Part #3: Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada
Canada—”before the lines were drawn”
We’re Albertans. There are lines on maps that make us so. More than a hundred years ago, someone somewhere—Ottawa?—drew these mostly-straight strokes on a map, where there’d been none before. They pre-empt us from being, instead, residents of British Columbia, Saskatchewan, or the Northwest Territories; another had been drawn earlier—it’s the one that thwarts our longings [should we have these] to be Americans. But what would we be had these lines not been drawn? Can you even imagine Canada without these familiar demarcations?
Created by The Royal Canadian Geographic Society, published by Canadian Geographic, and funded by the Canadian government, the Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada discards these lines. See for yourself—the atlas has been added to the SSUC Library’s reference collection. See this new-old depiction of this land, sans borders; lose yourself in it, and you likely will. Shouldn’t that waterway be labeled the North Saskatchewan River? And how come we are in a place labeled “Cree”? And when you drive 390 kilometres west on Highway 16 you should enter B.C.—right?—except there’s no such place; there’s no such highway, either.
It’s as John Geiger, the RCGS’s president, observed, as reported in the Ottawa Citizen: “It is a view of Canada ‘before the lines were drawn’.” That was one of the things “we were really clear about: we asked not to see political boundaries,” states Charlene Bearhead, educational advisor for the atlas. “Canadian Geographic listened. They interpreted. They came back, and asked if they got it right. It was incredible. And I believe that that was the most significant contributing factor to the success of this project.”
After all, as Adam Gaudry, a Métis professor from University of Alberta, points out in the forward, “Cartography has long been an imperial enterprise used to claim territory and imagine the geographic reach of empires. In its imperial usage, map-making is an instrument of Indigenous erasure.” Educator Angela Nardozi, who, for over a decade, has had what she describes as a “passion for working alongside Indigenous communities,” references on her website Gaudry’s contribution, and how it affirms “the political nature of mapping, how mapping has been weaponized against Indigenous peoples.”
In September of last year, Steve Paikin, devoted an entire half-hour episode of his TVO show, The Agenda, to the atlas. “For generations, knowledge about Indigenous history and culture was overlooked, dismissed, and even intentionally erased, as the residential schools experience amply demonstrated. Times have changed, and an ambitious new project is putting some of that back on the map. Literally.”
The project began in 2016 with an informal talk between Carolyn Bennett, minister of crown-Indigenous relations, and Geiger—who, by the way, pictures the minster as “a great lover of geography and a great lover of maps.” As he later explained, “It is our hope that this atlas will help Canadians to build a better understanding of our Indigenous peoples, appreciate their contribution to building our great country, and ultimately begin the process of reconciliation.” The venture arose out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s incitement that “culturally appropriate curricula” be developed for Aboriginal Canadian students.
“This unique Indigenous-led educational project will provide Indigenous students with a much-needed tool kit to help them learn more about their people, geography, and culture,” the RCGS stated in a news release. More than that, however, the atlas provides a resource “for all Canadians to better understand our shared geography, and positions us to build healthy relationships for the future,” according to Roberta Jamieson, CEO of Indspire, a charitable organization dedicated to raising funds to deliver programs that’ll provide the tools needed for Canada’s Indigenous peoples—especially youth—to achieve their potential.
To create the atlas, editors collaborated with Indspire and these other groups and organizations representing Indigenous peoples: the Assembly of First Nations, the Métis National Council, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, as well as the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. The RCGS warrants that “the level of Indigenous participation and Indigenous-led content creation” proved to be “unprecedented in scope.” “Wherever possible, we used the voice of [an Indigenous person],” Ossie Michelin told APTN News. The journalist who edited the atlas’s Inuit section, added, “When that wasn’t available, we went with a researcher or scientist working directly with Indigenous groups.”
Geiger says so, too. In his interview with the Ottawa Citizen, he affirms, “…one thing that was clear from the very beginning was that…the content had to be Indigenous-led. This wasn’t the society trying to tell a story on behalf of Indigenous people; this would be a story told by Indigenous people.” Further along, he declares, “This is a magnificent story to tell of the incredible cultures that existed pre-European contact, and the depth of these cultures and the beauty of them. I think this book really captures that.”
