A Story of Disasters, Poverty Myths, and the Birth of the Poverty Industry

“It’s going to all be private enterprise before it’s over… They’ve got the expertise. They’ve got the resources.” ~Billy Wagner, emergency management chief for the Florida Keys

Canada spent $5.8 billion toward International assistance efforts in 2015.  These tax-payer dollars went to helping the poor with disaster relief, food aid, and military assistance. Despite the billions spent, however, many communities remain poor. The question is, “Why?”

Aid programs can harm more than they help.  Poverty seems to increase rather than decrease.[1]  The poor are often blamed for program failures. They are judged to be lazy and irresponsible. Lack of ‘proper’ education is seen as a primary reason the poor remain poor.  It becomes the responsibility of ‘more knowledgeable’ people to take care of communities incapable of taking care of themselves.


Source: www.en.wikipedia.org

There are several prevalent myths regarding the poor. These myths have influenced public policy for hundreds of years. The most important myths include:

(1) The poor are lazy.

(2) The poor are drug addicts.

(3) The poor are uneducated.

(4) The poor are criminals.

(5) The poor will always be poor.

Current poverty reduction programs rely largely on these five myths.  It seems little has changed over the last hundred years!  The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 illustrates how these myths influence financial aid and poverty reduction programs.

One of the hardest hit areas during Hurricane Katrina was the Ninth Ward, located in New Orleans.  For more information, check out this link: http://archive.oah.org/special-issues/katrina/Landphair.html


1870s Map of New Orleans. Source: www.en.wikipedia.org

Prior to 2005, the Ninth Ward had become a place of unique culture and community.  By the late 1800s, over 17,000 people lived in the Ward.  This was a neighborhood which encouraged collaboration and mutual aid.  The geography of this area also served to separate and isolate the space from the rest of New Orleans. This isolation was increased in 1918, when the city constructed a new industrial canal.  Many officials thought this canal would promote economic growth.  The canal ran through the middle of the Ninth Ward, because officials saw the space as “uninhabited”.  This canal created two separate spaces which were divided by class and race.  Poor, mostly African-American families remained in the Lower Ninth Ward.  Wealthier white families moved into St. Bernard’s Parish on the other side of the canal.


Canal dividing lower and upper Ninth Ward. Source: www.en.wikipedia.org

By 2003, the media listed the lower Ninth Ward as “The murder capital of the murder capital” in the U.S.  The Ward was a “dangerous backwater pockmarked with blight where one’s life was always at risk”.  The people who lived there were “underclass” and “unwed, live-off-the-dole welfare mothers”. In short, the residents of the lower Ninth Ward were lazy, drug-addicted criminals who lacked proper education or will to help themselves. The five poverty myths were in full play.

After Hurricane Katrina, many city and State officials discussed the future of the Ninth Ward.  Col Terry Ebbert (Department of Homeland Security) said,

“There’s nothing out there that can be saved at all”.

The lower Ninth Ward was built on unstable flood plains, and officials discouraged rebuilding there.  The wealthier St. Bernard suburbs were allowed to rebuild, even though they lived in the same flood plain, however. After the mayor announced that the cost of rebuilding would be the responsibility of residents, it was clear to many that race and poverty were primary variables in recovery efforts.  Instead of being helped after the disaster, the lower Ninth Ward community was marginalized, segregated, and stigmatized.  Many residents felt they were victims of discrimination based on race and class.


Source: www.wikipedia.org

Even more importantly, the government transferred much of their power and responsibility for helping to private industry.  Author Naomi Klein calls this phenomenon “Disaster Capitalism”.[2]  Klein feels that Hurricane Katrina is a perfect example of the problems the poverty industry has created.  In a Time Magazine interview, she explains that the government betrayed the poorest people of America.  Government aid dollars remained unspent, and private industry was allowed to choose who they helped.  Profits became the driving force behind disaster relief.[3]


Source: www.en.wikipedia.org

In New Orleans, people who could afford to pay for the ‘service’ were rescued first.  The poor remained on roof-tops and in buildings with no food, water, or power.  Residents who could afford to pay quickly recovered. People in the lower Ninth Ward still do not have adequate housing!  Meanwhile, tax dollars dedicated to disaster relief remain unspent.


