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Our History

A group of nine geographers gathered in a dingy, high-ceilinged room in the Elgin Building in downtown Ottawa on August 29, 1950 to discuss the creation of the Canadian Association of Geographers. Serendipity had played her usual role in making this meeting possible. During the war Hugh L. Keenleyside, who held a doctorate in International Relations from Clark University, had served as a first secretary in the Department of External Affairs, and then as secretary to the Permanent Joint Board on Defence. He was also been a member of the Northwest Territories Council in the 1940's and, convinced of the value of geography to the conduct of politics and international affairs, saw to it that a geographer was contracted to undertake much-needed northern research. It was in this way that J. Lewis Robinson became the original professional geographer in the service of the Canadian federal government. But Keenleyside had a more profound impact on the discipline. Early in 1947 he was appointed Deputy Minister of the Department of Mines and Resources, and decided that a Geographical Bureau was needed within it. He enlisted the support of the indefatigable C.D. Howe (wartime Minister of Munitions and Supply, then Minister of Reconstruction, and finally Minister of Trade and Commerce), and in short order the necessary Order in Council was drafted and approved by Cabinet, and funds appropriated. Later that year the Bureau began work under the direction of Dr. Trevor Lloyd. In 1950 the Bureau was elevated to Branch status and Dr. J. Wreford Watson was appointed Director. The purpose of the Branch was to "collect, organize and make readily available, geographic data on Canada and foreign areas of importance to Canada". It had a staff of 10 geographers by 1950, and it was from this group that several of the founders of the CAG were drawn.


The members of the 'organizing committee' were Wreford Watson (Chair), Roman Gajda, Bernard Gutsell, Paul Laurendeau, Norman Nicholson, Lloyd Reeds, Lew Robinson, George Tatham and Bogdan Zaborski. Five of them (Watson, Gajda, Gutsell, Laurendeau and Nicholson) were full-time employees of the Branch. The remaining four were University faculty members at McMaster (Reeds), University of Toronto (Tatham), University of British Columbia (Robinson) and University of Ottawa (Zaborski). They established an executive committee consisting of Wreford Watson as President, Norman Nicholson as Vice-President, and Pierre Camu as Secretary-Treasurer. Tatham, Robinson and Zaborski were named counsellors. Robinson was given the specific responsibility of drafting a provisional constitution.


Over the following months, geographers across the country were contacted, and invited to attend an inaugural meeting of the proposed Association the following spring. This first meeting of the CAG was convened in Room 106 of the Physical Sciences Centre of McGill University on Wednesday, May 30, 1951. The precise number of people in attendance is unknown. Fifty-six names appear on the attendance role, the minutes report that 62 people were there, and Volume I of The Canadian Geographer lists 65 names. What is known is that the general business meeting held on that day was devoted entirely to the formal creation of the Association and the election of its officers. The objectives were: promote the use and development of geography in Canada by facilitating an exchange of ideas between geographers, by arranging meetings where geographers can discuss the several aspects of geography and its related fields and by publishing information and professional papers of interest to geographers in Canada. The Association will also assist in stimulating, guiding, influencing and encouraging geographical research, exploration and the teaching of geography in Canada and strive for the improvement of its status in Canadian education. It will provide direction for geography graduates to new fields of geographical employment.  


The Executive Committee for the first year (1951-52) consisted of:


Honorary President: Griffith Taylor            

President: Donald F. Putnam

1st Vice-President: Pierre Dagenais

2nd Vice-President: J. Lewis Robinson

Secretary-Treasurer: Pierre Camu

Councillors: Pierre Biays, Lloyd Reeds, F. Kenneth Hare, Thomas Weir, Edward G. Pleva

The second day of the meeting was devoted to the presentation of eight delightfully eclectic papers which were subsequently reprinted in Volume 1 of The Canadian Geographer. They were:


  • The Canadian Association of Geographers: A sketch of the preliminaries" by J.W. Watson

  • "Geography in Education" by J.W. Hamilton

  • "The Status of Military Geography in Canada" by P.E. Uren

  • "L'enseignement et la Recherche Géographique en France" par P. Biays et Y. Baticle

  • "A Survey of Single Country Atlases" by N.L. Nicholson

  • "Étude Comparative des Températures des Cantons de l'Est, de Québec et Montréal" par J. Hubert

  • "Les fonctions de Chicoutimi et son Évolution" par F. Ouellet

  • "Procedure in Studying Shore Erosion" by H.A. Wood.


