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Geography 162: Canada

If you need help, please contact Sarah (Tong) Zhang, GIS&Map Librarian | Librarian for Geography | Librarian, Data Services Team at 778-782-9704 or or Ask a librarian.

SFU Library Research Skills Tutorial: up your academic game by completing this 50 minute tutorial. Bonus: the skills you will learn are transferable and give you an advantage in your other classes at SFU. 

Getting started

You've chosen your topic.... now what?  Before you even begin searching, try spending a bit of time thinking about your topic: What do you need to find out? What questions will you want to answer?

From topic to searchable question

Break your topic down into key concepts. For example, if your topic is The railway is the lifeline of the Interior Plains , you have three main concepts: railway, lifeline, and Interior Plains.

To search effectively you will need to brainstorm additional ways of expressing each of these concepts: think of synonyms, related terms, broader terms and narrower terms. All of these will be the keywords that you use in your search. For example: 

  • railway: railroad, trains, rail travel, Canadian Pacific Railway, Canadian National, transportation, freight, etc.

  • Interior Plains: prairies, prairie provinces, Alberta, Saskatchewan, plains, etc.

  • lifeline: ("lifeline" is a metaphor for the importance of the railway so you'll have to think carefully about what you are investigating and wanting to focus on: economics? social conditions? history? travel or shipping patterns? all of these?)

As your research progresses, you'll discover which of these terms works best for your purposes, and you'll also probably find additional keywords that you can use for your concepts.

Perhaps one of the most important things to know about a project like this is that good research takes time. Start early to avoid last minute stress. You will find that you need to do a lot of searching and a lot of reading to complete the research for this assignment.

Have a look at this guide for further information: Start Your Research Here.

Understand your topic with background reading

Starting with background reading material can help you generate keywords, find an overview of your topic, define a term, or learn about theoretical approaches to your topic. There are two ways to find background information on your topic:

1) Use Library Search:  Type the keywords you've already brainstormed. The keywords can convey general concepts or be more specific to the geographic region you are investigating, eg. green revolution, energy efficiency, NAFTA, Quebec Separatism, oil sand, Alberta oil sand, overfishing,Inuit art, etc.  After your search, look at the category Background sources, Media, Papers.

2) Use Library Catalogue: Start with a keyword search, tying the keywords you've already brainstormed. After your search, look at the Resource Type menu on the left, choose Reference Entries to limit your results to the entries in encyclopedias (if you didn't see Reference Entries, click "show more"). 

You may also use Atlas of Canada for good background information on your geographic area.

Use Library Search for exploratory search 

Library Search is the default search engine for the SFU Library. This is the best place to start in the explorative and early stage of research. It helps you find print or electronic books, journal or magazine articles, and many other types of information in a clearly organized way.  You can then move on to more advanced and controlled searching described below.


  Finding in-depth information on your topic

Finding books 

Books are a good source of in-depth information for your research paper. To find books at SFU Library, use the Library Catalogue. Start with a keyword search, trying the keywords you've already brainstormed. Use AND between concept terms, eg. sovereignty AND arctic AND Canada, NAFTA AND trade globalization. 

Tip: when you have found one "good" book, you can find more by clicking on the subject headings in the record for that source for your next search. Also, follow the citation trail: the bibliographies/reference lists of the materials you find will help you to find more material.

Refer to this guide for further information: SFU Library Catalogue Search Guide.

Finding articles (using databases)


We use library databases to search for journal articles (which are published in scholarly journals). Journal articles are in-depth studies focused on a particular discipline or field of study. We also use library databases to search for news and magazine articles in some cases. A library database searches across many scholarly journals, magazines, newspapers, or other similar sources. 

Look at What is a Scholarly Journal?  to learn how to distinguish academic and popular sources with this guide.

To find journal articles, magazine articles, and newspaper articles on your topic, you'll need to use one or several of the databases listed below. 