Banksy art in lower Ninth Ward.  Source: www.en.wikipedia.org

Hurricane Katrina is one example of how poverty myths and the poverty industry undermine the success of current poverty reduction programs.  Next week, I will take a closer look at the Poverty Industry, and how it is adversely affecting the global poor.  Until then, this is Spatial Integrity – making the Invisible, Visible!


Source: www.en.wikipedia.org

[1] Sanderson, S. 2005. Poverty and Conservation: The New Century’s “Peasant Question?” World Development. 33(2). 323-32.

[2][2] http://www.naomiklein.org/shock-doctrine/resources/disaster-capitalism-in-action/tags/hurricane%2Bkatrina

[3] http://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1666221,00.html

First Nations and Assimilation in Canada: The Creation of a New Class of Poverty


Source: en.m.wikipedia.org

As a colonised Nation, Canadian history often mirrors England’s.  Canada’s economic development is very different from England’s, however.  One difference is that the Canadian colonies were established as a way to provide resources to Europe.  While Great Britain was developing global economic power through manufacturing, Canada provided needed raw materials to England, France, and even the United States.  Canada’s role in outsourcing its natural resources has directly impacted First Nations communities.  As a result, a new class of poverty was created in Canada – often called the “fourth world”.


Source: www.thestar.com

Historically, Indigenous people were often regarded as barriers to accessing important resources and land.  The Indian Act of 1876[1] was created in large part to remove First Nations from land needed for settlement and resource extraction.  This Act created a Reserve system, managed by the Federal government, which contained and controlled Indigenous groups. In 1884, cultural practices, such as Potlatches[2], were banned under the Indian Act. In 1927, another amendment made it illegal for First Nations to hire lawyers or seek legal counsel.  This came out of a concern that more Indigenous groups were using the courts to claim rights to contested land and resources.  This treatment of First Nations is remarkably similar to early European policies of segregating ‘undesirable’ cultural groups, such as the gypsies, Jews, and Huguenots…

Assimilation became the buzz word for any policy regarding Canada’s newly emerging ‘fourth world’.  Residential schools[3] became a primary tool for ensuring complete assimilation of First Nations’ children.  The schools were run collaboratively by churches and the government.  In keeping with the terms of the Indian Act, the government saw these schools as the best way to integrate Indigenous people into Canadian society. Churches were invested in the project, so that Indigenous people would accept Christian teachings and turn away from ‘evil’ pagan practices.  The recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) report has shown irrevocable harm to First Nations groups.  Disease, death, abuse, and appalling injustices have marked the over 150 years these schools were open.  Today, it is clear these schools are responsible for horrible injustices, extreme poverty, abuse, and even genocide!


Source: www.flickr.com

At the end of World War II, many Canadians had witnessed horrifying injustices against minority people, including Jews and Japanese.  The UN was an organisation created as a result of economic and social injustice, and many new policies were adopted in order to build economic capacity and reduce injustice.  Despite these new efforts, however, Canadian First Nations remained a people who were ‘invisible’ to global poverty reduction efforts.

In the 1960s, it was clear that First Nations communities were experiencing greater poverty, infant mortality, and lack of education than the rest of Canada.  To address this, then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and John Chretien (Minister of Indian Affairs) attempted to pass a comprehensive policy which addressed First Nations communities in Canada.  This policy would eliminate ‘Indian’ as a distinct legal status, and name First Nations individuals as “citizens with the same rights, opportunities and responsibilities as other Canadians.”[4] This proposal was immediately rejected by First Nations leaders, who saw the policy as inherently racial – and a deliberate attempt to erase Indigenous cultures from Canada once and for all!