On whose territories were pipeline projects happening?
On the heels of the Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada comes Native Land Digital, a crowd-sourced, interactive website [native-land.ca] that’s mapping traditional territories of Indigenous peoples, treaties, and languages. While this new Canadian not-for-profit—it was incorporated last December—was designed to be, and is becoming fully Indigenous-led, it was created in 2015 by Victor Temprano, CEO of mapster.me, a tech startup in Vancouver. As he explains, it “is not an academic or professional survey of Indigenous territories, and the maps are constantly being refined from user input.”
The venture arose while he was “mapping out pipeline projects” in British Columbia. “I started to ask myself whose territories all these projects were happening on.” Native Land’s mutable maps are “meant to encourage education and engagement on topics…[such as] colonization, land rights, language, and Indigenous history.” Too, it’s hoped that those who’ll view these maps will look at the land “from an Indigenous perspective [which] means understanding that the land is a living being.”
It’s thanks to Lois Evans that SSUC now possesses this publication. She purchased the four-volume set—one provides an overview; the others are devoted, one each, to the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit—and then donated it to the church Library. She found the atlas advertised in a magazine, she explains, and, because “we have been exploring our relationship with the Indigenous peoples of Canada, I thought it would be an excellent resource for the church.” Is it ever! It fills 328 good-sized pages; contains 48 full-page maps, plus over 50 smaller maps; features more than 350 photographs; and includes timelines, charts, graphics, frequently-asked questions, and a helpful glossary in which a whopping 164 terms are explained.
Even if you’re one of those who can’t tell up from down when eyeing a map, this collection of books will grab your interest. Kids Can Press is the global distributor of the Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada, which company president Lisa Lyons Johnston describes as “so much more than an atlas, the gorgeous four-volume set of books can more accurately be described as an encyclopedia.” As the Canadian Press mentioned, it includes information about Indigenous lands, communities, languages, treaties, and addresses topics such as colonization, residential schools, cultural appropriation, and racism. As Nardozi puts it, “It is amazing to have this amount of information that I trust in one place.”
Because so much information is imparted, this essay can do no more than offer a wee sampling…of what especially piqued and concerned and jolted this reader.
* “We live in an era of reconciliation,” Julian Brave NoiseCat allows in the introduction to the atlas. But he, a member of the Canim Lake Band Tsq’escen in British Columbia, goes on to add, “but it would take an unprecedented transformation for the immense wrongs perpetuated against our people to be put right. To begin, we must peer into the abyss of these injustices.” He goes on to tell of “decades and even centuries of struggle,” and, more specifically, that, “Our land was stolen, and with it our culture and life ways….”
Just so, Ry Moran, director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, reports and regrets this history: “…one fact remains central—the traditional lands, practices, values, cultures, languages, systems and understandings of Indigenous peoples have been systematically attacked, dismantled, and destroyed, at the hands of the Canadian state.”
* Of Southern Tutchone-Athabaskan and Euro-Canadian descent, Jocelyn Joe-Strack, in writing about efforts to negotiate land settlements with governments, points out, “At the heart of this dispute was a foundational difference in the Indigenous approach to development: our vision is generations-long. …This phenomenon of intergenerational leadership driven by devotion to our children is one of the key successes of Indigenous peoples. It is a force that has [changed] and is changing how decisions are made. …there’s still work to do to convince our colleagues in development of the value of prioritizing generations over year-to-year benefit….”
So it is that—this is reported in the piece on “Protected areas”—Indigenous rights advocate and former Xat’sull First Nation chief Bev Sellars filed private criminal charges against a mining company for the 2014 Mount Polley mine disaster in British Columbia: “‘We just couldn’t let it go. In my culture, we have a sacred responsibility not only to care for the land, waters, animals, and people living today, but also for the next seven generations to come. I could not bear to witness B.C. simply stepping aside and giving up on its responsibility to protect our shared environment and waters.’”
