Dealing with ‘erasure’: The role of Indigenous knowledge in drawing maps of Canada

Jonathan Williams, an Indigenous youth snorkeler with the Squamish Nation holds up a herring and a cedar bough. Williams was part of a team of 'citizen scientists' who are mapping the return of herring in Átl’ḵa7tsem-Howe Sound, B.C.
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The role of Indigenous knowledge in drawing maps of Canada
The role of Indigenous knowledge in drawing maps of Canada – Dec 14, 2022

It’s early spring on the South Coast of B.C. – not exactly swimming weather.

But some “citizen scientists” are taking the plunge: snorkeling in the frigid waters of Howe Sound, or Átl’ḵa7tsem (pronounced ‘Atkatsim’ in the Squamish language). They’re looking for a minuscule but all-important fish – herring.

The presence of herring in these waters is an indication of a healthy ecosystem; the fish provide food for creatures right up the food chain.

“One of the sayings that I heard was that if there’s herring there’s hope,” says Jonathan Williams, one of the divers, who is an Indigenous youth from the Squamish Nation.

'Citizen scientists' along B.C.'s Átl’ḵa7tsem (Howe Sound), surveying herring stocks. March 26, 2022. Credit: Kieran Brownie
Youth from the Squamish Nation snorkel in the frigid waters of Átl’ḵa7tsem-Howe Sound to look for herring. Considered a 'forage' fish, herring feed animals right up the food chain, and are an indication of ecosystem health. February 20, 2022. Credit: Kieran Brownie
Diver Jonathan Williams with a herring and a cedar bough, considered by the Squamish People to be a 'carrier' of positive energy. March 26, 2022. Credit: Kieran Brownie

The research these youth snorkelers are partaking in is part of an Indigenous-led project to map the coastal waters of Átl’ḵa7tsem, once polluted by industry, but now teeming with fish.

For centuries, Indigenous communities have had their traditional knowledge and cultural traditions overlooked, if not erased.


That’s reflected in the conventional maps of Canada.

Read more: ‘Education is the key’: Why reconciliation needs to start with students

UBC researcher Fiona Beaty, who is collaborating with the Squamish Nation to produce the maps, says European explorers “initially worked with Indigenous communities. They were reliant on them to navigate these waterways.”

But with time, “they began to replace Indigenous names and languages with names of settler explorers and military folks who had never visited this part of the world.”

Indigenous-led mapping efforts represent the start of a movement to incorporate Indigenous knowledge not just into the physicality of an actual map, but also to inform Canadians’ cultural understanding of their country, creating what UBC Indigenous Studies Professor Gordon Christie describes as a different “mythology” for Canada.

The Átl’ḵa7tsem-Howe Sound map that Beaty is working on with the Squamish Nation is built with hundreds of data layers. It provides information on everything from different fish, birds and other animals, to details about ecological hot spots, places for safe anchorage and even whale sightings.

That knowledge is being harnessed beyond the south coast of B.C.

In Haida Gwaii, along the North Coast of B.C., the Haida Nation has created a highly-visual map illustrating the traditional place names of every stream, river, lake and mountain. Dozens of different marine species are illustrated on the map, which captures the Nation’s values and culture, in addition to at least two local languages.

A map produced by the Haida Nation represents marine species, rivers and streams, and other geographic sites using traditional names. It’s part of an effort to draw on traditional ecological knowledge in mapping. That knowledge, in turn, can be applied to adapt to the growing challenge of climate change. Credit: Haida Nation

The idea of drawing maps that are informed by Indigenous knowledge, tradition and ways of knowing and being is critical in the effort to address the climate crisis.

To understand the impacts of climate change, along with ways to adapt to it, we must know, says Beaty, about land, sea and air from the people who have lived here for centuries – and that knowledge is starting to be reflected on maps.

Local communities, including Indigenous ones, “have so much knowledge about these places that are being impacted by climate change.”

Case in point: Sumas Lake in B.C.’s Fraser Valley.

One hundred years ago, engineers representing the British Crown surveyed B.C.’s Fraser Valley and decreed that a lake on the Sumas Prairie would better serve as farmland.

An image of Sumas Lake in B.C.'s Fraser Valley, before reclamation of the area. City of Vancouver Archives / James Skitt Matthews
Sumas Lake in a flood. The lake was drained in the 1920s to make way for farmland. City of Vancouver Archives / James Crookall
A picnic on Sumas Lake in B.C., prior to the lake being drained to make way for farmland. City of Vancouver Archives / James Skitt Matthews

The lake was drained.

Fast forward a century to last November, when devastating rains inundated the region. Without a lake, the water had nowhere to go, except over people’s farms, into homes and right across the Trans-Canada highway.

A family that was stranded by high water due to flooding is rescued by a volunteer operating a boat in Abbotsford, B.C., on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press

When the decision to drain the lake was made, “our people didn’t have any say whatsoever,” says Sumas First Nation Chief Dalton Silver, who says the lake was “our supermarket.”

“We’ve been ignored and overlooked for a couple of centuries.”

Read more: Sumas First Nation chief reflects on ‘disaster’ B.C. flooding where lake used to be

In Southwestern Ontario, a similar effort is underway to address that erasure – and to adapt to growing ecological risks posed by climate change and biodiversity loss.

There, a major floodplain mapping project involving three Nations is studying the Thames River watershed near London, Ont.

In Ontario, flood mapping has traditionally been done by local conservation authorities. What’s missing from that work, says environmental consultant Kerry-Ann Charles, is the relationships with Indigenous communities.

“There’s gaps within their planning because there’s no relationship with the Indigenous communities.”

The floodplain mapping project aims to address those blind spots, drawing on the oral histories of Indigenous Peoples, and building on the idea of respect for the natural world.

“It’s a bottom-up approach where we honour the people, we honour what’s in front of us,” says Brandon Doxtator, the environmental consultation coordinator at Oneida Nation, near London.

“That knowledge goes back to our natural ways of being, and our outlooks and perspectives.” Those, he explains, are “minimalistic,” and see humans and nature as part and parcel of the same integrated system – not as separate from one another.

“The idea is that we can see the world through two different lenses,” says Brennan Vogel, who represents the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, which is leading the flood-mapping initiative.

“The Western-science lens, which is very focused on facts, figures, quantitative analysis … and then the Indigenous worldview which is based (on) different ideas around connection to land, oral history and alternative ways of knowing that are based on the traditions of Indigenous People.”

Though much more effort is going into building on Indigenous traditions in addressing environmental challenges – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $800-million in funding this month for four new Indigenous protected areas in Canada – the Canadian legal system, experts say, has yet to catch up.

“Canadian law,” says Christie, “rests on the notion that the Crown is sovereign.”

That means, in the eyes of the legal system, Indigenous cultural practices and worldviews still subscribe to a colonial system of justice.

In practice, therefore, large gaps remain between rhetoric, or best intentions, and action.

For instance, Canada is a signatory to a UN declaration that requires “free, prior and informed” consent from Indigenous Peoples when it comes to approving large resource projects.

But the federal government, Christie says, is not legally bound to the provisions in the UN declaration, which leaves the notion of Indigenous consent open to interpretation.

“It’s left in their hands to work out what that really means.”

The default, in other words, is still the colonialist one.

Read more: Drawing links between nature and our health

But that’s starting to change, as the planet heats up to dangerous levels, and recognition grows that a more integrated, appreciative relationship with nature is needed.

The work begins, says Charles, by having a different relationship with Planet Earth: “looking at our surroundings and (seeing) whether or not it’s healthy and sustainable,” she explains.


“Ensuring,” she adds, “that people have that understanding that everything that we have comes from Mother Earth.”