ArticlePDF Available

WTF—What’s the fabric? The social dimension of defining boundaries using coordinates



Eschew the false dichotomy of coordinates vs monuments; coordinates and monuments (and natural features) are all used to define boundaries. Indeed, there is much discretion as to using coordinates—in legislation, in policy and standards and in practice. Such discretion is exercised by what is reasonable and socially acceptable (according to both surveyors and those possessing or using the parcel).
Dr. Brian Ballantyne
Surveyor General Branch, NRCan
Dueling Ideologies
There is much buzz these days about the extent
of the fabric. This includes observations about “the
rip in the social fabric;”1concerns that “the ongo-
ing rift in the national fabric [vis-à-vis relations
with Indigenous peoples] remains unmediated;”2
and fear that artificial intelligence will “rupture the
fabric of history.”3From the perspective of parcel
fabric, WTF becomes a question of what reason-
ably serves the parcel (i.e., the rights that are con-
strained by the parcel, the uses to which people
wish to put the parcel and the system of land tenure
within the community).
Sadly, this social dimension confronts dueling
ideologies of equal venom. The responses of 65
experts who provided “views on the use of coordi-
nates to define parcel boundaries” in 1999 were
divided between pro and con.4Such a divide persists.
On the one hand, the ideology is that socio-economic
development requires monumented boundaries. This
is reflected in assertions5that monuments:
Preserve the evidence-based cadastre, upon
which Canadian property rights rest.
Are integral parts of the defining-demarcating-
delineating trifecta.
Are required by the hierarchy of evidence.
Are the raison d’etre of surveying, which is
about “putting sticks in the ground.”6
On the other hand, the ideology is that coordi-
nates are a panacea for all that ails parcel fabric, as
reflected in another set of assertions.7Coordinates:
Are a natural off-shoot of sophisticated space-
based location technologies.
Are compatible with electronic submissions GEOMATICA Vol. 70, No. 3, 2016, pp. 7 to 27
Eschew the false dichotomy of coordinates vs monuments; coordinates and monuments (and natural
fea tures) are all used to define boundaries. Indeed, there is much discretion as to using coordinates—in
legis lation, in policy and standards and in practice. Such discretion is exercised by what is reasonable and
socially acceptable (according to both surveyors and those possessing/using the parcel).
Évitez la fausse dichotomie des coordonnées opposées aux monuments; les coordonnées et les monuments
(et les caractéristiques naturelles) sont tous utilisés pour définir les lignes de délimitation. En effet, il y a
beau coup de discrétion en ce qui concerne l’utilisation des coordonnées—dans la législation, dans les poli tiques
et les normes ainsi que dans la pratique. Une telle discrétion est exercée par ce qui est raisonnablement et
socialement acceptable (selon les arpenteurs et ceux qui possèdent ou utilisent la parcelle). Brian Ballantyne
1Lund. Down on the Mountain. From: Cabin Fever. New West Records. 2012.
2Manitoba Metis v Canada, 2012 SCC 14, at para 140.
3Khatchadourian. The doomsday invention. The New Yorker. p. 66. November 23, 2015.
4Ballantyne, et al. Coordinates in context: Technical, social and legal implications of using coordinates-only to
define boundaries. Report to CCOG. August 1999.
5All of which were expressed recently by a senior CLS, to be called CLS-1.
6A view espoused by a CLS at the CCLS meeting—Winnipeg. September 1998. Recounted in: Ballantyne, et al.
Coordinates in context. Report to CCOG. p. 21. 1999.
7All of which were expressed recently by another senior CLS, to be called CLS-2.
and digital cadastres, such that “coordinates
play an important role … in the retracement of
parcel corners.”8
Eliminate the need for anything physical.
Reduce the costs of surveying.
The inverse of such ideologies is to rubbish the
Other. Thus, advocates of monuments assert that
coordinates are the devil’s spawn, because they:
Confuse— at best, coordinates propagate
uncertainty into the parcel fabric; at worst,
they “do violence to the fundamental concept
of the ‘parcel’.”9
Wed parcel fabric to technology at a time when
the Active Control System is under fiscal siege.
Mean the demise of the surveying profession;
not least the associations who rely on the sale
of monuments.
Scorn the needs and desires of landowners,
who crave monuments.