  • Academic Search Premier 
    A multidisciplinary index to academic & popular journals.
    Multidisciplinary coverage ranging from physical and human geography, geology, mineralogy, ecology to development studies.
  • Web of Science 
    Multidisciplinary and comprehensive coverage in the sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities.
  • Environment Complete 
    Comprehensive coverage in environmental and many related disciplines.
  • ​JSTOR 
    Multidisciplinary coverage in the arts, humanities and social sciences.
  • Google Scholar 
    Scholarly literature from all broad areas of research.
  • Sociological Abstracts 
    Literature related to theoretical and applied social sciences.
  • America: History and Life 
    Includes Canada, despite the name.
  • CBCA Complete 
    Includes news and magazine articles.
  • Canadian Newsstream
    For newspaper articles from small and large newspapers across Canada.

A particular challenge 

Some topics in this assignment require you to select a blog entry, newspaper, or magazine articles dealing with some economic, social or environmental issues. If you select a very recent issue or event, there likely will not be research articles about this particular situation, so you may need to look at earlier situations or find information generally on the broader concepts and then apply them to this situation. For example, you found an item of news about some farmers in Saskatchewan receiving Century Farm awards. There might not be research articles about Century Farm in Saskatchewan,​but there are many related concepts you can explore, eg.  Sustainability AND "family farm" AND Saskatchewan.

Tip: Use quotation marks to find an exact phrase like "family farm".

Searching techniques

TIP: BOOLEAN OPERATORS allow you to combine terms to narrow or broaden your searches.

AND requires ALL terms to be found in search results
Example: railway AND prairies

       OR requires ANY terms to be found in search results
       Example: prairies OR Alberta OR Saskatchewan OR plains
       OR will bring more results; AND will bring less. Adjust accordingly.

For further powerful searching techniques please refer to Power searching section of the Catalogue search guide.

Refer to this guide for further information: How to Find Journal Articles


Finding/making maps

Creating a customized digital map

Web-based tools (no installation needed)

ArcGIS Online 
ArcGIS Online a complete cloud-based GIS mapping software. It is also a data portal where you can search for maps, layers, and map services and use them for base maps or analysis. 

SimplyAnalytics features embedded data sources including Canadian demographic, business, and consumer data sourced from publishers such as Statistics Canada. 

Desktop software(installation needed)

ArcGIS Desktop
ArcGIS is a GIS application for visualizing, managing, creating, and analyzing geographic data. SFU Library offers free downloading for the software and free workshops

QGIS is a popular open-source GIS software package that works on PCs and Macs alike. 

Tableau Desktop
Tableau desktop is a data visualization tool that allows you to create static or interactive graphs, charts, and maps (if your data include geospatial attributes such as coordinates). SFU library offers workshops on this tool. For more information on installation and library support, please visit Tableau: Getting Tableau and resources for learning about the software.

For more mapping tools, visit GIS software and mapping tools page.

Finding maps 

Aside from searching for map layers in ArcGIS Online, you will probably also be interested in consulting the Atlas of Canada

For more ideas see Geography - Finding Maps and Atlases


 Putting it all together


The Student Learning Commons (SLC) provides writing and learning support to SFU students of ALL levels, whether you are an A student or a student who is struggling. You can book a consultation and/or attend a workshop

Writing handouts from the SLC: These handouts are excellent! They will guide you through the mechanics of academic writing and help with things like grammar, citing, transition words, and style. See especially the three handouts on integrating sources. Immensely helpful.

How-to books on academic writing: These are extremely useful books that will demystify the academic writing process. Highly recommended.

  • Making Sense: A Student's Guide to Research and Writing: Geography & Environmental Sciences [print]  *see especially Chapter 5: "Writing an Essay".
  • They say/I say: the Moves that Matter in Academic Writing [print]

Avoiding plagiarism: Questions about what constitutes plagiarism? Please read the SFU Library's What is Plagiarism? page and then take our Plagiarism Tutorial.


Citation style: Use APA style when citing sources. Please refer to the following guides:​

Getting further help