Anita Cannon, "Finding Canadian Government Information on the Internet"
Government Information in Canada/Information gouvernementale au Canada, Volume 2, number/numéro 4 (spring/printemps 1996)

Finding Canadian Government Information on the Internet: A Look at Four Principal Sites and Their Initiatives 1

Anita Cannon 2
Reference Librarian, Mount Allison University

This article reviews four Internet gateway sites provided by the Government of Canada and some of the finding tools being developed at these sites: a) The Government of Canada Primary Internet Site, b) Intergovernmental On-Line Information Kiosk (an intergovernmental project), c) National Library of Canada's WWW Site, and d) Open Government Project. The search and retrieval tools mentioned include GIFT (Government Information Finder Technology), Champlain, and Hudson.

Cet article examine quatre sites d'accès Internet fournis par le gouvernement du Canada et certains outils de recherche disponibles à ces sites : a) le site Internet principal du gouvernement du Canada, b) le Centre d'information en direct intergouvernemental (un projet intergouvernemental), c) le site WWW de la Bibliothèque nationale du Canada, et d) le Gouvernement Ouvert. Les outils de recherche et de localisation mentionnés incluent GIFT (la technologie de recherche d'information du gouvernement), Champlain, et Hudson.


In 1993, when I first started to incorporate government information on the Internet into my work as a reference librarian, the hardest part was finding it. Many hours of Gopher "tunnelling" uncovered a few nuggets of information buried in sites more often than not "under construction". There was no "official" government site, you could not tell from the Internet address whether a site was a government one, and some government departments piggybacked on commercial servers. There were no comprehensive collections or gateways to Canadian government sites on the Internet, and the best collection of Canadian government documents in full text was at an American Gopher site called

Much has changed since then. The quantity and quality of the government information available has increased enormously, although unevenly. The World Wide Web is now the medium of choice, and several government initiatives designed to make it easier to locate government information on the Internet have resulted in significant improvements. For example, there is now an "official" government site, federal and provincial government URLs are standardized and recognizable, the Weekly Checklist of Canadian Government Publications 3 includes the URL for documents that are available on the Internet, search and retrieval tools specifically for Canadian government information have been developed, many government sites have organized searchable documents collections, and there is a single-window, gateway site to information from all levels of government on the Internet.

In this article I will describe the four sites where most of these developments are unfolding:

  • The Canadian Government Primary Site and GIFT;
  • The Intergovernmental On-Line Information Kiosk;
  • The National Library of Canada's WWW site;
  • The Open Government Project, Champlain, and Hudson.

The Government of Canada Primary Internet Site

This, the "official" Government of Canada site, was launched December 14, 1995. In the news release announcing its official opening, the "Canada Site" is described as providing Internet users "in Canada and around the world with a single electronic access point to general information about Canada and to a wide variety of federal government information and services." 4

The general information about Canada is covered by fact sheets on Canada and the provinces and territories, a map of Canada, pictures and brief descriptions of Canada's symbols, by a text describing how government operates, and by a brief overview of, and links to, some of the key institutions of the Government of Canada. The section on Programs lists a few federal programs and services, but many more links to sites with government programs and services are accessible through the Services Catalogue at the Intergovernmental site mentioned below.

The Primary Site (as it is also known) works well as a gateway to government information at all levels, not just federal. "Federal Institutions" is an alphabetical list of federal departments, agencies, commissions, Crown corporations, etc. Where a public Internet site exists a link is provided, otherwise the link is to a brief description of the institution. Under "Other Governments" is a link to the official provincial government sites and to the Intergovernmental On-Line Information Kiosk, which provides access to municipal sites as well. As explained in the December 14 news release, the intention is: "that all existing government information and services can be accessed through a single Internet address."

Besides this gateway function, one of the most useful features at this site, is the "What's New" area, which covers not just what new information has been added to this specific site, but also the new services, publications and news releases added to WWW sites across the federal government. It is not clear how often or how comprehensive these "regular" updates are, but it is a great advantage to have new "releases" listed in one spot. Another good idea, not often seen on the Internet, is that the "What's New" area is archived. Currently the Archive holdings begin with December 1995, and are updated monthly. I hope that the intention is to retain all of the information in the Archives. Beyond its updating value, it provides an interesting overview of activity on the Internet over time, which will always be of interest.

The documents located at this site are keyword searchable. It is commendable that searching instructions are given, although the definitions and explanations of Boolean operators are the most confused I have come across. The terms used to describe AND and OR -- "intersection" and "union" -- do not help much, and an error in the nested query example doesn't help either. The documents retrieved are first displayed as a list of titles, with the size and type of file given. Unfortunately, when the full text is displayed, many of the files show no author, date, department or section responsible for the text. This is a common problem on the Internet (not specific to this site), but one that could be remedied if every webmaster required this information to be present before agreeing to post a text. Information retrieved in this way (without source information, date, etc.) is almost useless for academic research purposes.