Source: http://hkellysocials.weebly.com/

In 2007, the UN created the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).  It is important to recognize that Canada was one of four countries who voted against this declaration in 2007.  Representatives said that while they “supported the ‘spirit of the declaration, it contained elements that were ‘fundamentally incompatible with Canada’s constitutional framework’”.[5]  It was not until 2016 that Canada finally confirmed a commitment to this declaration.


Source: www.aptn.ca

Historical Canadian policies regarding First Nations communities and poverty reduction have failed.  Assimilation, marginalisation, genocide, and Residential Schools, and Reserves have created a ‘fourth world’ marked by devastating poverty and profound social injustice.  Today, many First Nations communities live in poverty conditions which are largely ignored or inadequately addressed by Canadians.  Over 60% of First Nations children are living in poverty.  Many communities lack adequate access to clean water.  Mining and logging industries threaten access to food and important cultural spaces.  Future poverty reduction efforts need to fully focus on redressing injustices which have occurred since the early 1800s.


Source: www.winnepegsun.com

Next week, I will discuss Canadian efforts in poverty reduction and International Development projects.  Until then, this is Spatial Integrity – Making the Invisible, Visible!

[1] http://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/home/government-policy/the-indian-act.html

[2] http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/potlatch/

[3] http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/residential-schools/

[4] http://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/home/government-policy/the-white-paper-1969.html

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Declaration_on_the_Rights_of_Indigenous_Peoples

Charles Booth: Political Reform and the Spatiality of Poverty

London was in political and economic turmoil in the late 1800s.  Poverty was a major problem for Londoners, who often blamed the poor for disease, crime, and violence.  Many people wrote about these conditions in the mid-1800s. One of these people was Henry Mayhew. Mayhew wrote London Labour and the London Poor in 1840 (http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/henry-mayhews-london-labour-and-the-london-poor). Mayhew used the stories of poor street performers, vendors, prostitutes, beggars, rat catchers and thieves to create data which challenged police reports and census data of the time.


“Beer Street and Gin Lane”. Source: www.en.wikipedia.org

Mayhew’s work profoundly influenced Charles Booth, who used many of Mayhew’s research techniques to create a series of maps and reports.  His research laid the groundwork for the framework which new welfare policies would be based on.  For a biography of Charles Booth, click on this link: http://booth.lse.ac.uk/static/a/2.html

Booth’s 17-year project was designed to address two things.  First, he was concerned about the Socialist movement in England.  Riots were a serious problem in London, and many believed the socialists were responsible.  Finally, Booth did not believe the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) reports which said that 25% of Londoners were poor. Booth thought the SDF reports were deliberately inflated to encourage conflict.

Booth used Mayhew’s research methods to create a database and twelve maps which recorded 4 million people! In order to define poverty, Booth created a new ‘poverty line’.  Anyone receiving less than 18 shillings per week was ‘poor’.  Booth’s creation of a poverty line is still used in economic policy today.

Booth’s final report, Life and Labour of the People of London (1889), revealed three very important findings.  First, Booth’s idea the SDF were deliberately inflating the numbers of poor people in London was wrong.  Much to the government’s dismay, Booth’s findings showed that 30% of London was living in poverty.

Second, Booth demonstrated that drinking did not cause poverty, as many believed.  The opposite was true – poverty resulted in excessive drinking.  For perhaps the first time, crime, alcoholism and disease could be seen as a result of poverty!

Finally, Booth found that a large majority of the poor were aged.  Booth began campaigning for the government to establish an old-age pension and to abolish the workhouses.  The Old Age Pension Act was finally approved in 1908. Booth’s research, rather than creating a means to end the socialist movement in London, strengthened the power and objectives of the SDF for the future.


UNITED KINGDOM – MAY 14: Spinsters And Widows Protesting For Equity In London On May 14Th 1938 (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images) Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk

The maps of London which Booth created became very important to researchers.  They provided information that showed poverty was not just as an economic issue, but a spatial one!  Booth established seven class classifications for his maps.  These classes ranged from the lowest class (vicious criminals) to the very wealthy.  Each area of London was colour-coded to show the classes of people who lived there.


