Dominion Land Survey

From Academic Kids

The Dominion Land Survey is the method used to divide most of western Canada into one-square-mile sections for agricultural and other purposes. It is based on the layout of the Public Land Survey System used in the United States, but has several differences. The DLS is the dominant survey method in the Prairie provinces, but it is also used in British Columbia along the Railway Belt (near the main line of the Canadian Pacific Railway), and in the Peace River Block in the northeast of the province. The survey was begun July 10, 1871, shortly after Manitoba and the North-West Territories became part of Canada. Covering about 800 000 square kilometres, the survey system and its terminology are deeply ingrained in the rural culture of the Prairies.

The most important north–south lines of the survey are the meridians:

The main east–west lines are the base lines. The First Base Line is at 49 north, which forms much of the Canada–United States border in the West. Each subsequent base line is slightly more than 24 miles (about 39 km) to the north of the previous one.

Starting at each intersection of a meridian and a base line and working west (also working east of the First Meridian), nearly square townships are surveyed, which are about six miles (9.8 km) in both north–south and east–west extent. There are two tiers of townships to the north and two tiers to the south of each base line.

Because the east and west edges of townships (range lines) are meridians of longitude, they converge towards the North Pole. Therefore, the north edge of every township is slightly shorter than the south. Only along the base lines do townships have their nominal width from east to west. The two townships to the north of a base line gradually narrow as one moves north, and the two to the south gradually widen as one moves south. Halfway between two base lines, wider-than-nominal townships abut narrower-than-nominal townships. The east and west boundaries of these townships therefore do not align, and north–south roads that follow the survey system have to jog to the east or west. These east–west lines halfway between base lines are called correction lines.

Townships are designated by their township number and range number. Township 1 is the first north of the First Base Line, and the numbers increase to the north. Range numbers recommence with Range 1 at each meridian and increase to the west (east of First Meridian they are numbered eastward). On maps, township numbers are marked in Arabic numerals, but range numbers are often marked in Roman numerals; however, in other contexts Arabic numerals are used for both. Individual townships are designated such as "Township 52, Range 25 west of the Fourth Meridian," abbreviated "52-25-W4." In Manitoba, the First Meridian is the only one used, so the abbreviations are even more terse, e.g., "3-1-W" and "24-2-E."

Missing image

A part of the Dominion Land Survey (convergence of meridians exaggerated). The shaded township is Township 17, Range 8 west of the Third Meridian.

Every township is divided into thirty-six sections, each about one-mile square. Sections are numbered within townships as follows (north at top):

31 32 33 34 35 36
30 29 28 27 26 25
19 20 21 22 23 24
18 17 16 15 14 13
 7  8  9 10 11 12
 6  5  4  3  2  1

In turn, each section is divided into four quarter sections: southeast, southwest, northwest and northeast. The full legal description of a particular quarter section is "the Northeast Quarter of Section 20, Township 52, Range 25 west of the Fourth Meridian", abbreviated "NE-20-52-25-W4."

Between certain sections of a township run road allowances (but not all road allowances have had an actual road built on them). The road allowances add to the size of the township (they do not cut down the size of the sections): this is the reason base lines are not exactly 24 miles apart. In townships surveyed from 1871 to 1880 (most of southern Manitoba, part of southeastern Saskatchewan and a small region near Prince Albert, Saskatchewan), there are 30-metre-wide (1.5-chain-wide) road allowances surrounding every section. In townships surveyed from 1881 to the present, road allowances are reduced both in width and in number. They are 20 metres wide (one chain) and run north–south between all sections; however, there are only three east–west road allowances in each township, on the north side of sections 7 to 12, 19 to 24 and 31 to 36.


Certain sections of townships were reserved for special purposes:

  • As part of the deal that transferred Rupert's Land from the Hudson's Bay Company to Canada, the Bay retained five per cent of the "fertile belt" (south of the North Saskatchewan and Winnipeg rivers). Therefore Section 8 and three-quarters of Section 26 were assigned to the company. Additionally, the fourth quarter of Section 26 in townships whose numbers were divisible by five also belonged to the Bay in order to give the company exactly five per cent. Although the Bay sold all these sections long ago, they are still often locally called "the Bay section" today.
  • The odd-numbered sections (except 11 and 29) were often used for railway land-grants. The Prairies could not be settled without railways, so the Dominion government habitually granted large tracts of land to railway companies as an incentive to build lines. Notably, the Canadian Pacific Railway was granted 101 000 square kilometres for the construction of its first line from Ontario to the Pacific. These sections are colloquially called CPR sections regardless of the railway they were originally granted to.
  • Sections 11 and 29 were school sections. When school boards were formed, they gained title to these sections, which were then sold to fund the initial construction of schools. The rural school buildings were often as not located on school sections.
  • The remaining quarter sections were available as homesteads under the provisions of the Dominion Lands Act, the federal government's plan for settling the North-West. A homesteader paid a $10 fee for a quarter section of his choice. If after three years he had cultivated 12 hectares of land (one-fifth of the quarter) and had built a house (often just a sod house), he gained title to the quarter. Homesteads were available as late as the 1950s, but the bulk of the settlement of the Prairies was 1885 to 1914.


  • McKercher, Robert B., and Wolf, Bertram (1986). Understanding Western Canada's Dominion Land Survey System. Division of Extension and Community Relations, University of Saskatchewan.

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