The dueling ideologies were neatly summed
up on the eve of the ACLS Conference in May
2016 as “much conjecture and bullshit.”10
What is lost in the conjecture is that the
sur veying profession in general and the ACLS in
particular have much discretion as to how bound-
aries are defined. The CLS Act is silent as to the use
of monuments or coordinates. It merely sets out
that if monuments are placed, then said monuments
define the “true boundary lines” of parcels, roads
and other subdivisions.11 Territorial legislation,
which relies upon the CLS Act for the parcel fabric,
is also eerily silent. The NWT Land Titles Act
makes no mention of monuments or coordinates;
Regulations pursuant to the Act allow deferred
monuments at the discretion of the Surveyor
General Branch of Natural Resources Canada
(hereafter “SGB”).12
Admittedly, the National Standards for the
Survey of Canada Lands are not silent; they set out
the frequency with which boundaries are to be
mon umented. Moreover, the Standards set out that
monuments can be deferred (i.e. that coordinates
can be used to define boundaries in the short-term)
if acceptable to the land administrator. However, the
Standards are themselves the product of much
con sultation and negotiation; a social exercise that
involved many parties. Thus, there was much dis-
cretion as to the nature of the Standards themselves;
they are not a product of draconian legislation.13
A final example from a provincial regime should
suffice. Since 2014, Alberta Land Surveyors may at
their discretion prepare a hybrid plan of survey of
Crown land dispositions. Such a plan uses a combi-
nation of coordinates and monuments, such that each
corner or deflection point is defined by either a coor-
dinate or a monument, but not by both. Although
guidelines exist as to how a hybrid plan is produced,
the discretion as to whether to use coordinates rather
than monuments rests with the surveyor.14
The corollary to discretion is that the use of
coordinates is not foisted on the person on the land,
nor is the person on the land thwarted in a desire for
monuments. In 1850, Robinson negotiated on
behalf of the Crown the treaties with First Nations
who lived north and east of Lakes Huron and
Superior. Robinson informed the Crown that “the
Chiefs are desirous that their several reservations
should be marked by proper posts or monuments,
and I have told them the Government would prob-
ably send someone next spring for that purpose.”
First Nations desired monuments to demarcate their
Reserve boundaries—uch desire was not thwarted
nor was an alternative (coordinates) foisted.15
Déjà Vu
Sadly, the dueling ideologies and the systemic
conjecture are not new. In 1975, the Conference on
the Concepts of a Modern Cadastre concluded that
“there does not appear to be any consensus of
opin ion as to whether coordinate values alone
should be relied upon for the definition of property
8de Rijcke. 2016. Principles of boundary law in Canada. Four Point Learning. p. 424.
9de Rijcke. 1999. Recounted in: Ballantyne, et al. Coordinates in context. Report to CCOG. p. 22.
10 From yet another senior CLS, to be called CLS-3.
11 Canada Lands Surveys Act, s32.
12 SGB regulates the parcel fabric on Canada Lands and implements the CLS Act.
13 To be clear, I am not suggesting that a CLS has discretion in following the Standards; rather, that discretion was
integral in drafting and adopting the Standards.
14 Alberta. Hybrid cadastre standards for public land disposition surveys. April 2016.
15 Marlatt. The calamity of the initial Reserve surveys under the Robinson Treaties. Proceedings of the 35th
Algonquin Conference. University of Western Ontario. Footnote 6. 2004.
boundaries.”16 In 1999, the report to CCOG on the
implications of using coordinates to define bound-
aries recommended that two new subdivisions
which used coordinates in lieu of monuments be
monitored over five years.17 Nothing was done. In
2001, the report to ALSA on the use of deferred
monuments recommended that four new subdivi-
sions—two which used monuments and two which
used coordinates—be monitored over five years.18
Nothing was done.19
To be clear, the recommendations were not
advocating the use of coordinates nor denigrating
the role of monuments. Rather, they were suggest-
ing that the issue be studied well, that experiments
be conducted, that findings be examined, that evi-
dence be weighed. Such fact-centric craving would
have pleased John Ruskin, who criticized the ten-
dency of artists in the mid-1800s to attribute
human emotions and characteristics to nature in
general and to weather in particular. He implored
artists to focus on facts, “to keep his eyes fixed
firmly on the pure fact,” on the “ordinary, proper,
and true appearance of things.” He termed the dis-
dain for facts the pathet ic fallacy—the sun does
not shine mercilessly, the skies do not weep and
fog does not cruelly pinch the fingers and toes of
apprentice boys.20
Much of the debate about using coordinates to
define boundaries is similarly enmeshed in a
pathetic fallacy; there is a disdain for the facts.21
This is certainly true when the social dimension is
examined—simply because it can be implemented
technically and legally, should it be implemented?
Let’s move beyond the pathetic fallacy (the hyper-
bole, the assertions, the vitriol, the wishful thinking)
by examining some facts on the ground.