Besides being able to search this site by keyword, GIFT (Government Information Finder Technology), the new search and retrieval tool for all Canadian government information on the Internet, is located here in its initial phase. (There is also a link to Champlain, a keyword searching tool, described below under the Open Government Project. These two search and retrieval systems work differently and will retrieve different texts.)

GIFT: Government Information Finder Technology

This government network, currently under development by Government Telecommunications and Informatics Services (GTIS) of Public Works and Government Services Canada, is intended to help you locate all authored government documents from departments, committees, agencies, etc., with the results supplied in a readable and easy to understand format. From the Primary Site you will see listed several keyword-searchable government sites and documents collections, which can be searched individually. More sites are being added on a continuous basis.

At the GIFT home page there is a similar list of individual collections of government documents or sites organized under broad subject categories. You can search the sites separately, or the combined sites under a subject. Clicking on GIFT, for example, will allow you to search the documents posted at the GIFT site. Clicking on its subject heading "Internet" will allow you to search GIFT and the other sites under that category as a combined set. Click on "Search Terms" for instructions on how to construct a search query (e.g. phrase searching requires quotation marks).

But the real power of GIFT is only evident when you select "Search Other Sites", and then select "Z39.50 Compliant Multi-site, Multi-database Searching." 5 This is where the next four phases of GIFT are being developed. Although still "under construction", it is more or less up and running, and undergoing testing and evaluation by GTIS and its working committees. The official release date is scheduled for the Spring of 1997. In a Focus Magazine article about GIFT posted at the CRTC WWW page, GIFT is described as "transparent and seamless"; "users can request GIFT to find instances of a certain subject throughout the whole domain of electronic government documents without mapping their way through department databases or manipulating the results to make them intelligible." 6

This user-friendly , "single window" concept, bringing together all electronic texts from the hundreds of existing government locations, to be covered by a single search, sounds like a dream come true. If all goverment bodies contribute (this is a voluntary initiative) it could well be. All indications are that it will succeed. The manual work involved for the information providers is minimal, although the documents remain at their original site, where the responsibility to maintain and update the information rests.

It works something like this: A short record of basic elements describing each document (containing information like the author, date, source, language, keywords, subject terms, etc.) is created, and this "document profile" is what the GIFT server collects and searches. A web crawler collects these profiles at regular intervals. Based on the Z39.50 protocol, the GIFT server can then retrieve the full text documents from many other kinds of servers (WWW, Gopher, FTP, Fulcrum Surfboard, WAIS, etc.), translate from a vast array of file formats (image and text), and display the documents in the format chosen by the user. There may also be pointers provided to related non-electronic documents.

This certainly sounds very promising. It seems to me, however, that despite the impressive technology, the quality of the search results will only be as good as the document profiles allow. In a document describing how GIFT works, called "How to be Transparent and Seamless", the author, Oliver Javanpour of GTIS, Project Manager for GIFT, explains: "the document profile is generated automatically by connectivity tools that are developed by the GIFT Project," and later in the same document he says that "discriminating terms" ("unique" keywords) are automatically extracted. He also says that: "The entire premise of this mechanism is to relieve the author and informatics personnel from the burden of producing complex document profile information." 7 All this suggests that the whole process would be automated.

"Controlled terms", one of the twelve suggested fields for the document profile listed in the same document caught my eye. There is not much detail on how these will be generated. According to Mr. Javanpour, there is a commitment to including some form of subject indexing or controlled vocabulary, even though it will require some measure of human (librarian) intervention. It has not been decided yet whether they will try to create a built-in, automated thesaurus to generate these, or if librarians will manually assign these terms.

As GIFT appears now, you can see the list of sites or documents collections available so far, each of which you can choose to include or omit from your search by clicking on the box in front of each database. If the sort mode is set to "by database" (the default), the display will show a list of the databases retrieved, by name, followed by the number of documents found in each database. If you choose a site that has several documents, a list of the document titles or WWW page names will be displayed with no other information to help in identifying the source or the content. A bit more information at this point (as is provided in Champlain's display) would make GIFT more efficient to use. Unfortunately, like many other automated search and retrieval tools on the Internet, there is also quite a bit of duplication at this point, which will become more of a problem as more databases are added.

Intergovernmental On-Line Information Kiosk

This site is described, on the "About this Service" page, as "a single-window on Federal, Provincial, Territorial and Municipal government on-line services in Canada." It is maintained by the Canadian Governments On-Line (CGOL) intergovernmental project team on behalf of all levels of government, and is meant to "provide the public with an easy access point to all information and services provided by governments across Canada." 8 Although this sounds much like the Primary Government Site, it is different in several ways.

