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A Tale from the Map Vault

By Jeffrey Murray, Senior Archivist, Library and Archives Canada

One of the first maps I acquired for Library and Archives Canada was a colourful wall map of Quebec by a well-known Montréal company. After it sat in the map vault for a while, I noticed that it contained a serious mistake -- or at least, what I thought was a mistake. For some reason, the publisher had failed to show the Labrador border. In fact, all of Labrador was included as part of Quebec. I immediately wondered how a respectable company could make what I thought was such an obvious mistake, and I questioned whether the Archives should keep such map.

Image of a map entitled Le Quebec d’aujourd’hui, 1985
Figure 1. Although all other boundaries are clearly shown on this 1985 map of Quebec, the border with Labrador -- in fact any mention of Labrador -- has been omitted. However, a more recent edition of the map now includes the Quebec-Labrador border.
(Library and Archives Canada, NMC 86240; source: Les Éditions Jules Châtelain Inc. Reproduced with the permission of Les Éditions Brault et Bouthillier Inc.).

When I pointed out the problem to a co-worker, I was astounded when he suggested that it was probably not a mistake. He explained that there has been a long-standing dispute over the Labrador-Quebec border. Since the company that made the map sold most of its products in Quebec, it had probably designed the map to reflect the opinions of one side in the dispute.

Just so I would not get smug about my discovery, my co-worker showed me other maps that also presented opinions and ideas, rather than facts. He pointed to railway maps from the early 1900s that had been distributed to tourists and immigrants. The maps failed to show competing railway services and seemed to pretend that their competition did not exist.

Even government maps are not immune to twisting the truth. My colleague pulled out old topographic maps that clearly located municipal dumps -- dumps that later editions of the same maps showed as parks or parts of subdivisions without any mention that they had been built on reclaimed land.

Image of a map entitled Traversing the Great Wheat Region, 1881
Figure 2. In this 1881 map, the Canadian Pacific Railway tried to make western lands seem more inviting for settlement by suggesting that it was adequately serviced by rail. The map draws the viewer's attention to a completed transcontinental rail line, but the lack of station stops west of Swift Current suggests otherwise. The map also shows branch railways feeding into the main CPR line that were not opened until years later.
(Library and Archives Canada, NMC 11868)

I was speechless. I had always been taught that maps were faithful representations of the earth's surface, and yet here were maps that were full of lies!

We tend to think of maps as honest portraits of the ground beneath our feet, about as trustworthy as a family photograph. It is easy for corporations and governments to take advantage of this trust to pass along mistruths. But of course, the public's perception of maps could not be more wrong. "The image on a map is drawn by human hands, controlled by operations in a human mind,"1 wrote the American geographer John Kirkland Wright in 1942. When we stop to think about it, we realize it is inevitable that maps are subject to distortion by the people who make them and that these distortions can be used to influence public opinion.

Image of a map entitled Alaska, 1898
Figure 3. This map of Yukon Territory and Alaska was distributed at the height of the Klondike gold rush in 1898. It was designed to stimulate the public's excitement for the unlimited potential of the region. The map is coloured a bright yellow and all the unexplored river valleys are labelled "gold fields". These enhancements made the area appear to be paved in gold when in fact there was only one field (albeit a very rich field) outside Dawson City.
(Library and Archives Canada, NMC 78696)

In most cases, the distortions are necessary. The world is round and a map is flat. There is simply no way to put a round surface onto a flat piece of paper without introducing distortion. Mapmakers (also called cartographers) can choose a projection that preserves either the shape of a landmass or its relative size, but they cannot do both in the same map. What is more, the earth's surface is simply far too complicated for a mapmaker to reproduce all of it together. For this reason, all maps are selective in what they show; they offer a partial view of reality in order to help the user see what is important.

Road widths on highway maps, for example, are always drawn at a larger scale than that used for the rest of the map. Sometimes the line thickness will exaggerate the real width of the road by as much as 100 times. Most mapmakers will also ignore many of the features in the landscape that the road passes through -- the swamps, hills, and fields -- so as to simplify the map and not confuse the reader with a lot of details. If highway maps were not enhanced in this fashion, the roads would be un-noticeable and the map would be useless as a guide to travellers. This is the contradiction faced by every mapmaker: to present a useful picture of the earth's surface, every good map must tell what Professor Mark Monmonier of Syracuse University calls "little white lies."

Image of a map entitled The North Atlantic Trading Company, ca. 1900
Figure 4. The North Atlantic Trading Company -- a company promoting immigration to Canada -- printed this map on the back of a promotional leaflet in the early 1900s. The map shrinks the North Atlantic to about half of its real size (in this map it is not even as wide as North America). By bringing the two continents closer together, the company no doubt hoped that Canada would appear more accessible and more inviting to prospective immigrants from Europe.
(Library and Archives Canada, C-75836)

What really surprised me, though, was how easily dishonest mapmakers can manipulate these little white lies to suit the needs of one group over another. Just by changing the way a map's symbols, scale, and projection are presented, some "realities" can be improved and others buried, and certain ideas suggested to the reader that might not otherwise occur.

Take colours for example. Maps of the British Empire traditionally show all the member countries in "British red." But today, red also has a strong connection with communism. If mapmakers in non-communist parts of the world want to create a negative impression about certain countries or suggest that a region may be unfriendly, they will frequently colour them red. In the 1970's, a Canadian organization used this technique to show the countries hostile to Israel. It coloured all the Arab states surrounding Israel a bright red. This method of manipulation is very effective because it is impossible for a reader to look at the map without taking in the symbols (such as colour) and their associated messages.