Source: www.commons.wikipedia.org

These maps are now digitized and geo-referenced.  This means that they can be compared to current maps of London in order to track important changes over time!  Maps can help people to better understand patterns of poverty in specific places.  Once we understand these patterns, it is possible to develop policies which better solve poverty problems.


Booth map of Whitechapel. Source: www.en.wikipedia.org

In the 1800s, many people thought that the poor only lived in certain places, like along the Thames River docks.  It was possible to avoid areas where the poor congregated.  Booth’s findings showed that the poor tended to live in ‘undesirable’ areas, but also lived in the same places as the wealthy.  One example of this is in the historic Whitechapel district.  This was the area frequented by ‘Jack the Ripper’.  This space has a long and volatile history.  Today, evidence of pauper’s graves can be found alongside well-to-do businesses on ‘Petticoat Lane’ (Middlesex Street).


Petticoat Lane Market, 2006. Source: www.en.wikipedia.org

Unfortunately, mapping poverty in London has also caused harm.  Spatial information was later used by Environmental Determinists, Eugenics societies, and colonial governments to institute ghettos, slums and segregation policies.  Fully understanding the spatial implications of poverty allowed authorities to more efficiently remove the poor from desirable spaces and contain them in less desirable places.  Rather than alleviate poverty, it became possible to plan urban areas which best controlled and policed the poor. Next week, I will examine the policies which emerged from the 1800s, and now form the foundation of the ‘poverty industry’.  Until next time, this is Spatial Integrity – making the invisible, visible!


Poverty, Vagrancy, and Criminality: The Problem of the Poor in Public Policy


Source: www.flickr.com

“Are there no prisons?”
Plenty of prisons…
“And the Union workhouses.” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
Both very busy, sir…
“Those who are badly off must go there.”
Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

 Poverty means different things to different people. Policies which address poverty in our communities are based on how we measure and understand poverty.  In North America, our policies and laws began in British and European history. By understanding historic perceptions of the poor, we can better understand our policies today.  The way we see the poor in our own community is the way we will see the poor in other countries.


Source: www.media.nationalarchives.gov.uk

Tudor England was especially interested in the poverty problem.  There were so many poor peasants that it was important to keep them happy and avoid unpleasant revolts.  The government divided the poor into three groups: the “helpless poor”, the “able-bodied poor”, and “rogues and vagabonds”.  Rogues and vagabonds were the most dangerous, since they were considered criminals who were most likely to overthrow the government.  Laws were passed which allowed this group to be flogged and put to death if they were caught begging.  Eventually, this third group extended to ‘undesirables’ like Gypsies, Jews, and even Huguenots (French Protestants).


Source: www.vulgarcrowd.wordpress.com

The Poor Relief Act was established in 1662.  This Act made local Parishes responsible for the poor living within their specific jurisdiction.  Anyone who received charity from the church had to have documents which proved they lived in that Parish.  If they could not prove they lived there, they were forced to leave, jailed, or killed.  In short, this made the Church and not the government responsible for the poor.  It also made it possible to keep ‘undesirables’ from settling in England.


Source: www.commons.wikipedia.org

In the early 1800s, people’s ideas about the poor shifted.  Industrial growth was understood as the means to create wealthy nations.  National wealth meant greater power and influence.  Colonial control of places like Africa, South America, India and Asia became more important than ever.  Welfare and care for the poor became an obstacle to achieving National wealth and power.  People like Thomas Malthus (http://bit.ly/29zBmkI) made it clear that the poor were to blame for a country’s failure to grow economically.

Malthus opposed the poor laws of the time, which were established to provide food and money to people in poverty.  He believed that providing food to the poor would only serve to increase the poor populations and that they would live in a “greater degree of misery and vice.  Likewise, higher wages would only encourage the poor to have larger families, which would result in decreased National wealth.  These were the ideas that led to the establishment of debtor’s prisons and workhouses.  It was these ideas that Dickens decried in A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge delivers his famous line about poor houses and the poor…

The ‘misery of the poor’ soon extended to the polluted and dilapidated places the poor had to live in.  These places became linked to disease and death.  These were places of fear – where thieves, cut-throats and murderers stalked the streets.  These were the dark alleyways frequented by “Jack the Ripper” and Robert Louis Stevenson’s fictional Mr. Hyde.  Death, in the form of cholera, diphtheria, and scrofula became synonymous with poverty.  The poor were shunned more than ever!


