Mapping a vision for their lands

Mark Hume

Vancouver — Published on Sunday, Apr. 04, 2010
Does a place exist if it isn’t on a map?

In today’s complex regulatory and legal world, the simple answer is that if you can’t prove it’s there, then it’s probably not.

It’s pretty hard, for example, to go to court to stop a mining company from building an access road across a moose pasture, if all you can do is put an elder on the witness stand who says he used to hunt around there, somewhere.

And on what basis do you draw border lines in land-claim negotiations? Where’s the evidence this watershed or that mountain range was vital to a tribe’s existence?

To deal with the burden of proof placed on them by courts and government, native organizations have been mapping the use and occupancy of their lands for about 35 years.

Some of that cartography has been haphazard, and dismissed by courts, just as some of it has been brilliant, laying the foundation for comprehensive land-claim settlements.

But it’s only now, with the publication in British Columbiaof a new guide book on indigenous use-and-occupancy mapping, that a gold standard has been set for what these maps should be like.

And it could change the way we look at Canada.

Living Proof, written by Terry Tobias, has been causing a stir since it was released in Vancouver last month by Ecotrust Canada and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.

Each of the 200 bands in British Columbia now has a copy, more are being shipped across the country and interest is being expressed by aboriginal groups from the High Arctic to South America.

The book, seven years in the making, lays down the foundation for creating exquisitely detailed maps that show how native people use the land on which they live.

And it has just won an award from the Alcuin Society, for being the best designed reference book in Canada.

“This is a very prestigious award, and it means the book will get shown around the world,” Ian Gill, president of Ecotrust Canada said in an e-mail. “More importantly, it is going to be the basis for redrawing the map of Canada [and Australia] I believe, and will be a tremendous aid to first nations that are trying to articulate a more conservation-based vision for their lands.”

He mentions Australia because while the book was being put together, a delegation from there came to study how use-and-occupancy maps were being done by Mr. Tobias. The author was then invited back to help aboriginals in South Australia with mapping. A chapter covers that project and there is also a section on the Canadian Arctic.

“It’s kind of ironic,” said Mr. Gill, “but the indigenous mapping that’s being done in the Arctic could end up substantiating the government’s claim to sovereignty there.” International bodies might easily ignore the route taken by Canadian ice breakers as proof of occupancy. But a map that shows where a native community has hunted seals and whales for 5,000 years is difficult to dismiss.

At a book launch last week Thomas Berger, one of B.C.’s leading legal figures and former head of the Mackenzie Valley pipeline inquiry, described Living Proof as a “magnificent object.”

In a foreword to the book, he says governments have long used maps to assert control over land occupied by aboriginal people, but now native groups are using modern cartography for their own purposes.

“Armed with their own maps, they are enjoying greater success in blocking attempts to annex their lands and appropriate their resources,” he wrote.

Gregory Kehm, program director at Ecotrust Canada and a member of the editorial committee, said the information found in the maps – locating everything from berry patches to sacred sites – was long held secret by native communities. But a new generation of leaders became convinced that “if you lock up this information, you are defeating yourselves.”

In other words, they realized that to make their world real to our world, they had to map it.

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