out that GIS research in Canada has lagged behind other countries such as the U.S. and the U.K. GIS software can be expensive outside of a university environemnt and several essays illustrate that specific kinds of data (such as good censuses) are needed to produce GIS maps and images. These are challenges that all GIS researchers face but Canada has an additional styming factor: the tendency to see geospatial data as a commondity instead of a public good. This results in high costs for researchers in acquiring digitized resources from libraries, archvies, and other private-sector entities, which may determine whether a GIS project gets off the ground or not.

    All in all, the collection does a great job in illustrating how GIS can contribute to historical inquiry, espeically in Canadian environmental, urban, and ethnic history. This is especially apparent in Ontario and Quebec, which a majority of the essays concentrate on. It also openly acknowledges the challenges that Canadian GIS researchers face.

  4. Jennifer Bonnell and Marcel Fortin eds. Historical GIS Research in Canada (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2014.

    The potential for HGIS to illuminate previously unconsidered aspects of Canadian history and to overturn longstanding assumptions is showcased in Historical GIS Research in Canada. This edited collection brings together historians, geographers, and librarians to demonstrate the feasibility of GIS-based analysis to answer historical research questions from across Canada. The cross-country approach and the books organization from West to East, is further inspiring and certainly not the norm in Canadian historical works and is likely partially owning to it being an edited collection rather than a monograph. This is not to say that this organizational structure does not have its drawbacks, notably there is no research presented from the prairies or the northern regions.

    Historical GIS Research in Canada is at its most interesting when it pairs GIS methodology with traditional historical research methods. “Turning space Inside out: Spatial History and Race in Victorian Victoria,” by Lutz, Dunae, Gillialnd, Lafreniere, and Harvey, combines textual analysis of local newspapers with spatial analysis of where different ethnic groups lived in the city. This allows the authors to show the disappearance of Aboriginal people from Victoria over the course of the nineteenth century while also disproving the notion of Chinese segregation. Their discourse analysis also shows that historian’s notions about negative racial perceptions of Chinese immigrants were more a factor of their sampling habits then the realities of colonialism. Hinson, Marvins, and Metcalf’s analysis of Toronto’s Knox Presbyterian Church also dispelled previously held historical assumptions, particularly the origin of parishioners and the continued existence of a Free Church division in the Canadian Church of Scotland after re-unification in 1861. Both of these chapters reinforce the suitability of GIS to supplement, interpret, and contextualise archival research.

    The book also encourages historians and historical geographers to use GIS as more then just a tool for results. Contributors build on historian Richard White’s assertion that GIS is not just an analytical tool but “‘a means of doing research; it generates questions that might otherwise go unasked, it reveals historical relations that might otherwise go unnoticed (p. xi).'” In thinking of their research in this way, I believe that what sets the work presenting here apart is not that it all contains a GIS component, but rather that it all reflects the spatial turn of historical enquiry.

  5. Historical GIS Research in Canada provides a collection of essays exploring the ways in which HGIS has contributed to Canadian scholarship in the past decade. The collection as a whole, while providing thirteen excellent case studies of nineteenth and twentieth century Canadian history, is a superb discussion of the advantages and challenges of applying GIS to historical sources. Rather than proclaiming HGIS as a historiographical panacea, the contributors note that HGIS is at its best when it compliments and enhances, rather than supplants, traditional research methods. The chapter by MacFadyen and Glen on deforestation in Prince Edward Island demonstrates how HGIS can overcome some of the limitations of traditional approaches and reveal new insights that even the best analytical analysis of census data could not. Many of the other chapters, notably those by Sandwell and Bonnell and Fortin, make a compelling case for HGIS as a value-added methodology.

    This emphasis, as well as the contributors’ honest assessment of the limitations of HGIS, gives the collection a sophistication that would be impossible to sustain if the volume had taken the form of an evangelical manifesto. There is widespread appreciation in the volume that certain human or societal interactions and their meanings cannot be accurately mapped. Daniel Rueck’s chapter on Mohawk land practices is particularly sophisticated in its assertion that, since HGIS remains highly dependent on archival materials, the potential for looking at colonialism or decolonization in new ways is limited by the same constraints of traditional research methodologies. This is not to suggest that there is no advantage to be had. Rueck is extremely optimistic about HGIS’s decolonizing potential. Hermansen and Yu’s chapter on Chinese Head Tax data reveals that HGIS, by greatly enhancing the way historians present aggregate data, could have much greater public impact than has previously been the case.

    There are occasionally slips and instances where the spatial data is used to read interpretations onto the sources that are problematic. Hinson, Marvin, and Metcalf’s chapter on Knox Presbyterian Church in Toronto makes the case that socioeconomic status was of little consequence in the church, a conclusion reached on the basis of internal seating arrangements. This interpretation risks spatial determinism and does a disservice to the sophistication evident in the rest of the chapter.

    By and large, however, the volume is a compelling advertisement for what HGIS can achieve. And while not directly related to GHIS, one of the most interesting aspects of the volume is its collaborative nature. Most of the essays were collaborative pieces and, since HGIS requires labour-intensive historical work, one unspoken advantage of the approach is to force historians to work together. If HGIS, in the words of Richard White, encourages us to ask new questions, the collaborative nature of the work will also force historians to embrace different perspectives and to build collaborative and robust interpretations of the past.

  6. Historical GIS Research in Canada, edited by Jennifer Bonnell and Marcel Fortin and published in 2014 by University of Calgary Press, has much to recommend it. The book is visually appealing, slick in its design, complete with stunning graphics throughout. The added feature of the book’s free PDF download on the press’s website is a rare and welcome bonus for such a well-crafted and valuable scholarly collection, not to mention its very reasonable price tag of under forty Canadian dollars in paperback. The book is essential reading for scholars in all fields working with HGIS but particularly so for those in Canadian History be it social, cultural, environmental, religious, indigenous, urban, rural, or migration History to name a few. The collaborations which feature large in the volume engage with the recent spatial turn in History, pushing historical questions towards the intersections where people, space, place, mobility, and change have collided in various ways in the Canadian past. The chapters span from West to East across the country with one glaring exclusion in particular – the North – and with equally little attention paid to the Prairies. The call to attend to these regions in HGIS practice rings loudly. What is perhaps most impressive about the collection is the authors’ collaborative interdisciplinary engagement; in some chapters we see historians and a librarian working together (Chapter Two – “Mapping the Welland Canals and the St. Lawrence Seaway,” Colleen Beard, Daniel Mcfarlane, and Jim Clifford), in another we see an historians and a forester (Chapter 10 – “Top-down History: Delimiting Forests, Farms, and the Census of Agriculture on Prince Edward Island Using Aerial Photography, ca. 1900-2000,” Joshua D. MacFadyen and William M. Glen) and in yet another we see historians and geographers making attempts to soften the lines between the disciplines that share the technology of GIS, an ongoing process the authors describe as, “spatializ¬ing the historians… and historicizing the geographers…” (pg. 18). The editors discuss the limitations of HGIS with an admirable honesty, noting the potential of HGIS rests arguably more firmly on certain types of historical data than might more traditional methods of inquiry. That said, several of the authors demonstrate strategies for navigating these deficiencies (in particular Daniel Rueck in Chapter 7, “’I do not know the boundaries of this land, but I know the land which I worked:’ Historical GIS and Mohawk Land Practices”) by using primary sources more difficult to manipulate in GIS software. Overall, this is a well-balanced collection and presents a series of engaging spatial histories, revealing new “imagined geographies” in the Canadian past.

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