Geography was still in its infancy in Canada in 1951, at least outside Quebec. Courses had been taught at the University of Montréal since the 1920's, and the first two native-born Canadian to receive geography degrees abroad (Benoit Brouillette and Pierre Dagenais) returned home to lecture in Montréal prior to 1940. By 1951 three departments of geography were thriving in Quebec, at Laval, the University of Montréal and McGill, and all have played important and distinguished roles in both the history of the Association, and the development of geography in Canada. McGill hosted the first meeting, of course, but it has had a much more enduring connection. Until 1963 the secretariat of the CAG was housed within the Branch. But in that year it moved to McGill, where it resides still. The good will of the Department in permitting this invasion of its space, and its success in protecting the Association's office from usurpation (something that all of us with administrative experience will realize must have been threatened more than once!) have always been greatly appreciated. The longevity of our relationship with McGill and the strength of the association is such that for many geographers, certainly those who have been members of the Association for any length of time, 'Burnside Hall' and the CAG are synonymous.


The Department at the University of Montreal has many claims to fame, but one of them that is particularly relevant to us today is the fact that by the time the CAG held its first meeting, it had awarded four Ph.D's in geography, to George Kimble, Ross MacKay, F. Kenneth Hare and Pierre Camu, all of whom went on to have illustrious and highly influential careers.

And then there is Laval, which hosted the first real 'national' meeting in 1952 as well as the 25th anniversary meeting in 1976. It is one of only six universities to play host to the CAG on three occasions (UBC, McGill, Western, Montreal, Ottawa and Memorial being the others), and it has provided the CAG with six of its Presidents, more than any other Canadian university except UBC.


In 1951 students intending to study geography had a choice among only ten university departments. Outside Quebec, departments existed at the University of Toronto (which had awarded four Ph.D's by 1951, two of them going to Don Kerr and William Wonders, both future Presidents of the CAG), McMaster University and the University of Western Ontario, and courses were being taught at the University of Ottawa, Carleton University and the University of British Columbia. Of course, not all Canadian geographers were to be found in those institutions. The Directory of Canadian Geographers compiled by the Geographical Branch in 1951 listed 217 names.


It is fitting to recall the important contributions made by veterans to the rapid post-war growth of geography in Canada. A few had received their training before enlistment; some interrupted their studies to enlist; but most obtained their degrees after discharge. We were fortunate that some foreign-born and -trained geographers immigrated to Canada after 1945.


In 1976, the same year that approximately 1,000 members of the Societé de géographie de Québec were celebrating their centennial, the 800 or so members of the CAG gathered at Université Laval to celebrate the first quarter-century of their Association. The occasion was marked by the publication of a 25 year retrospective (Hamelin and Beauregard, 1976) and the papers of this little volume make for very interesting reading in this year of the 50th anniversary. In his contribution to the volume, Hamelin said:

"Il est vrai qu'une partie seulement des activités des géographes professionnels se rattache directement ou indirectement au groupement national. Notre Association reste néanmoins l'un des principaux mirroirs de la vie des géographes. L'examen de ses 25 ans d'existence comporte aussi sa propre utilité et conduit naturellement au deuxième objectif de cette réunion, à savoir le dégagement de certaines lignes de conduite pour l'avenir. Le prochain quart de siècle pourra dès lors profiter des réflexions qui nous seront communiquées tout à l'heure."  


"It is true that among the activities carried out by professional geographers, only a portion is directly or  indirectly related to the national group. In spite of that, our Association plays an important part in reflecting the life of geographers. Reviewing its first 25 years is, in and of itself, a useful exercise and leads us naturally to this meeting's second objective, which is to develop some guidelines for the future. The next quarter century will indeed benefit from the considerations that  will be presented to us shortly".


