Finding Spatial Data

Some argue that there’s not much sense in making public data private.  Sharing non-sensitive data about our urban and rural environments allows researchers and technologists to “hack” and create new ways of understanding nature and society.  An early form of this approach was Many Eyes, which offered a platform for visualizing data sets on the condition that the raw data be made public on the site.  More recent platforms are available through Google’s Motion Chart Gadget and Public Data Explorer which allow you to visualize your own data Other websites such as Chicago’s Second City Zoning use a “SimCity-flavored interactive map of Chicago’s zoning districts,” to allow “residents to answer the question, ‘what can I build on this property?'”  Still, as Hans Roslings demonstrates so beautifully in a 2006 TED Talk, publicly funded statistics are generally restricted or so expensive, inaccessible, and boring that no one wants to use them. He attempts a correction in Gapminder, his free “fact-based world view” website.

Almost immediately after civic data are created they become of interest to historians, and since many have spatial components they can be analyzed in H-GIS.  We support initiatives to share these historical data, and we have written this post about finding, assessing, downloading, and processing publicly available datasets. Several provinces have been very open with their historical data including Ontario and Prince Edward Island. There’s not much point in protecting civic data and even less rationale for guarding historical datasets.  So, please, give us the data!

Contact us if you have links to historical datasets for Canada and beyond, and leave a comment if you found this useful.

Finding Data

Historical Boundary Files

Historical Maps

There are an increasing number of online historical map collections featuring scans of maps, plans, and globes from archives and personal collections.

Climate and Ice Data

Agricultural and Settlement Data

  • Birthplace of the world’s first GIS, the federal-provincial Canada Land Inventory “lasted from 1963 to 1995 and produced maps which indicated the capability of land to sustain agriculture, forestry, recreation and wildlife” (Wikipedia). According to the Department of Agriculture’s description, “the information is old, and better information is available for some areas as part of more recent soil surveys, [but] the interpretations are still largely valid, and many jurisdictions still use them for land use planning purposes.” The inventory’s GIS data are available on Geogratis at the 1:1,000,000 and 1:250,000 scales.
  • E-Stat contains digitized data for most of the pre-1871 printed censuses of British North America and New France.
  • Georeferenced Databases for Accessing Historical Data (GEORIA) contains many of the boundary files and other geospatial data used to make the Historical Atlas of Canada. Data are available by written application only.
  • New Brunswick Crown Grant Reference Map viewer
  • The pre-1930 Homestead Files for Saskatchewan have been indexed by township and section numbers, and some are digitized and available online.

Urban Settlement Data

  • The Don Valley Historical Mapping Project offers a variety of data pertaining to the environmental history, settlement, and development of the Don River Valley
  • Urban Historical GIS in Canada is a website devoted to historical GIS data and analysis pertaining to London, Victoria, and Montreal Canada
  • viHistory contains data for all of Vancouver Island, with an emphasis on Victoria
  • Fire Insurance Plans are some of the most popular geospatial resources for urban historians, and useful guides and online collections are available for London, Montreal, Toronto, Victoria, etc.

Historical Mining Data

Historical Forest Data

Historical Water Data

  • Several hydrological databases have been mentioned above (Ice data, Royal Navy climate data, Ocean temperature data)
  • The Ontario Department of Environment shares a massive database of Well Record data, providing spatial information for all of the well records reported in Ontario, 1899-2012
  • The Don Valley Historical Mapping Project offers rich historical data on the Don River

Historical Remote Sensing Data

Air photo collections at Canadian libraries and municipalities (some digital)

Federal air photo and remote sensing holdings

University air photo holdings

*The University of Toronto Map Library has digitized the 1950s Ontario Department of Lands and Forests aerial photomaps, available here.  They are also working on georeferencing these photomaps. The York University Map Library also has an extensive collection of low-level oblique aerial photographs of conservation areas in Ontario taken by Lou Wise.

Other library and archival collections

Provincial holdings

Municipal holdings

Global datasets of interest


Downloading Data

Programming historian module on Wget.


“New Railway Station, Charlottetown, P.E.Island.” Source: PEI Museum Postcards Collection Link to original image

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