Five Case Studies of
1. The Standards set out that if the position of a
lost or disturbed monument is re-established,
and if it is used to place a new monument on a
boundary dealt with by a survey, then new
monuments are to be placed at the re-established
position.22 This standard maintains the monu-
ments; “if you’re going to occupy the position,
you might as well re-monument; the cost is
However, SGB agrees that the requirement is
unreasonable on socio-economic grounds, because
re-monumenting is invasive, time-consuming and
“really does increase the [survey] cost exponen-
tial ly.”24 Thus, it is reasonable that only the new
corners be monumented with the lost monuments
essentially being replaced by coordinates:
16 The Canadian Surveyor. 29(1) March 1975.
17 Ballantyne, et al. Coordinates in context. Report to CCOG. p.2. 1999.
18 Ballantyne and Khan. Survival of the fittest: Deferred posting of residential subdivisions in Alberta. Report to
ALSA. December 2001.
19 ALSA. Alberta Land Surveyors reject the use of coordinates. September 30, 2002.
20 Schulz. Writers in the storm. The New Yorker. p. 107. November 23, 2015.
21 Such disdain is not confined to Canada: Ballantyne and Strack. Sustaining the NZ land transfer system using coor di nates
to define boundaries. Proceedings of the 2nd Trans Tasman Surveyors Conference. Queenstown. August 2000.
22 National Standards for the Survey of Canada Lands, c1.5(14).
23 A sentiment expressed by another senior CLS (July 2015), to be called CLS-4.
24 This contradictory sentiment was expressed a few minutes later by CLS-4 (July 2015).
2. The Yukon Condominium Act sets out that “the
horizontal boundaries of a bare land unit shall
be established by monuments.”25 A prima facie
reading of the legislation allows no room for
discretion. This constraint is reflected in the
Standards, which set out that “all corners of
bare land units are to be monumented.”26
However, it is often not reasonable to monu-
ment corners, given the “large dirt piles” that
impede access:
Thus, SGB uses its discretion to allow sporadic
monumentation. Only block corners are monu-
mented, the other corners are defined using coor-
dinates (directions and distances between such
3. Sporadic monumentation has long been a
hall mark of township surveys across Canada.
Thus, the use of coordinates to initially define
the back corners of parcels in the single-front
system in Ontario (over the period 1783–1818)
was reasonable. It was considered efficient
(faster and thus cheaper) and did not impede
the transfer, possession and use of the parcel:
Likewise, the Dominion Lands Survey system
that was applied to huge tracts of land between
north-west Ontario and north-east British
Columbia did not monument every corner.
Typically, it was considered reasonable to monu-
ment only 44% of the corners of the four parcels
that comprised a section:27
4. Subdivisions in many provinces have
eschewed the false dichotomy between monu-
ments and coordinates, and have used a hybrid
system of some monuments and some
coor di nates. Between 1912 and 1987, Alberta
subdivisions were only monumented at block
corners. An interesting mélange of legal
requirement and social demand then devel oped,
because many parcel owners asked that their
coordinated corners be demarcated using lot
25 Yukon Condominium Act, s.6(3).
26 National Standards for the Survey of Canada Lands, c8.1(3)(b) & 8.3(27).
27 Plan 94621 CLSR (T42, R28, W2M).
bars. That is, the parcels were created using
coordinates (directions and distances between
block corner monuments) but were possessed
using lot bars (typically 18” in length and ½”
square). Moreover, many large subdivisions
(parcels of 2-3 acres) were monumented at
each corner (not simply at block corners) using
statutory iron posts. In practice,28 such demar-
cation was considered the best evidence of the
parcel corners:29
Such a mélange of monuments and coordinates
continues in Manitoba subdivisions, accepted by
land surveyors, parcel owners and regulators:
5. Some boundaries are now defined using
coor dinates relative to a witness monument.
Owing to inaccessibility (e.g., covered by
water), it is not reasonable to monument a
par cel corner directly. Rather, the corner is
coordinated using a direction and distance to a
Other Examples of
These case studies illustrate that coordinates
have always been used to define boundaries, and
that they continue to be used. Their use is a func-
tion of the social dimension (often represented by
the economic imperative or by monumenting being
futile/contrary to the public interest).31 Many other
examples exist:
Deferred monumentation is widely used in
Alberta, ostensibly to protect monuments from
the ravages of servicing and foundation con-
struction. Over a sample of 785 monuments,
deferral raised the survival rate (i.e., monu-
ments that continue to serve a purpose in their
original location) from 61% to 72%. That 11%
increase is due solely to the temporary use of
coordinates. Given the detrimental effect that
landscaping (e.g., fencing) has on monuments,
retaining coordinates for a longer period would
further improve the survival rate and thus the
public utility of subsequent monuments.32
28 Engler. February 1912 to June 1988: How to deal with lot corners established during this time frame. ALS News.
September 2009.