* In the volume given over to the Métis, it’s explained, “Being from both Indigenous and settler traditions, the Métis have always had the ability to ‘live in two worlds,’ and have been able to adapt to changing circumstances.” Their adaptive nature can be seen in “their traditional culture, which seamlessly blends Cree, Ojibwa, French-Canadian, and Scots parent cultures into a vibrant synthesis….” [This volume, incidentally, tells in a straightforward manner the history of the Métis, from when “they arose out of the fur trade, in the late 1700s,” to today; those given over to the Inuit and First Nations peoples are more topical in their approach.]
* Not surprisingly, climate change is pointed up in the book about the Inuit. “…The environment of risk that Inuit are born into is intensifying because of climate change…. Unprecedented rates of summer ice loss, reduced sea ice in the winter, ocean acidification, temperature and sea level rise, melting permafrost, extreme weather events, and severe coastal erosion, undermine our ability to thrive in our environment…. For Inuit, sea ice is critical infrastructure…. Ice is an extension of the land—its existence is imperative for Inuit to travel…. …Recent changes in the northern climate have led to increasingly dangerous sea ice and snow conditions, causing hunting areas and traditional travel routes to become inaccessible….”
* The precariousness of life in the north is underscored in a particular table, found on page 50 of this volume: it reports such social and economic inequities as these in the Inuit regions compared to the rest of Canada: the life expectancy for Inuit is 10-1/2 years less than it is for non-Indigenous Canadians; the infant mortality rate is almost three times greater than that for the non-Indigenous in Canada; 70% of Inuit households are food insecure, while all households in Canada are 8% food insecure; and the inequities go on and on.
* In writing, movingly, of the residential school debacle, Anne Spice, a Tlingit member of Kwanlin Dün First Nation in Yukon, tells of her maternal grandfather: “…He died before I was born. He died of demons born in this school [Carcross Residential School]. He died without ever telling his story. Instead, he swallowed it, and it is this absence that troubles me…. …By holding his experience and refusing to pass it along to his children, my grandfather was destroyed from the inside out. Crucially, my mother names this not as passive suffering, but as an act of sacrifice. He contained the violence to ensure it was not transmitted to future generations….
“As adults, knowing even a fraction of what may have happened in that school is enough to undo us. We know enough about this school, about the others, to assume that it was worse than we can imagine. It destroyed him. But he had demons that assaulted him for his whole—whole life. …His silence was a shield. My mother grew up without knowing, and his knowing but not telling was an act of love….”
* In what is the most hard-hitting entry in the four volumes, Karyn Pugliese, who’s just vacated the post of director of news and current affairs for APTN—she’s heading to Harvard this fall as the Martin Goodman Canadian Nieman Fellow—scathes journalists, and not only non-Indigenous reporters and editors, for failing for so long to cover ably the story of the First Peoples. Writing about reconciliation, she, described as an Algonquin citizen of the Pikwàkanagàn First Nation, and she alone in the four volumes, gets a disclaimer added to her contribution to the atlas: “Her opinions are her own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of her employer.”
“…it took years to do work we are proud of,” she declares, writing about the coverage of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. “And lest we forget, we did not get there on our own. Indigenous families insisted their loved ones deserved equal word counts, to be above the fold. Mothers marched through downtown streets, held vigils, lit candles. Women glued photos of their lost sisters onto coloured bristol board, scrawled their names in bold black marker. They planted themselves on Parliament Hill in the path of journalists heading to scrums. Why did we make families push so hard and wait so long?”
* And yet…and yet…the Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada teems with hope and promise and grace. Craving a way forwards, Ry Moran would have us create “a new national narrative.” We need “to fundamentally shift the national narrative away from a culture of domination and oppression, and towards a culture of respect, reciprocity, and understanding.” We have, he warrants, an opportunity for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to walk together “towards the destination of a fair, equitable, and just country. …Together, if we are willing, we can transform this country into something we are all proud to call home.”
By way of concluding this essay, the writer herewith cites Elizabeth Renzetti’s June 8 column in The Globe and Mail. In it, she points out that the recommendations of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls “make simple but profound requests of all Canadians: that we take the time to learn about Indigenous history and the crushing consequences of colonialism and misogyny.” He’ll say, too, how a helpful start on this venture can be made by visiting the SSUC Library and delving into the Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada.