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My speech to the Saskatchewan Land Surveyors Association AGM

Here is (more or less, since I didn’t read it word for word) the speech I gave today at the Past Presidents’ Luncheon that closed off the 100th Annual General Meeting of the Saskatchewan Land Surveyors Association:


First, I’d like to thank you very much for asking me to be your guest speaker at today’s Past President’s Luncheon. It’s a great honour, and it’s certainly made for a memorable launch of Land Surveying in Saskatchewan: Laying the Groundwork for Property Rights and Development. I’ve written more than 40 books so far in my career, of one sort or another, but this was the first one launched at Government House with a speech by the Lieutenant Governor. I guess Jack Weibe must have been busy the week my very first book, Using Microsoft Publisher for Windows 95, came out 15 years, or I’m sure he would have insisted on being part of its launch…

I thought it might be interesting to begin this speech by telling you about my lifelong interest in surveying, how I used to envy the surveyors we would pass by the side of the road during long car trips when I was a child, how I dreamed of one day owning my very own transit, and even saved up my allowance for years hoping to buy one.

And no doubt that would have been a very interesting way to begin this speech, but if would, alas, have been entirely fictional, because in fact the sum total of knowledge about surveying I brought to the writing of this book was…what’s the technical term? Oh, yeah…zilch.

Oh, all right, I exaggerate slightly. It would be more accurate to say that what the small amount of knowledge I did have was singularly unhelpful.

What little exposure I did have to surveying began, oddly enough, with a children’s book. As a kid, I loved the books by British writer Arthur Ransome, collectively called the Swallows and Amazons series, about children who love sailing. One set of the children, the Walker family, like to imagine themselves as explorers, and in one of the books, Secret Water, they are “marooned” in an area of tidal islands on the east coast of England, and set out to properly map the islands using those most basic of surveying instruments, poles and compasses. They measure a baseline, take bearings from both ends on a farm in the middle of the island to pinpoint its location, and proceed to triangulate their way around the rest of the islands, in the course of having other adventures like getting caught on a causeway by the rising tide and finding mysterious footprints in the mud.

My other early exposure to surveying came from science fiction. Today I’m a science fiction author, but long before that I was a science fiction reader (I blame my two older brothers, both of whom read the stuff and left it laying around for their impressionable little brother to pick up.) One of the staples of science fiction, especially from the era when I started reading it, is the survey team that explores strange new planets. Google  “survey team” + “science fiction” and you get more than 3,500 results. Philip K. Dick—author of the books Hollywood turned into the movies Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report—even wrote a story titled “Survey Team.”

But most science fiction “survey team” stories are described in terms like one by Clifford D. Simak in which “a survey team to a strange planet finds an animal that could end world hunger, but dare they eat it?”, which I’m guessing is not a problem terrestrial survey teams deal with on a regular basis, so those stories were not perhaps particularly educational with regard to the actual practice of surveying here on Earth.

(Still, it has gotten me thinking about exciting science fiction and fantasy stories you could write inspired by surveying, stories like, “The Phantom Rodman,” or “Sir Theodolite and the Search for the Lost Monument.” Or my favorite, “Gunter and the Chains of Doom.”

It’s odd I wasn’t more aware of surveying considering I grew up on the prairie. We moved up here in 1967 from Tulia, Texas, a little cotton town in the Texas panhandle. There’s a saying in that part of Texas that there’s nothing between you and the North Pole except for a few strands of barbed wire, and they’re mostly down. Driving from there to here is a lot like driving over a patchwork quilt, and yet it never occurred to me to wonder who had laid out the pattern…although since I had just turned eight, perhaps I can be forgiven.

Once we were here, I was always running into the legacy of surveying without even realizing it. My dad taught at Western Christian College, then at North Weyburn, the airport about four miles outside of Weyburn, and as a kid I roamed over a pretty good swatch of prairie out there on foot or on my bike. I know I occasionally came across these strange metal objects stuck in the ground, metal caps with markings on them, and wondered what they were…but not enough to actually ask anybody who might know, I guess!

The other artefact of surveying that I noticed at an early age was…the correction line. We’d be driving along a grid road or highway, straight as an arrow, and suddenly for no reason I could see there’d be a big curve in the road, we’d change direction for a short distance, and then we’d resume heading north or south. I heard the term “correction line,” and I couldn’t figure out why the road builders had planned so badly that there’d be that much to correct. The only thing I could figure was that they must have started the road at both ends and the correction line was where they came together and realized they’d mis-aimed by a few hundred feet.

You would have thought, by the time I became a newspaper reporter at the Weyburn Review in 1980, that I might have twigged a bit more to work of surveyors that defines property in the province…but you’d be wrong.

I might have known more had I actually gotten that summer job, when I was 17 or so, working as a rodman. I interviewed for it, but I suspect my lack of enthusiasm for anything that would require me to stand outside in the sun for hours at a time with every possibility of days at a time going past when I would not be able to return home to sleep in my own bed and enjoy my Mom’s cooking was palpable. I didn’t get the job.

Anyway, once I was working at the Review, I began to run into other odd things I didn’t really understand. Like parcels of land described by mysterious codes: things like NE15-6-20-W2. Amazingly, this actually seemed to mean something to the people who ran rural municipalities or lived out in the country. To me they might as well have been Swahili. (Worse, actually: as a Star Trek fan I actually know one word of Swahili, “uhuru,” meaning “freedom,” because that was where the name of Nichelle Nichols’ character Uhura came from…but I digress. Did I mention most of my public speaking is done at science fiction conventions? You guys dress better.)

Nor, though I drove over them all the time, did I understand even yet those mysterious correction lines. They were just a fact of Saskatchewan life.

And the truth is—the rather embarrassing truth, really—is that I still didn’t understand those codes or the purpose of correction lines until I wrote the first chapter of Land Surveying in Saskatchewan: Laying the Groundwork for Property Rights and Development, and I trust that’s the last time I have to say the full title. (Although it’s actually a bit shorter than my last book along these lines, A Safe and Prosperous Future: 100 years of engineering and geosciences achievements in Saskatchewan.)

So you might be wondering, “Why did they get this guy to write our history?”

To which I answer, “You’ll have to ask the committee.”

But honestly, I believe that my relative ignorance may have served the project well, because I think books of this nature are most useful, not to the organization whose history they tell, although I certainly hope you all enjoy reading it, but to the general public—people who, like me, don’t know a thing about the topic until they start the book: start writing it, in my case, start reading it, in theirs.

What did I learn in writing this book?

Well, chapter by chapter, it goes something like this:

Chapter 1 is about the history of surveying in general, and the Dominion Land Surveyors in particular. This is where I learned why Land Surveying is sometimes called “the world’s second-oldest profession,” which I rather hoped might have been the title of the book…since “Gunter and the Chains of Doom” was apparently out right from the start.

But seriously, the importance of surveying really begins to sink home when you realize how long it has been practiced, and how it underpins everything else. And the Dominion Land Survey of western Canada has to be one of the great unsung stories of Canadian history.

But the most important thing I learned in writing Chapter 1: what those mysterious numbers mean…and what a correction line is. Apparently correction lines don’t correct some horrible mistake made by the surveyors and/or road builders at all; they’re a correction forced by the curvature of the Earth. Who knew?

Oh, well, OK, lots of people. But maybe more people will know now, thanks to this book.

Chapter 2 deals with the birth of the SLSA, of course, but before the provincial organizations were formed, there was a Dominion Land Surveyors’ Association, and I enjoyed this account of how it was formed:

In 1882, record snowfall and heavy spring rains made the land around Winnipeg almost impassable. Stuck in the city, a group of Dominion Land Surveyors got together “for the purpose of discussing the advisability of asking for an increase of pay.”

Dominion Land Surveyor O.J. Klotz wrote about the momentous occasion in his diary on Saturday, April 22: “I was elected chairman, and after some discussion a committee was appointed to draft a memorial. Bray, J. Garden and A. Cotton came to my room afterwards and we had several bottles of beer.”

Two days later the “memorial” Klotz had drawn up was approved at a second meeting and the group proposed forming an association “to further our mutual interests and to meet in Ottawa next winter,” Klotz wrote. “Whereupon I was unanimously elected president and A.F. Cotton, secretary-treasurer, and we immediately formed a fund for current expenses of two dollars per man.”

It wasn’t until 1910, of course, that the Saskatchewan Land Surveyors Association was formed. Again, from the book:

On March 8, 1910, the district surveyors met again, in the District Surveyor’s office in Regina, to consider the report of the previous year’s committee, and decided to seek the incorporation of an association with the primary purpose of gaining some autonomy for the profession. A motion was passed “that an Association of Saskatchewan Land Surveyors” be formed, and J.L.R. Parsons was elected president. W.R. Reilly was elected vice-president, and A.C. Garner, H.K. Moberly and M.B. Weekes formed an executive committee of three.