The home page provides a menu with links to each government level in Canada and to some foreign governments. Each sub-page for the provinces then has the official site for that jurisdiction, the home page of the head of the government, documents related to the information highway, a list with links to the institutions of higher education in that jurisdiction, weather forecasts for the area, contacts in the government, and phone, fax and e-mail directories, if available. The municipal sites are listed in alphabetical order, and by province, with direct links to the sites. (At this point, not all of the municipal sites listed are necessarily government sites, or even have any government information.)

The documents actually posted in the "Documents Library" are intended to be "generally restricted to content of an intergovernmental interest or public service," or "documents or reports that have an impact on government on-line services in general," and not duplicating information provided by any other official Canadian government source. 9 Currently these are documents related to the information highway, and reports and other texts relevant to the CGOL initiative itself. These documents can be found using the index, by document title, or by jurisdiction. (A welcome touch is that for each document listed, the size of the file, its language and format are shown in brackets after the title.)

The Services Catalogue is a list of on-line services offered by all levels of government across Canada, which also briefly describes and classifies each "service". (Services seem to include any public presence, whether a WWW site, BBS, 1-800 number, on-line kiosk, database, etc.) One of the main purposes of this service is to facilitate information sharing between all government institutions across Canada at all levels, to help avoid duplication in setting up and providing services on the Internet, and to help determine the "best practices" to follow.

The Catalogue is searchable by jurisdiction, type of service, subject, or government department. The "subject" categories are very broad (e.g. "Finance" is the subject term for the Department of Finance WWW site). This may be adequate for the above-stated purpose, while there are not too many entries, but it makes the Catalogue less valuable as a tool for the public trying to find out which on-line service to access for a specific need, especially, in the future, when there will likely be many more entries than there are now.

The template used to describe the services in this catalogue is similar to the "Document Profile" being developed by GIFT. The "Overview" section is different though, and could be one of the Catalogue's most useful features. Very few entries have this section filled in yet, but the ones that do, show a very brief description of the contents and purpose of the database. The "Access address/path(s)" sections have not been filled out yet, but in the case of Internet resources, the intention is that the URLs will be given as hypertext links allowing for a direct connection. The "Access Pricing" and "Methods of Payment" sections are thankfully also blank at this point. The Catalogue is being compiled from the responses to a survey sent out to government institutions in 1995. It has not been decided yet how this catalogue will be maintained or updated, beyond the feedback obtained from government service providers via on-line forms at the site. According to Claude Bourgeois, InterGov Director, Provinces and Territories section, decisions on how to proceed will be made after the DMR Group presents its final report on the project.

National Library of Canada

The National Library of Canada is in the process of migrating information from their Gopher to their WWW site. Some of the information, such as the list of government sites, will be dropped in the process, as this is now being done more thoroughly by the Primary and Intergov sites. One of the initiatives they are working on now, which will assist in locating government information on the Internet, is the "Canadian Information by Subject" service. The objective of this service is to provide links to information about Canada, arranged by subject, from Internet resources, wherever on the Internet they may be. This includes, but is not limited to government information.

The subject arrangement is based on the Dewey Decimal Classification System, but it is not necessary to know the system to be able to benefit from the arrangement. The Subject Tree can be browsed in subject order or in alphabetical order. What is "classified" is an entire WWW site or database of resources, not individual files on the Internet. For example, under the subject heading "Genealogy" are links to National and Provincial Archives, Genealogical Societies and Associations, and to guides and resources posted by individuals. The reliable subject arrangement and broad scope make it a useful and popular tool. The fact that government sources are combined with others in this subject "index" makes the government sources more accessible for those users who may not have thought of the government as a likely source for the information they are seeking. The subject classification is also much more useful for researchers unfamiliar with government structure, and just as important is the added browsability that a subject tree affords. Work on this service is ongoing. More sites are added to it on a weekly basis.

Other initiatives in the works at the National Library also include government documents, according to Nancy Brodie, of Information Resource Management, at the NLC. For example, a new government section has been added to the Library's WWW site, intended specifically for its primary clientele (Canadian libraries). This collection has links to key federal and provincial sites, indexes, and documents, such as government publications catalogues. The Electronic Publication Pilot Project, set up to examine the issues and challenges involved in cataloguing electronic publications, also included some government serials, and now, in the National Library's electronic documents collection (the continuation of the EPPP), government documents are among the electronic publications acquired and catalogued. These publications can be located using the AMICUS database.

Open Government Project

Developed as a pilot project to "provide greater access to government through information networks," 10 OpenGov was instrumental in getting government information from and about institutions such as the House of Commons, the Senate, and the Supreme Court on the WWW. Although they now have their own "home" on the Parliamentary site, OpenGov still maintains a link to these and other government resources.

As a skunk-works site for federal government initiatives on the Internet, OpenGov is also continuing to develop new services and service-delivery products. Champlain was announced in April 1995. Their next project, still being developed, is Hudson.

