Responsibility for surveying, or measuring, Crown land has traditionally rested with the Surveyor General. The Surveyor General once managed many of the King's Works (such as roads, gardens and woods); however, in Canada the position has long focused on the survey, settlement and sustainable use of Crown land.
Royal Instructions were issued in 1763 that required an accurate survey to be made of Quebec by the Surveyor General so as to allow for the security of property. In 1764, Samuel Holland was appointed Surveyor General of Lands of the Northern District, which consisted of all the Crown territories north of the Potomac River and extending west “as far as His Majesty's dominions extend.” This included what is now all of the northeastern United States and much of what we now know as eastern Canada – Ontario, Quebec and parts of Atlantic Canada.
Events of the next decade changed that profoundly of course but Holland's first task was to survey Prince Edward Island, the Magdalene Islands and Cape Breton Island. He delegated the task of surveying the boundary between the provinces of New York and Quebec, which line subsequently became part of the Canada - United States boundary.
The position was abolished in 1837 but after Confederation, orderly settlement of huge tracts of land that extended from north-eastern Ontario to north-western British Columbia meant that the position of Surveyor General was revived. John Stoughton Dennis became the first Surveyor General of Canada in 1871.
Survey preceded settlement, but followed the signing of (some) treaties with First Nations. This allowed Canada to assess which areas were suitable for agriculture, for forestry, and for mining; to set aside parcels of land for the Hudson Bay Company and for the Canadian Pacific Railway and to subdivide the land into townships of six square miles, sections of 640 acres, and quarter-sections of 160 acres.
The Surveyor General's role was to efficiently manage Crown lands as the Crown's boundary and cadastral survey expert. Since that era, Canada has seen that expertise extend through 11 Surveyors General, over a period of 138 years. Originally head of the Dominion Lands Branch within the Department of State, the Surveyor General now heads the Surveyor General Branch within the Department of Natural Resources.
Although settling people on the land was itself a significant role, the mandate of the Surveyor General has evolved since the time of Holland. The Surveyor General now has the legal responsibility, subject to the direction of the Minister of Natural Resources, to manage all surveys on Canada Lands, and to maintain all the original plans, journals, field notes and other papers connected with those surveys. Canada Lands consist, generally, of Indian Reserves, National Parks, the offshore and land in Yukon, Northwest and Nunavut Territories. The Canada Lands Surveys Act sets out that surveying Canada Lands is done in accordance with the Surveyor General's instructions. The legislation also sets out that the marked boundaries of a parcel of land are the true boundary lines, after the plan of survey is confirmed. There are more than 20 pieces of federal legislation that set out property rights systems that rely upon the work of the Surveyor General.
However, there are two other aspects of the Surveyor General's mandate that bear examining. First, the Surveyor General has also served since 1996 as the Canadian member of the International Boundary Commission, which is responsible for maintaining the 8,891 km long boundary between Canada and the United States. Second, the Surveyor General is appointed as the Canadian member of the tripartite Alberta-British Columbia Boundary Commission, which is responsible for maintaining the boundary between the two provinces.
The Surveyor General is the Director of the Surveyor General Branch (SGB), which delivers boundary management through two operation centers in Edmonton and Ottawa, and through 10 client liaison units in Amherst, Quebec City, Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina, Edmonton, Vancouver, Whitehorse, Yellowknife and Iqaluit.
This decentralization allows the SGB to be responsive to the needs of First Nations, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, Parks Canada, Justice Canada, provincial and territorial governments, land surveyors, land surveying associations and others who work on or with Canada Lands. It also means proactive involvement with various initiatives, including First Nation land management, treaty land entitlement and additions to reserves, land claim agreements, resource extraction, renewable energy infrastructure, and the marking of boundaries in support of sovereignty.