Aerial Photography in Canada

A Brief History

Aerial photography caught on early and quickly in Canada mainly because of the pioneering efforts and foresight of Captain E.G.D. Deville, Surveyor General of Canada, from 1885 until his death in 1924. Deville was a brilliant scientist, inventor and administrator. At the start of his career, for example, maps were plotted using photographs taken from mountain tops. By the 1920s, regular aerial photography flights for mapping and forestry inventory had been established across the country, largely because of Dr. Deville's efforts and firm belief in the potential of this new surveying method.

Crew of Vickers Viking poses with reconnaissance camera.

It was Britain's donation of a few wartime flying boats and the formation of the Air Board of Canada in 1919 that got aerial photography off the mountain tops and into airplanes in Canada. The Air Board, responsible for the control of commercial and non-military government flying, together with Dr. Deville's department, organized the first experimental survey over Ottawa in 1920.

The results were sufficiently encouraging to establish aerial photography as a revolutionary topographical surveying method. Because of this development, Canada today has one of the most comprehensive storehouses of aerial photographs in the world.

In 1925, the Interdepartmental Committee on Air Surveys (ICAS) and the National Air Photo Library (NAPL) were established to take charge of all federal non-military air-photo activities. Originally part of the Department of the Interior, they are now key components of the Canada Centre for Mapping and Earth Observation, a part of the Earth Sciences Sector of Natural Resources Canada.

Until 1956, most photographic surveys were flown by the Royal Canadian Air Force. Since then, however, all aerial photographs used for federal mapping have been contracted to commercial air survey firms. The federal government initiates the bulk of aerial photography in Canada; the Interdepartmental Committee on Air Surveys (ICAS) supervises and determines, through a bidding process, which contractor will do the photography and sets forth the specifications to be followed. ICAS coordinates all federal aerial photography and works together with the provinces to align federal and provincial programs. ICAS prevents duplication, establishes priorities and, in general, ensures that maximum benefit is derived from each flight.

Over the years, aerial photographic surveys have been made on a regular basis for mapping, charting of the sea coasts, building of highways, town planning and any ground activity where a measure of size or change must be made. Aerial photography provided the first true measure of the size and physical makeup of the surface of Canada. Over the past 50 years, it has played a vital role in such major engineering developments as the Trans-Canada Highway, the Labrador Railway line and the St. Lawrence Seaway. Aerial photography proved invaluable in the opening of the North and in the evaluation of Canada's forest resources. Today, aerial photography remains an essential tool in mapping, the management of forests and waters, in pollution and vegetation damage control, and in urban planning and environmental management.

The National Air Photo Library functions as a national archive, a record centre and an order office. Here, over six million aerial photographs of Canada, including those dating back to the 1920s, are indexed and stored. Each photo is cross-referenced to an index map or flight report that indicates the exact flight path and flight altitude; identifies film type, film number, photo centres, and specifies date, time of exposure, camera and weather conditions for that particular run. The Library handles all inquiries for information on federal aerial photography and processes all requests for federal aerial photographs. The Library and reference centre is open to the public. Here one can view the photographic image of Canada, past and present, side by side.