Champlain: Canadian Information Explorer

Champlain is a WWW-based keyword search and retrieval tool that covers Canadian federal, provincial and municipal government sites and Canadian legal sites on the Internet. It uses the Harvest Broker System to search WWW, Gopher, and FTP resources (over 170 government Internet servers with over 73,000 "objects" and 23 legal Internet servers with over 2,000 "objects" according to the latest statistics posted at the site). 9

Several keyword searching options can be selected, such as case sensitivity or inexact spelling, etc. Help for formulating queries is available, with clear examples. The results can be displayed with descriptions, matched lines from the text, in a "verbose" or summarized form. The description is just one line, but is usually very helpful in determining the source or type of document retrieved. The URL and path are always displayed as well, and as hypertext links, provide direct access to the documents.

At the moment, Champlain's display of retrieved sets (with no obvious duplication, and with the extra details given that make it possible to judge the usefulness of a document without having to retrieve the full text) beats GIFT's display. However, both systems will be changing. Champlain has been working well since it came out in April 1995, although it it can be very slow. According to Tyson Macaulay, who developed and manages Champlain for Network Services Development Group, Industry Canada, they are looking at making some changes soon, that will improve Champlain's search capability and increase its retrieval speed. Another improvement I could suggest would be updating more frequently than on a monthly basis. A month on the Internet is a long time. It is very helpful though, that the last update is clearly stated.


(No public URL available yet)

Hudson is intended to be a free public service offering enhanced, single-source, "blue pages" directory-style information for all levels of government in Canada. It should help to locate government services, programs, and employees. Hudson will likely become the main government telephone directory for all Canadian governments. It is being built around the new WHOIS++ protocol which allows for a distributed system of individual directory services from all over the Internet to be "connected" for the user's search, but remain under the control of the originators, who will be responsible for updating and maintaining the information.

There is no public address yet for Hudson. Demonstration sites have been set up within Industry Canada for testing. As it looks now, after entering a name, the display includes a picture of the person, fax and phone numbers, Internet address, position, organization, branch, mailing address, URL, and details on the server. Hudson's pilot launch is scheduled for spring 1996, and the official launch in fall 1996. As with the GIFT project, government participation in Hudson is purely voluntary.


A great deal of work has been done over the last two years, and is still underway, both visibly, on the Internet, and not so visibly, behind the scenes, to make locating government information on the Internet easier and more efficient.

There is still much that needs to be done. For example, something needs to be done to ensure that older electronic publications can be located as well as current ones. As most of these systems are being set up now, the originating institution is responsible for maintaining and updating their information. The GIFT project suggests a solution by extending that responsibility to storing the information as well. In the text titled "GENet Contains a Real GIFT" by GIFT Project Manager, Oliver Javanpour, he states that each version of a document is to be considered another new document and identified uniquely, and "after one year, most documents are placed on a tape and warehoused and the ISBN numbers should facilitate locating these documents years from now." 12 I wonder how accessible the documents will be in this kind of "warehousing", or if libraries should be more involved. The National Library of Canada is acquiring electronic documents, but some people argue the NLC cannot collect them all. Even if it does, some form of depository system for electronic publications may be required. A certain amount of duplication may be appropriate. Certainly, finding government information for historical research will be impossible if government institutions are allowed to update, revise, or replace existing electronic documents directly without some form of requirement to archive, store or duplicate each version for storage elsewhere.

Another issue is the fact that all of the new projects are being instituted on a voluntary basis. Although it seems that government institutions have no reason not to participate, it remains to be seen if this method will result in comprehensive databases and directories. (It has not in the print world.) Obviously, this has consequences affecting the ease with which information can be located.

The GIFT initiative, in which all electronic documents are to be described and identified in a standard way, is perhaps the most important of all the projects. Conforming to international standards, it also represents an enhancement of the internationally recognized GILS (Government Information Locator System) standard, and could lead the way to better management of electronic government information, not just in Canada, but throughout the world. Special attention, however, has to be given to the metadata creation (in particular the subject descriptors), or any improvements gained in "information management" may not be reflected in easier or improved access.


[1] May be cited as/On peut citer comme suit:

Anita Cannon, "Finding Canadian Government Information on the Internet: A Look at Four Principal Sites and Their Initiatives," Government Information in Canada/Information gouvernementale au Canada, Vol. 2, no. 4.1 (spring 1996).



Anita Cannon
Reference Librarian
Mount Allison University
Sackville, New Brunswick
E0A 3C0

[3] Canada Communications Group - Publishing. Weekly Checklist of Canadian Government Publications.

Also available:

[4] See:

[5] See:

[6] See:

[7] Document found at the GIFT site by a keyword search -- no URL available.


[9] See:

[10] See:

[11] See:


[12] (Retrieved from the GIFT site by a keyword search -- no URL available.