(An aside: apparently it never occurred to anyone back then that anyone in the future would ever wish to know the actual first name of an individual; initials would suffice for all time.)

The new executive’s first order of business was to investigate what would be involved in incorporation and “if it could be done for less than $50.”

Membership fees for the (then still strictly voluntary) association were set at $5 to start, then $2 a year thereafter, payable in advance. After some discussion, the straightforward “The Association of Saskatchewan Land Surveyors” was adopted as the organization’s name (though it wouldn’t remain the name for long).

One topic of considerable debate at that first meeting was the schedule of fees a surveyor could charge. The daily rate was set at $12, and the rate a surveyor could charge an articled pupil for instruction was set at $100 a year.

I suspect that the daily rate has gone up a bit since then.

Chapter 3 is called, “What do SLSA members do?” I trust those of you who are SLSA members actually know what you do, so I won’t describe the chapter in detail, but I didn’t know that they did all the things described in this chapter, and I’m sure there’ll be a lot of readers who, like me, were unaware of the challenges involved in, for example, locating those old monuments out in the field.

One of my favourite anecdotes appears in this chapter, provided by Dan Babiuk:

“When we were out in the Great Sand Hills looking for section corners, I noticed these short telephone poles. They were maybe six feet high. I thought in the ’30s they must have run short of money to buy real telephone poles.

“A farmer came by, and I said, ‘I can’t find the monument.’

“He said, ‘There’s a lot of blow dirt here.’

“He showed me where to dig down. I dug down more than my height, while the sand kept blowing in, and sure enough we found the survey monuments about six or eight feet down.”

The telephone poles, it turned out, were normal height: they’d just been partially swallowed by drifting dirt over the years.

Chapter 4 was one of my favourites. I’ve mentioned my interest in science fiction. Out of that interest, or at least concurrent with it, grew an interest in science. For a long time I thought I’d be a scientist, but instead I ended up as a writer who writes about science quite a bit. And in Chapter 4, I got to explore the technology of surveying, and how it has changed over the years. I learned about gromas and chorobates, plane tables and astrolabes, theodolites and transits…and then tellurometers, total stations, inertial survey systems and, of course the Global Positioning Satellite system.

Having already written about the Dominion Land Survey, though, I felt a bit by the time I got the end of this chapter like some old curmudgeon going on about how the young whippersnappers of today don’t know how good they’ve got it. Maybe it was because of this explanation, from the 1903 Manual of Instruction for the Survey of Dominion Lands explain just what was involved in compensating for temperature in the good old days when using a Gunter chain:

“As every ten degrees Fahr. more or less heat would give to measurements a corresponding increment or decrement of somewhat more than half a link to the mile, and since in the North-west Territory a season of field work, extending from early spring to

beginning of winter, will include variations of temperature covering a range of at least 80 degrees, and sometimes 100 degrees, the side of a block chained in July or August might, from this cause alone, differ from that of an adjacent one measured in November, fully a chain…

“The surveyor will, therefore, apply this correction for all variations of 10 and over, from the temperature for which the chains are compared or adjusted to standard. This he can conveniently do, by allowing half a link to the mile for each ten degrees Fahr., not attempting to note or estimate the temperature of his chain to less than ten degrees. This will keep his corrections in the convenient form of multiples of half links, and render tables unnecessary.

“A thermometer attached to the end of a chain near the hand, fails to give the temperature of the rest of the chain; fastened to the middle and allowed to drag on the ground, it is liable to derangement and injury, it is therefore extremely difficult for the surveyor to obtain even a rough approximation of the temperature of his chain. By repeating at convenient times, and under varied conditions, the experiment of placing a pocket thermometer on, or in, the grass or brushwood, as nearly as possible, similarly to the average position of the chain during the trial, and comparing the temperature attained by the thermometer so placed with that of the air, or indicated by a thermometer attached to the leading end of the chain, a rough idea may be got of the allowances that should, in practice, be made in taking the indications of the latter, or in rudely estimating the temperature of the chain from that of the air at the time.

“Attention is to be paid to the condition of the chain during measurement, whether wet or dry; a wet chain will have its temperature lowered to a great extent, especially in dry weather. The colour of the chain also has some influence; a black or dark blue chain will absorb more heat than a bright one.”

As if they didn’t have enough to do.

Chapter 5 deals with the history of monuments, and draws heavily on a history paper, a monumental history paper, you might say, by Peter Unger, written in 1986. All I can say of the early history of monuments is that it’s my distinct impression that somebody in Ottawa was justifying the existence of their job by making changes more or less at random, especially when it came to the details of pits and mounds.

