the Dominion Grid

an image that everyone on the prairies has: incoming weather, driving in a straight line, fall fieldsThe Dominion Survey turned land into property in the tradition of the Enclosures Acts in Britain, where land commonly and traditionally farmed was enclosed by fences and walls by often self-appointed land-owners.  The Dominion Survey prepared the ground for the CPR and western settlement. Land held for millennia and used in accordance with constantly re-negotiated peace treaties, all of a sudden within a few years in the 1880s, was ruled off into one-mile squares, 6 mile sections, 36 square mile townships.  Road allowances were made at the edges of the sections and the first nations were bundled into reserves.

Metes and bounds, the survey system that measures land between this rock and that river, this mountain ridge and that path at least acknowledges that land has form, and in determining reserves in eastern Canada often the boundaries were negotiated according to an organic and aboriginal understanding of land use.  Not so for the Sarcee Reserve, now the Tsuu T'ina Nation, which was given three townships sitting in a row, a 36 x 6 mile rectangle running from 37th Street in south Calgary to the mountains.  Rivers and streams cut into this block and out again.  One could perhaps understand the same area being defined by the watershed of the Elbow River perhaps, but not this indifferent and random assignation of land. 

If you can measure land, you can draw it and if you can draw it, you can sell it.  Is this not at the base of survey systems?  I grew up with a western Canadian and an architect's love of the Dominion Grid, its absolute rationality that was nonetheless full of errors, correction lines that occur because of the curvature of the earth, delightful incongruities as a road slices over a hill and down a valley, standing on an escarpment and seeing the road go to the horizon twenty miles away.  Old Saskatchewan farmers could still reel off the legal description of homesteads they'd left in the 30s:  Section 22, Township 26, Range 2, West of the 4th Meridian.  I thought all this was magical, and in some sense still do.  But I also see it as a commercial project.  The CPR was given astounding bonuses for building the railway connecting BC with eastern Canada: $25 million (about $500 million today), 25 million square miles (exactly half the land) in a 50-mile zone either side of the main line and a monopoly on rail connections to the US.  Why does most of Canada live within a hundred miles of the US border?  Does the CPR have something to do with this? Are section roads straight?

CPR land was evenly dispersed, effectively limiting the size of a homestead (obtained free from the Canadian governmnent) to one section.