Image of a map entitled One Hundred Years Old, 1955
Figure 5. Produced in 1955 by the Canadian General Electric Company, this map commemorates the industrial development that would carry Canada to its 1967 centennial. Many of the projects shown relate to the massive consumption of electricity, suggesting the Company may have had its own interests in mind when compiling the map.
(Library and Archives Canada, NMC 25081; source: General Electric Canada.Reproduced with the permission of General Electric Canada Inc.)

Because it is so easy to distort a map to suit a certain group's needs, and because people tend to accept these images as the truth, you can find deceptive maps almost anywhere: in magazines, posters, postage stamps, newspapers and textbooks, as well as on television. "People trust maps," explains Mark Monmonier, "and intriguing maps attract the eye as well as connote authority. Naïve citizens willingly accept as truth maps based on a biased and sometimes fraudulent selection of facts." 2 In other words, a distorted map is a valuable propaganda tool; it lets you convey certain ideas about the world under the guise of communicating objective geographic information. When the user shares the views of the mapmaker, the bias in maps can be very difficult to identify. But when the mapmaker's values differ from the user's, the resulting map can cause confusion, as the Labrador-less map did for me.

Image of a map entitled Upside Down World Map, 1999
Figure 6. Countries in the southern hemisphere are beginning to question conventional standards used by cartographers. They feel that European mapmakers committed an act of imperialism in the 17th century when they began placing their own continent at the top and centre of the page. This upside down map tries to redress this imbalance by standing the world on what we usually think of as its head. When confronted by such unconventional images, the subjectivity in maps becomes more apparent.
(Library and Archives Canada, e002414675; source: Terralink International Limited. Reproduced with the permission of Terralink)

With mass communication now playing such a vital role in society, any group that uses maps to support its ideas not only becomes better known but ultimately may attain better access to the distribution of power, prestige and wealth. So it is not surprising that the ideas transmitted through maps are not random, but are deeply connected with the interests of certain parts of society.

If mapmakers were more willing to discuss the messages that are hidden in their maps, the public would be better able to "read between the lines" and evaluate maps on their own. There is a fine distinction between the "white lies" normally tolerated in good maps and the distortions that are used to persuade and deceive. Perhaps no map should ever be looked at in isolation without consideration for the broader aims of those who made it.

In the end, I decided to keep the Labrador-less map of Quebec. Although controversial, it reflects the perceptions of its maker and the times in which we live. It will surely have historical interest in years to come. Furthermore, it illustrates perfectly that there is a lot more to maps than meets the eye.


1. John Kirkland Wright, "Map Makers are Human." Human Nature in Geography: Fourteen Papers, 1925-1965 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966: 33).

2. Mark Monmonier, How to Lie with Maps (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991: 87).

Test Yourself: Truth, Lies & Opinion

Perhaps you should take a second look at the road maps that you keep stashed in the glove compartment of your car, or the atlas that sits on the bookshelf in your study. Chances are, the maps have been distorted to some extent. This section presents a selection of maps from the collections of Library and Archives Canada where the distortions deliberately attempt to influence the viewer's opinion.

Are there any deceptions?

To help you, the "Hint" button provides some background on the map, specifically who the mapmaker was and when the map was created. The "Answer" button provides a detailed explanation of how the mapmaker distorted the image to present a biased message.

Image of a map entitled Air Offensive against Germany, ca. 1942
Figure 7. "Allied air offensive against Germany."
(Library and Archives Canada, NMC 86740)
Hint      Answer

Image of a map entitled Triangle Tour of British Columbia, ca. 1927
Figure 8. "The triangle tour of British Columbia"
(Library and Archives Canada, NMC 126592)
Hint      Answer

Image of a map entitled The Arab Lie about Israel, 1973
Figure 9. "Visual proof of the Arab lie about Israel 'aggression'"
(Library and Archives Canada, NMC 88006)
Hint      Answer

Image of a map entitled The British Empire, 1893
Figure 10. "The British Empire map of the world on Mercator's projection"
(Library and Archives Canada, NMC 16992)
Hint      Answer

Image of a map entitled Britons, Behold Your Empire, ca. 1906
Figure 11. "The world-wide possessions of the British people."
(Library and Archives Canada, NMC 8207)
Hint      Answer

Image of a map entitled The English Empire in North America, 1755
Figure 12. "A new and accurate map of the English Empire in North America representing their rightful claim as confirm'd by charters, and the formal surrender of their Indian friends, likewise the encroachments of the French with the several forts they have unjustly erected herein."
(Library and Archives Canada, NMC 21053)
Hint      Answer

Further Reading

How to Lie With Maps, by Mark Monmonier. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. 207 p.

  • With tongue-in-cheek, Monmonier shows his readers how mapmakers can make small changes and turn their maps into instruments of persuasion. This book is written for adult readers.

Lie of the Land: The Secret Life of Maps, by April Carlucci and Peter Barber. London: The British Library, 2001. 64 p.

  • This exhibition catalogue presents thirty maps from the collections of The British Library and discusses in detail their hidden messages.

"The Map Is the Message," by Jeffrey S. Murray. The Geographical Magazine. Vol. 59, No. 5. P. 237-241.

  • Murray provides a brief overview on how cartographers can manipulate a map's scale, projection and symbols to present a biased image. The article is written for adult readers.

The Road to There: Mapmakers and Their Stories, by Val Ross. Toronto: Tundra Books, 2003. 146 p.

  • Ross presents a popularized history of the world's greatest mapmakers. She begins with the portolan charts of the ancients and ends with NASA's space probes. Written for a juvenile audience, The Road to There is a fascinating, well-illustrated history.

All About Maps

  • This web site is an introduction to the art and science of mapmaking. The site is written for a juvenile audience.

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