Despite these perceptions, established ideas of the poor being simply ‘lazy’, ‘criminals’, ‘vagrants’, ‘drunkards’, and ‘simple-minded’ became challenged by the late 1880s.  The Industrial Revolution brought many changes to society.  People who had previously enjoyed relative economic security were becoming unemployed. Perhaps there was more to the poverty problem than a lack of willingness to work and contribute to society…

Important events, such as the Lancashire Cotton Famine (http://bit.ly/29sLURB), a series of violent labour riots in the 1880s, and the growing power of Trade Unions for the working poor forced the authorities to acknowledge that poverty problem was more complex that previously understood.  Lack of viable work, infrastructure, gender, access to legal assistance, and access to adequate health care also played a part in poverty.  If Britain was to continue to grow as a global economic power, it became clear that policy changes were necessary.


“Bloody Sunday, 1887. Source: http://www.wikipedia.com

Some of the policies that came out of this period of English history still shape International Development policies today.  Policies focusing on ‘lifting people out of poverty’ and increasing the economic capacity of women mark many of today’s programs and projects in developing nations.  Even more importantly, poverty was increasingly understood as institutional and spatial issue.  An important contributor to these understandings is Charles Booth.  Next week, I will discuss Booth’s research and mapping project in the late 1800s.  Until next time, this is Spatial Integrity – making the invisible, visible!

Poverty and Social Justice: An Introduction to the ‘Poverty Problem’


“And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time
The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life
Where nothing ever grows, no rain nor rivers flow
Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?”
~Band Aid1984

 Inequality.  Resource Conflicts.  Poverty.  These are global problems facing all of us today!  In every community, there are ‘invisible’ people – people who have no access to the things they need. Things need to improve, and they need to happen NOW!

In 2014, the United Nations (UN) made a list of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Number one on the list is, “End poverty in all its forms everywhere”.  This SDG calls for an elimination of extreme poverty by 2030. Is this a realistic goal?  How can we make this goal a reality?


Source: www.sustainabledevelopment.un.org

Last week, I watched the documentary Poverty Inc with my family (www.povertyinc.org). It was an eye-opening expose´ of how many efforts to address global poverty have failed.

The film introduced the concept of the “poverty industry”.  The poverty industry is a form of capitalism which makes it possible to make money by ‘helping’ the poor. Social entrepreneur-ship and celebrity-led aid programs are examples of this. These programs often cause more problems for the poor than they fix!  Band Aid 1984 was one of these programs.  Celebrity musicians collectively produced a hit single which raised money for Africans.  The music and lyrics tugged at our collective heart-strings, and encouraged privileged North Americans to open their wallets and give freely to poverty-stricken people in Africa.


The lyrics of “Do they know it’s Christmas” paint a picture of helpless Africans, who live “Where nothing ever grows; no rain nor rivers flow”.  Does this actually mean there is no food or water in Africa?! The song evokes an image of people who will never experience beauty and celebration in their lives.  Life must be so sad and desperate for people such as this!


This is “poverty porn”!  Wikipedia defines poverty porn as:

“Any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause.”

Poverty porn is the foundation of the poverty industry. It keeps the poor, poor.  Celebrities are an integral part of the poverty industry.  They are unwitting marketers and sales people for development agendas which sell the idea of the poor as helpless, needy, and incapable.

We need to understand that the poor are not an ‘agenda’ – they are people who need to be engaged through story, dialogue and reflexive listening! A greater focus on partnerships with the poor is needed.  They need to be thought of as equals, partners, and colleagues. Current development practices often treat poverty as an issue which is addressed through institutions.


