It’s early spring on the South Coast of BC – not exactly swimming weather.
But some “citizen scientists” are taking the plunge: snorkeling in the icy waters of Howe Sound, or Átl’ḵa7tsem (pronounced ‘Atkatsim’ in the Squamish language). They are looking for a minuscule but extremely important fish – herring.
The presence of herring in these waters is an indication of a healthy ecosystem; the fish provide food for creatures up the food chain.
“One of the sayings 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.
The research these youth snorkelers are participating 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, their traditional knowledge and cultural traditions were overlooked, if not obliterated.
This is reflected in the conventional maps of Canada.
‘Education is the key’: Why reconciliation must start with students
‘Education is the key’: Why reconciliation must start with students
UBC researcher Fiona Beaty, who is working with the Squamish Nation to produce the maps, says European explorers “worked initially with indigenous communities. They depended on them to navigate these waterways.”
But over time, “they began to replace native names and languages with names of settler explorers and military people who had never visited this part of the world.”
Indigenous-led mapping efforts represent the beginning of a movement to incorporate Indigenous knowledge not only into the physicality of an actual map, but also to inform Canadians’ cultural understanding of their land, creating what UBC Indigenous Studies Professor Gordon Christie described as another “mythology” for Canada.
The Átl’ḵa7tsem-Howe Sound map Beaty is working on with the Squamish Nation was built with hundreds of data layers. It provides information on everything from different fish, birds and other animals, to details on ecological hotspots, places for safe anchorage and even whale sightings.
That knowledge is harnessed beyond the south coast of BC
In Haida Gwaii, along BC’s North Coast, the Haida Nation has created a highly visual map that illustrates the traditional place names of every stream, river, lake and mountain. Dozens of different marine species are illustrated on the map, capturing the nation’s values and culture, in addition to at least two local languages.
The idea of drawing maps informed by indigenous knowledge, tradition and ways of knowing and being is critical in the effort to address the climate crisis.
To understand the impact of climate change, along with ways to adapt to it, we need to know, says Beaty, about the land, sea and sky of the people who have lived here for centuries – and that knowledge is beginning to be reflected on maps.
Local communities, including indigenous communities, “have so much knowledge about these places that are affected by climate change.”
Case in point: Sumas Lake in BC’s Fraser Valley.
One hundred years ago, engineers representing the British Crown surveyed BC’s Fraser Valley and decided that a lake on the Sumas Prairie would serve better as farmland.
The lake has been drained.
Fast forward a century to last November, when devastating rains flooded 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.
When the decision was made to drain the lake, “our people had no say whatsoever,” says Sumas First Nation Chief Dalton Silver, who says the lake was “our supermarket.”
“We have been ignored and overlooked for several centuries.”
Sumas First Nation chief reflects on ‘catastrophic’ BC flooding where the lake was
In Southwestern Ontario, a similar effort is underway to address that extinction — and to adapt to growing ecological risks posed by climate change and loss of biodiversity.
There is a major floodplain mapping project involving three nations studying the Thames River watershed near London, Ont.
In Ontario, flood mapping has traditionally been done by local conservation authorities. What is missing from that work, says environmental consultant Kerry-Ann Charles, are the relationships with indigenous communities.
“There are gaps in their planning because there is no relationship with the indigenous communities.”
The floodplain mapping project aims to address those blind spots, using the oral history of indigenous peoples, and building on the idea of respect for the natural world.
“It’s a bottom-up approach where we honor the people, we honor what’s in front of us,” says Brandon Doxtator, the environmental consulting coordinator at Oneida Nation, near London.
“That knowledge goes back to our natural ways of being, and our outlooks and perspectives.” These, he explains, are “minimalist”, and see people and nature as part of the same integrated system – not as separate from each other.
“The idea is that we can see the world through two different lenses,” said Brennan Vogel, who represents the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, who 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 based on the traditions of indigenous people.”
While much more effort is being made to build on Indigenous traditions to address environmental challenges — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this month announced $800 million in funding for four new Indigenous protected areas in Canada — the Canadian justice system, experts say, has yet to catch up .
“Canadian law,” says Christie, “is based on the idea that the Crown is sovereign.”
This means, in the eyes of the legal system, indigenous cultural practices and worldviews still underpin a colonial system of justice.
In practice, therefore, there remain large gaps between rhetoric, or best intentions, and action.
For example, Canada is a signatory to a UN declaration that requires “free, prior and informed” consent of indigenous peoples when it comes to approving major resource projects.
But the federal government, Christie says, is not legally bound by the provisions in the UN declaration, leaving the idea of indigenous consent open to interpretation.
“It’s in their hands to find out what it really means.”
The default, in other words, is still the colonialist one.
Draw links between nature and our health
But that is beginning to change, as the planet warms 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 environment and (seeing) whether it is healthy and sustainable or not,” she explains.
“To ensure,” she adds, “that people have that understanding that everything we have comes from Mother Earth.”