That the CAG represents the primary loyalty of only a proportion, and perhaps a small one at that, of the trained geographers in this country is as much a matter of concern now as it was in 1976. This is not the place to revisit the arguments that have been made over the years about what the mandate of the Association should be, nor of the extent to which it might reasonably be assumed that geographers would want to be members of it. But there is only small consolation to be gained by the knowledge that these arguments are not new ones. And knowing this does not make it any easier to accept the fact that the 50th anniversary will not be marked by the publication of a companion volume to the one produced by Hamelin and Beauregard. The absence of such a commemoration can be interpreted in several different ways, but the most honest would be simply to recognize that for too many people the Association is of less relevance today than it was a quarter century ago. We have, perhaps, not responded very well to the competition provided by the 'intervening opportunities' which have arisen in the form of more specialized interest groups.


With that thought in mind it is worth reconsidering the painfully honest appraisal of the CAG's first 25 years J. Keith Fraser has earned the right to criticize the Association by his years of dedicated service to both the Association (serving as President in 1981), and the profession. He wrote that there were several areas where the Association has been ineffective or uncertain. It did not follow through on a proposal to produce a good wall map of Canada for teaching purposes; a program of geographic excursions designed to make Canada better known to foreign colleagues was never undertaken; it was unsuccessful in its attempts to get the Government to reconsider its decision to close the Geographical Branch in 1967; it did not take on the responsibility of producing and updating a comprehensive bibliography of Canadian geography; and it has never been able to elaborate a policy setting down a position on emergent issues of Canadian economic and social development.


Some of the 'failures' enunciated by Fraser were specifically characteristic of the time, and are no longer relevant. But others have been addressed, in one way or another, although not always by the CAG. In 1999 the Royal Canadian Geographical Society produced a magnificent new wall map of Canada, and provided a copy to every school in the country. The CAG listserver has provided a useful venue for dissemination of information and, more importantly, some animated debate about current issues. It does not provide the forum for public education that Dr. Fraser might have preferred to see, but it does provide an welcome opportunity for sharing of ideas and alerting members to issues of potential interest and relevance.


The great publishing success of the first 25 years was the John Warkentin-edited book entitled Canada: A Geographical Interpretation which represented the Association's contribution to the celebration of Canada's Centennial. A french-language version of this Canadian classic was edited and translated by Ludger Beauregard, and published in 1970. This success has been at least equalled during the second quarter-century by the magnificent four-volume Canadian Association of Geographers Series in Canadian Geography under the general editorship of Cole Harris. Discussions about the possibility of creating such a series began in the mid-eighties, but it was not until 1993 that the first one appeared. The series consists of the following volumes:


  • Canada's Cold Environments (1993) Edited by Hugh M. French and Olav Slaymaker.

  • The Changing Social Geography of Canadian Cities (1993) Edited by Larry S. Bourneand David Ley.

  • Canada and the Global Economy: The geography of structural and technological change (1996) Edited by John N.H. Britton.

  • The Surface Climates of Canada (1997) Edited by W.G. Bailey, Timothy R. Oke and Wayne R. Rouse.


They will serve for a long time as outstanding indicators of the breadth and excellence of current geographical research. It is no surprise at all that several of these authors have been the recipient of the CAG awards for scholarly excellence which have been available annually, but not always awarded, since 1972.


So, the CAG has survived to see its 50th birthday, and it continues to prosper, as has the geographical community in Canada as a whole. The CAG Directory for 2000 lists 47 Departments of Geography in the country, and indicates that approximately 11,000 undergraduate students are pursuing either Honours (approximately 3,000) or general degrees. There are, in addition, just over 900 Master's students, and about 500 Doctoral candidates.