Chapter 6 is all about the process of becoming an SLS, in the past and today, and by this point, I kind of wished I had become one, the work sounded so interesting. Alas, “surveyor” did not come up as a possible career choice back in high school, or at least my guidance counsellor never mentioned it. (When I took career aptitude tests, I mostly got pointed to things like architect and forest ranger, with strong indications that I should stay as far away as possible from any of the “helping professions.” I’m not sure where writer fell on the list of possibilities, but I’m quite sure I never saw “surveyor” listed at all.)

Chapter 7 talks about government agencies and their role in surveying, and once again, I was learning stuff right and left. Among other things, I learned the difference between a brown print and a blueprint (I know, I know, one’s brown, one’s blue, I mean I learned how each one is made), but that was just a minor aside: the main thing I learned about was Saskatchewan’s astonishing LAND system, involving the digitization of all of those old Dominion Land Surveyor notebooks, among other things. It’s a truly amazing achievement…and I knew next to nothing about it until I wrote this book.

Finally, the book is rounded out with chapters about specific projects, illustrating the many varied tasks Saskatchewan Land Surveyors undertake, and a look ahead at the future of land surveying.

I think the chapter about what projects Land Surveyors have undertaken in the past few years was one of my favourites. For one thing, one of the projects discussed was the Rafferty-Alameda Dam project, which was a major topic of debate back when I was working as a reporter and then editor of the Weyburn Review. That was interesting, too, in light of the earlier chapter on changing technology. Those eight years in the 1980s that I was at the Weyburn Review saw us move from manual typewriters to working directly on a computer system that boasted a massive hard drive to store data on: a whopping 20 MB of data, in a device twice the size of a microwave oven.

An anecdote from Pat Maloney about working on Rafferty-Alameda reminded me of how much technology changed about that time for everyone:

“The construction crew and the supervisory crews from SPC had just come off the building of the Nipawin Dam,” Maloney remembers. All the surveying work and all of the calculation was done manually at Nipawin. But at Rafferty, for the first time, “we used digital data and computer programs to calculate volumes and things like that.”

In fact, says Maloney, “The first PC I sat in front of was at Rafferty. I’ve got the field equipment sitting in my office, and all the guys laugh at it for being archaic.”

The computer he used at Rafferty was an IBM 286 with a 40 MB hard drive running DOS 3.3. It ran at 6 to 8 megahertz. (On the “turbo” setting you could get 10 megahertz, but on the turbo setting “the software would pile up and crash.”)

“It was interesting,” Maloney says. “We would do volume calculations on the earthwork, and using the 286, one calculation was probably 30 to 45 minutes. That seems horrendous by today’s standard, but given that on the Nipawin Dam that probably would have been a week’s work for six or eight guys hunched over drafting tables, it was pretty impressive.”

Throughout the process of writing this chapter, I was impressed by the variety of work surveyors may be called upon to do, from helping an artist mow a giant Canada Summer Games logo into a field outside Regina to surveying the sites for the giant windmills generating electricity in the southwest trying to find a channel in the South Saskatchewan River in Saskatoon down which rowing races could be held without anyone running aground.

And the variety of tasks described in this chapter made me realize that though the work of the Dominion Land Surveyors may be long over, the work of Saskatchewan Land Surveyors continues and continues to be vital.

The final chapter talks about the future of land surveying, with challenges ahead such as the possible transition to a coordinate based cadastral system and the necessity of maintaining the survey framework that already exists—plus, of course, the need for new surveyors to continue to enter the profession.

I learned a tremendous lot about surveyors and surveying writing this book, and came away with an immense appreciation for the profession and its importance. It may not be quite as exciting as surveying in science fiction, but on the other hand, the fatality rate among Saskatchewan Land Surveyors is much lower than it tends to be among science fictional surveyors, who are always getting blasted or eaten or infected or taken over by mind-controlling parasites.

And much as I enjoy my fictional worlds, I live in the real one, and it is in this world that Saskatchewan Land Surveyors, and all land surveyors, make their mark.

I can’t think of any better way to conclude this speech than with the conclusion of the book:

Ultimately, all that we really know about the future is that it won’t be like the past. Except, that is, in one respect:

Saskatchewan Land Surveyors will continue to be an integral part of it, maintaining the cadastral survey that underpins the every piece of property, surveying new roads, subdivisions, building sites, mines, bridges, resorts…in short, continuing to, literally, lay the groundwork for Saskatchewan’s future growth and prosperity…

…just as they have for the last one hundred years.

Thank you.

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