It has now been a little over 3 years since Natural Resources Canada released CanVec, a national coast to coast to coast spatial dataset at 1:50,000 or better nominal scale. In the interverning time there have been several updates, we now sit at Edition 6, and there are scheduled updates every 6 months, indefinitely.

Canvec replaces the National Topographic Database (NTDB) which was both expensive, ~$240 per NTS tile if memory serves, and definitely not libre. With the NTDB we had to pay royalties for every map that went to another party, even if we gave it away. The royalty was reasonable, on the order of 25 cents each, but we had to pay in advance, in $5,000 chunks, with a minimum of $8,000.

Canvec is a well modelled internally consistent dataset of good quality, better than the NTDB, and it's FREE, both libre and gratis. What puzzles me, greatly, is the virtual silence online* about this fantastic resource. There is little chatter about Canvec. Perhaps this scale of data just not that relevant south of 60°N and you're using something different. Perhaps the naming conventions are so opaque that people just can't drum up the energy to figuring out what's what.

Where are the resources and tools to make using this stuff easier (or even possible)?

  • 1
    matt, could change this to community wiki? I feel it fits better as CW - just an opinion. Commented Jul 30, 2010 at 19:52
  • Thanks Matt! I am having trouble making the transition here in Yukon as Canvec doesn't match the majority of the available thematic data (EOSD, Yukon Vegetation Inventory, etc). Easier to use NTDB and live with the spatial inaccuracy in favour of things lining up internally. Anyone else have this issue? How did you deal with it?
    – user3221
    Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 21:24
  • Hi, welcome to GIS.se! ;-) The format of the site here is one question per page (thread), so this should be a new question, e.g. "How do you deal with the geometry mismatch in value added data between the retired Canadian National Topographic Database and the new replacement Canvec?" Commented Jun 6, 2011 at 18:40

11 Answers 11


I use the CanVec offerings somewhat regularly in building teaching assignments for profs, but the data require a good amount of work to go from what's provided to what a novice GIS user (who may or may not actually be interested in GIS) can handle.

As an example, if I want to supply a layer of fire station points in our region as part of an assignment, the process is as follows:

  • Download and extract the zip file for each of the 4 tiles that intersect our region (not CanVec's fault, the boundaries between tiles have to go somewhere)
  • Look up in the documentation what the number is for the buildings and structures layer, and what the code is for fire stations
  • Isolate the 8 shapefiles that have the information I need (1 polygon and 1 point layer for each tile)
  • Merge the 4 polygon layers and the 4 point layers
  • Select and export the features I need in each
  • Convert the selected polygons to points
  • Merge the two point layers I now have
  • Remove the duplicated points, if any (there are sometimes features in the polygon and point layers that represent the same feature on the ground, this tends to bug me more than anything else)

That's a decent amount of processing to get what I need, but it's not hard and probably not more than what the average GIS professional has to do to wrangle their data.

That said, maybe the complexity of the data model scares people off (particularly the naming conventions, as the question mentioned). I think you can usually find what you're looking for in CanVec, as long as you know how to look and are willing to read the documentation.

The other (more anecdotal) thing is that in my experience, compared to NTDB, there are a lot more features categorized as "unknown" in CanVec. This sometimes includes features that were properly categorized in NTDB, but then became unknown in CanVec.


The CanVec dataset will be merged into the OpenStreetMap database, over the next 2 years (i estimate on how long it should take) http://wiki.openstreetmap.org/wiki/CanVec

For those interested im helping out, feel free to just ask on the OSM mailing list. (this link can be found on the CanVec wiki page) this website does not allow for more than 1 link.

And BTW the CanVec dataset is derived from multiple datasources, including GeoBase.


We use the Canvec WMS server on a regular basis for localized mapping, and love it. Simple to use, easy to access, free, well rendered and consistent (well free if you ignore the fact that it is supported by the taxpayer).

It works well in ArcGIS but I am having difficulties connecting to the data using the AutoCAD Map 2001 3D FDO.

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    I wasn't aware there was a Canvec WMS service, that's good to know. Where is it? Commented Nov 8, 2010 at 17:37

I appreciate the link to CanVec. It's nice to know such a resource exists for Canada.

Nevertheless, there many unsung geographic data sources. For instance, while I love US NAIP, I rarely express my appreciation. Rather, I celebrate every once in a while when the government makes its periodic update.

The GIS world is developing into a community rather than simply a user base. As part of the that evolution, celebrated datasets facilitate two-way communication and data flows. Vast governmental data sets remain invaluable, but they are unlikely to capture the imagination. If you would like a community to develop around a data source, package an associated visualization, create a few tools, and set up a forum. Leverage the two-way nature of the Internet and geospatial mindshare is much more likely to flow your direction.


My big problem with using CanVec was always the size of the data set, its structure and my lack of resources as an amateur/student. It's getting cheaper to get access to powerful computing facilities though (via Amazon, etc.)