29 Plan 3457GT Alberta (Calgary).
30 Plan 1110553 Alberta (Lake Chestermere).
31 As for offshore leases and mining claims: de Rijcke. 2016. Principles of boundary law in Canada. Four Point
Learning. p. 414.
32 Ballantyne and Rogers. 2010. Nothing but blind pitiful indifference: Boundary monuments, deferral and the public
interest. Survey Review. 42(317): 256-269.
Subsidence of parcels along the Mackenzie
River in N.W.T. means that monuments
estab lished 40 years ago are now not in their
original location, having slid downhill some
2 m (albeit while remaining vertical). Thus, the
best evidence of the parcel corner now is not
the monument, but is a direction and distance
(a coordinate) from a stable monument.
Land deformation during earthquakes, as in
Anchorage in 1964 or Christchurch in 2010, is
non-linear. Not all parcels within blocks move
the same distance or in the same direction.
Thus, monumented parcels are often ignored
post-quake, in favour of an equitable renewal
of parcel fabric.33
As for preferences, a sample of 379 parcel
owners across eight jurisdictions revealed that
most were keen to have their boundaries phys-
ically and visibly marked. This seems intuitive,
given the prevalence of fences and hedges and
the desire for lot bars.34
A final example is the southerly part of
Alberta-British Columbia boundary and illus-
trates the social dimension (albeit in the
absence of coordinates). Although the bound-
ary was established in 1871 as the watershed
(the height of land) it was only sporadically
monumented in the 1910–1930 era, owing to
sporadic settlement and land use. That is,
socio-economic forces drove demarcation.35
What’s the Fabric?
The lack of consensus as to coordinates in 1975,
the reluctance to experiment with coordinates in
1999–2001, and the unsubstantiated assertions about
coordinates in 2016 miss two fundamental truths.
The first truth is that the debate over coordinates
mostly hinges on the social dimension; and less so
on legal, regulatory or technological criteria. The
impediments to defining boundaries using coordi-
nates are neither insignificant nor insurmountable.
The social dimension means that the parcel fabric is
defined by coordinates only to the extent that they
are efficient (vis-a-vis cost and time), are effective
(such that the spatial extent of the rights can be iden-
tified), are less invasive and are acceptable to those
possessing and using the land.
The second truth is that the debate is premised
on a false dichotomy. The issue is not—and never
has been—coordinates in lieu of monuments or
monuments in lieu of coordinates. That is artificial;
it is not true that “four legs good, two legs bad” nor
that “four legs good, two legs better.”36 Rather,
WTF can be answered so: boundaries in Canada are
defined using a combination of monuments AND
coordinates (and, it should go without saying,
watercourses and watersheds). The actual combina-
tion is dictated by what is reasonable in the
cir cum stances; as circumstances change, boundary
definition techniques will also change.37
Dr. Brian Ballantyne has advised the
Surveyor General Branch and the International
Boundary Commission on boundaries and land
tenure since 2007. Such advice extends to the
Departments of Justice, Aboriginal Affairs,
Transport, Public Works and Foreign Affairs; to
Aboriginal groups; to provinces; and to munici-
palities. He is a lawyer with degrees in environ-
mental ethics, engineering, surveying and
geog ra phy. Dr, Ballantyne publishes and presents
widely, and has finally written a monograph on
the water bounds of Canada Lands. q
33 Ballantyne. 2004. Managing the New Zealand cadastre after deformation events: Applying grit to a slippery slope.
Report to LINZ. 2004.
34 Ballantyne, et al. 1999. Coordinates in context. Report to CCOG. Appendix 4. 46-47.
35 Plan 67271 CLSR.
36 Orwell. Animal Farm. Penguin. p. 114. 1945.
37 Indeed, some cultures “maintain healthy boundaries in personal relationships and around campfires, with
delineating lines of prairie dog carcasses:” Frazier. Frontier squad goals. The New Yorker. p. 35.
February 29, 2016.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Managing the New Zealand cadastre after deformation events: Applying grit to a slippery slope
  • Ballantyne
Ballantyne. 2004. Managing the New Zealand cadastre after deformation events: Applying grit to a slippery slope. Report to LINZ. 2004.
  • Ballantyne
Ballantyne, et al. 1999. Coordinates in context. Report to CCOG. Appendix 4. 46-47.