Decolonizing our Maps


The other day, a friend asked me about the work I do, and why working with First Nations communities and cartography was so important to me.  I was struck with one question in particular: “Why do you need to make maps?  Aren’t there already a lot of maps already out there?”  The short answer is simple – “Yes AND No”.  The history of cartography as it pertains to Indigenous communities is far more complex and difficult to explain in one short answer, however.

In North America (as in many other countries), maps have been used by European settlers to relegate Indigenous communities to the small parcels of land we now call Reserves (in Canada), and Reservations (in the United States).  Jordan Engel, the founder of a project called the “Decolonial Atlas”, states that, for many First Nations, “there is no truth in cartography”.  Engel explains his viewpoint further:

“Colonial powers, without the consent of Indigenous people, drew up imaginary political borders, which, more often than not, don’t reflect any real natural or cultural boundaries”.

For anyone interested, Engel’s project can be viewed in more detail at  It is important to interject here that the statement “there is no truth in cartography” is not completely accurate.

I believe that there is always an inherent truth to be found in maps and cartographical charts.  Maps provide us with a picture of how we understand the world around us, and what the places we chose to display mean to us and for us.   Perhaps more accurately, the maps that many of us use and understand today hold little truth for First Nations groups.  This is because of the way that Native place and space was changed by European settlers and redrawn to exclude Indigenous peoples from the land and resources they had long-standing sovereign rights to. What became ‘truth’ for the settler was little more than a paper-thin ‘lie’ for First Nations communities who could no longer access important resources and sacred cultural sites.  One of the simplest ways to rewrite history using cartography is through changing the names of the places listed on the map.

Some of you might remember last August 2015, when Barack Obama visited Denali National Park in Alaska.  The tallest mountain in North America, standing 6,190 metres above sea level, can be found in Denali National Park.  This mountain was named Mount McKinley by a gold prospector in 1896, in honour of then President William McKinley.  The Koyukon Athabascan people who called the area home knew this mountain as Denali, or “The Great One”, however.  From 1913 to Obama’s visit in 2015, the naming of Mount McKinley produced much conflict over the proper placename.  Last August, Obama official changed the name of the mountain back to Denali – and with this name change came a different understanding of the region’s and the people’s history.

Maps lay out specific understandings of place and space.  Place names hold specific history, use, ownership, and sovereignty over the places drawn on the map. What is important about maps is that they allow others to control spaces, people, and resources. Even more importantly is that these same maps can be redrawn and created to include cultures and people which were originally drawn out of the map.  Most importantly, in the words of cartographer Doug Aberley, “Maps can show a vision for the future more clearly than thousands of words”.[1]

This is why working with cartography and First Nations communities is important to me.  We can use the same tool (the map) which marginalized these communities in the first place to restore social justice rights, improve food security and resource capacity, create better cultural understandings, and establish new awareness for the histories of the places we live in.  By engaging marginalized communities in collaborative research and community mapping, we may ultimately create a better and more sustainable future for us all.


[1] Aberley, D. 1993. Boundaries of Home: Mapping for Local Empowerment. New Society Publishers. Gabriola Island, BC.

The Work that Reconnects

I had the amazing opportunity last weekend to participate in an important workshop: The Work that Reconnects. As drawn from the website, , This work involves

“Drawing from deep ecology, systems theory and spiritual traditions, the Work That Reconnects (WTR) builds motivation, creativity, courage and solidarity for the transition to a sustainable human culture. First emerging in 1978, this pioneering, open-source body of work has its roots in the teachings and experiential methods of Joanna Macy.
The Work That Reconnects has inspired thousands of people to take heart and work together for the sake of life on Earth, despite rapidly worsening social and ecological conditions. It has also inspired people to co-create experiential practices that serve the Work in specific groups and settings.
To learn the basics of the Work That Reconnects and its distinctive approach, people come to workshops that range in duration from a day or weekend to a ten or thirty-day intensive. But the Work That Reconnects extends far beyond such dedicated events, for its methods are widely used in classrooms, faith communities, grassroots organizing, and environmental and civil rights campaigns.
Earlier in its development this approach was known as “despair and empowerment work,” “psychological peace work,” and “deep ecology work.” Its theory and practice are described in the following books: Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age, by Joanna Macy in 1983; Thinking Like a Mountain: Toward a Council of All Beings, 1988, by John Seed, Joanna Macy, Arne Naess and Pat Fleming; Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World, 1998, by Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown; and Active Hope: How to Face the Mess we’re in Without Going Crazy, 2012, by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone.

I am grateful that I had the opportunity to participate in this amazing event!spiral.png

Last Stand for Lelu

Last Stand for Lelu is a short (24 minute) film, directed by Farhan Umedaly and Tamo Campos.  Acording to the website,

“A great injustice is being done on Lelu Island near Prince Rupert, B.C., the sacred and traditional territory of the Lax Kw’alaams people for over 10,000 years. The B.C. provincial government is trying to green light the construction of a massive LNG terminal on the island – Pacific Northwest LNG, backed by Malaysian energy giant Petronas, without consent.

The Lax Kw’alaams are the keepers of Lelu Island and its connected Flora Bank, a massive sand bar that is part of the Skeena River estuary and known by fisheries biologists as some of the most important salmon habitat in Canada. The project would devastate the Skeena River, the natural wildlife and countless communities in the path of the LNG pipeline that will feed the terminal with fracked gas from Northeastern B.C.

The Lax Kw’alaams have voted unanimously against the project and became legendary when they rejected a $1.15 billion dollar deal from Petronas in an attempt by the company to gain consent.

Ignoring the voice of the Lax Kw’alaams, Petronas, with full backing of the Provincial Government have illegally begun drilling into Flora Bank where they now face off against warriors of the Lax Kw’alaams who have occupied the island since August 2015.

Join the resistance of the Lax Kw’alaams on both land and sea in ‘A Last Stand for Lelu’”.

Leila Darwish, an activist involved with Stop Pacific NorthWest LNG/Petronas on Lelu Island, is campaigning for support against Petronas’ construction efforts on unceded Lax Kw’alaams land.  Her work includes providing screening opportunities of Last Stand for Lelu, in an effort to raise funds in support of the Lax Kw’alaams Keepers.  For more information on the ongoing conflict, check out this Facebook link:

Spatial Integrity, owned and operated by Paul Stephany, supports the peaceful campaigns of the Lax Kw’alaams to secure sovereign rights to lands, waters and resources which comprise their traditional territory.  As such, Spatial Integrity is currently collaborating with social, environmental and Aboriginal groups in the Guelph area; in an effort to create a screening and fundraising event which will help support the Lax Kw’alaams in their efforts – both financially and educationally.

Spatial Integrity is planning a community event (date and venue to be announced) which will feature a screening of Last Stand for Lelu, as well as a special opportunity to discuss the issue with a Skype conference of one of the Lelu Island camp members of the Lax Kw’alaams community.  Please watch this space for upcoming information on this important event!