Membership continues to be a problem, however. The number of members topped 1,000 in 1970, and the by the time of the 25th anniversary in 1976 there were more than 1,300. By 1991 membership had risen to what may be an all-time high of 1,448, but it has dropped precipitously since then. In 1991 there were only 771 members, fewer than there had been in 1967, although there was a slight rebound to 841 the next year. What is perhaps most distressing about the membership profile is that at present the Association has only 192 student members. Given the number of students enrolled in geography programs, this is a serious problem. The future health and vitality of the Association will depend on the commitment of our students. But students will emulate their professors, and if the latter are not members, there is no role model to follow. But people will only join, and remain members if they perceive that value will be added to their professional and personal lives by doing so. Those of us who have been members for a long time know this to be true. Our challenge is to demonstrate this truth to others.

At the end of his summary of the first 25 years of the CAG's existence Lew Robinson said:

And so the CAG was born. It certainly was not "national" in those early years; it was really an association of geographers in a few universities of Quebec and Ontario, plus a government group in Ottawa. But its formation was a major step in the evolution of geography in Canada. Its future growth paralleled the areal expansion of geography and geographers across Canada during the 1950's. I think we had a strong beginning in the five years between 1946 and 1951, and we created a strong, and more importantly perhaps, a friendly Association. In the 25 years that followed, Canadian geography and the CAG have grown into thriving and energetic young adulthood.

The intellectual growth of Canadian geography has continued now for a half-century, although the goals have shifted as the discipline has matured, as they have in all academic disciplines. The nature of the shift is outlined in an admirable summary of our First Fifty by the Anniversary Year President, Audrey Kobayashi. With respect to the changing foci of the discipline she says (2001: 5):

...the quest for a body of knowledge truly our own has continued to preoccupy Canadian geographers. The quest has been marked equally by a sincere, and often thoughtful, attempt to link the concerns of geographers with those of national public policy, and by the equally sincere concern to establish geographical knowledge of Canada distinct from that of both the United States, with its threat of cultural imperialism and, to a much lesser extent, Britain, with its continuing though diminishing colonial patronage. 'Our own' geography has often been expressed in terms of Canada's overwhelming size, and attendant challenges for transportation, communication, resource extraction, cultural diversity and population distribution.

In describing the current state of Canadian geography she says:

...over the past fifty years Canada has undergone profound changes in virtually every aspect of its geography (and) the discipline has gone through a series of transformations that have influenced strongly how we geographers imagine our nation. ... (The writers in this colume) no longer aspire to complete the regional survey of Canada and I suspect that most of them have little sense of a disciplinary territory that is truly our own. (There has been ) an epistemological shift in recent years from the hope that we could discover what is to be known about the geography of Canada, to the recognition that such knowledge is a social construction.

The special issue of The Canadian Geographer to which these remarks serve as part of the introduction contains essays by 34 outstanding Canadian geographers addressing some of the major issues that comprise, or confront, the geography of Canada at the turn of the millennium. And it, like the Warkentin, and Hamelin and Beauregard volumes will serve as a long-lasting touchstone for those who come along behind those of us who grew to maturity in the Association's First Fifty.


The author has made liberal use of the essays collected in Hamelin, L-E., and L. Beauregard (1979) Rétrospective 1951-1976.  The Canadian Association of Geographers Directory 2000 compiled and edited by Harun Rasid was also a useful source.  And Volume 45, Number 1 (Apring 2001) of The Canadian Geographer should not be missed, especially the introduction by guest-editor and Association President Audrey Kobayashi, "Truly our own: Canadian geography 50 years after/Un symbole national: le Géographe canadien après 50 ans". 

The individual papers in this now-scarce volume are:

  • "Objectifs de la réunion" par Louis-Edmond Hamelin

  • "The development of the Canadian Association of Geographers 1951-1976" by J. Keith Fraser

  • "Geography in Canada 25 years ago" by J. Lewis Robinson

  • "On neoclassicism in economic geography theory" by Leslie J. King

  • "Épistémologie de la géographie au Canada français" par Ludger Beauregard

  • "Le géographe dans la société" par Pierre Camu

  • "Geographers and Canadian society" by William Wonders

  • "The CAG as seen by its members" by Herbert A. Whitney and Luc Bureau

  • "Comments on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the CAG" by Trevor Lloyd

  • "Tableau de la géographie québécoise" par Louis Trotier

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