Plus I built a little program that will efficiently extract one or more feature sets into PostGIS sql by matching the feature ID.


The next minor step is to allow piping the output directly into PostGIS.


Where are the resources and tools to make using this stuff easier (or even possible)?

Geogratis from Natural Resources Canada now has a web based data extraction tool @ http://geogratis.gc.ca/site/eng/extraction

It's really easy, I tried it the other day.

First you can just select your Clipping Area by either:

  • Current map extent
  • Predefined clipping area
    • NTS sheets
    • drainage areas
    • landsat footprints
  • Custom Clipping Area
    • Draw a rectangle
    • Draw a polygon
    • Enter coordinates (two corner coords in DD)

Once you've got your area of interest, you can Select the Data but... You won't be able to select CanVec or "Topographic Data" until you are zoomed in close enough (it's scale based and greyed out until you zoom in).

If that limitation becomes a problem, they have a neatly (finally) organized site of the canvec themes for each province and theme at http://geogratis.gc.ca/site/eng/download available as either FileGDB (don't know what version, but I couldn't open them with gdal) or GML.

But the FileGDB you get from the data extraction tool does work in gdal - they are >= version 10 FileGDBs.

There's a new QGIS plugin called NTS Data Download/MapSheetDownload that should help too. Now I can retire some of my scripts.

  • Though this speaks to just a portion of the original post, I'm marking it as the new accepted answer because it really is a significant step forward in Canvec utility. Thanks for bringing the change to my attention! Commented Sep 19, 2013 at 16:20

I have used CanVec, but also you might be competing in a sense with Geobase, which has a different focus obviously but still some overlap in the dataset. Especially if someone just wants roads and hydro features, Geobase data is laid out a bit more user-friendly, by province and hydrographic region, not on a tile basis for those features. DEMs of course are tiled in GeoBase.

  • Interesting. The road and hydro layers in Canvec are the NRN and NHN served from Geobase, with some attribute adjustment. So if I understand correctly, the main reason you have avoided Canvec is because it is chopped into itty bitty NTS pieces? Commented Jul 30, 2010 at 15:46
  • FYI, de-tiled DEMs are available here maphew.com/Projects/Canada_50k_Digital_Elevation_Model Commented Jul 30, 2010 at 22:22
  • Well, for my purposes yes, but I can't speak for everyone else :-) Also the Canvec website (well, it unfortunately has to follow the Canadian government website layout probably?) is way more confusing.
    – WolfOdrade
    Commented Aug 2, 2010 at 15:59

I just started using CanVec 7 for a project, but seems like a great resource. I download the entire province in 11 thematically separated geodatabases,pretty easy. ftp://ftp2.cits.rncan.gc.ca/pub/canvec/province_fgdb/

However, figuring out what was actually in each geodatases was another issue. I end up finding a CanVec Symbolization Utility 1.1

Now my only issue is order the layers in the table of contents in an appropriate manner.

  • That tool and it's layer files is a great help in making sense of the canvec structure. I'm using it as a foundation piece for our own canvec toolset (which will be shared when it's working). Note that the layer files hide some features by not symbolizing them. To fix: for each layer, open properties > symbology > add values > complete list, if no new values show up, everything is being shown, if otherwise the shown values are being omitted. (Hi Adam, welcome to GIS.se :) Commented Jan 11, 2011 at 17:11
  • I see the utility is made for ArcGIS 9.3... any idea if it works on ArcGIS 10? Commented Jan 11, 2011 at 21:16
  • I'm using ArcGIS 10sp1 and the tool works for me without an issue. Commented Jan 12, 2011 at 0:53

From a quick browse, it seems each zip file provides all data for a fairly small area. I'd much rather have access to files containing a single datatype (e.g. rail lines) for a larger area. (I'm looking purely for Shape files).

  • Canvec is available in non-tiled form by province/territory and nationally in GML and FileGDB formats. It's not done for shapefiles because they can only hold X number of records before imploding. I have some rough scripts here which automate downloading and merging small tiles together into bigger pieces. They utilise the free and open source wget and gdal_translate from gdal/ogr utilities (see OSGeo4W for acquring them on Windows). Some editing is required to make them work in areas outside the Yukon. Commented Jan 12, 2011 at 21:35
  • Good point about the numebr of records in shape files, but I still want to be selective about the sets I download. The ideal for me would be able to select the tiles and the datatypes, and then be able to download those files in one go.
    – Tom W
    Commented Feb 9, 2011 at 15:44

The reason that they are tiled is because it's a more modern version of the raster product - which is like the USGS quads in the US. Tiling is nice if you want to quickly get some data for an area. But a WMS server will give you the bounds you want, and the Canada fgdb or gml will give you all of it. I like this product. It'd be nice if the US did the same.


I find the CanVec Data to be extremely out of date, especially with airport/aeronautical information. This is the main reason why I haven't been using it.

  • so what do you use instead? Commented Jul 30, 2010 at 15:59

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