Source: www.pixabay.com

 Poverty Inc argues that the poor are “Bonsai People”.  This implies that they are poor because they often lack adequate space, land, access to jobs and resources, and legal power.  However, current development policies are based on the idea of the poor as lazy and uneducated.  These understandings of poor people have resulted in charity and humanitarian aid programs which can do far more harm than good.

The system is clearly not working!  Humanitarian aid keeps the poor in poverty.  As a result, the gaps between ‘have’ and ‘have-nots’ are widening.  Marginalised groups are finding themselves increasingly excluded from land and resources. Conflicts are increasing globally. #IdleNoMore and #BlackLivesMatter are examples of the desperation Indigenous groups, black communities, and people of colour are feeling. Social justice programs initiated by well-meaning privileged white European organisations are feeding increased injustices across the world.


Source: www.columbia.edu

 Things need to change, and they need to change NOW!  The elimination of poverty, as called out by the UN SDGs, will never occur by 2030 if we stay on the same track we are travelling.

We need to better understand where our policies have come from, in order to plan for a better future for everyone.  Because of this, I am starting an 8-part blog series on poverty and social justice.  Beginning next week, I will examine the history of social programs in Europe and North America.  This history has created many of the ways we view the poor, and how we have decided to eliminate poverty. This blog series will conclude with discussions of how we can address poverty for the future.  Until next time, this is Spatial Integrity – making the invisible, visible!

Social Media and Social Justice: To Believe or Not to Believe – Is This the Question?


Source: http://consciouslyenlightened.com/

I have closely followed a conflict in British Columbia (BC) between Lax Kw’alaams First Nation community members and the Provincial government. The current Liberal government, under Christy Clark’s leadership, is fighting to establish a Liquid Natural Gas (LGN) facility on Lelu Island.  This island, located on the BC coast, is traditional territory of the Lax Kw’alaams. This area is environmentally sensitive, and a key habitat for wild salmon. Many members of the Lax Kw’alaams community are very vocal against the LNG plant. The Province supports Petronas in their efforts to build the facility.  Recently Clark informed media sources that, “The Lax Kw’alaams voted massively in favour of supporting LNG, with some conditions.” Clark’s claim may not be “massively” true, however. To learn more, check out http://bzfd.it/29292du.

Media sources report this conflict differently. According to APTN, BC Chiefs say LGN approval is like declaring war on First Nations.[1] The BC government website shows the benefits of natural gas – creating jobs, boosting the economy, and providing a ‘safe’ source of energy. Check it out here: http://engage.gov.bc.ca/lnginbc/.

Which side do we believe? How do we make the best decisions? Where do we turn when industry, government, and communities each have a different story to tell?!  Finding the truth is daunting. Many of us simply throw up our hands in surrender.  We decide scientists and government officials have the expertise needed to make the right decisions.  Sad to say, these experts often prove to be corrupt, dishonest, and engaged in conflicts of interest.


Source: www.pixabay.com

So, what DO we DO?!

Fortunately, science and education has provided us with tools necessary to determine ‘truth’.  Some of these tools include:

  • Decide if the media source is credible or not (some sources, like CNN, CBC, or the New York Times seem credible than sources like Fox News).
  • Check to see if a news story is covered by several sources. If many sources carry the same story, it is more likely it is true…
  • Many people avoid stories that read like a conspiracy theory.
  • Determine the source of the story – if it comes from the far right or far left wing, it is less likely to be true… right?
  • Finally, people might chose scientific reports, peer-reviewed journal articles, and government documents over sources such as Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter or blog posts.

Let’s stop right there…

Turns out these tools won’t always work either…

According to a blog post on the New York Times, “Truth has never been an essential ingredient of viral content on the Internet. But in the stepped-up competition for readers, digital news sites are increasingly blurring the line between fact and fiction, and saying that it is all part of doing business in the rough-and-tumble world of online journalism.”[2]


Source: http://americanbuilt.us/

I guess we can’t always believe what we read – even if it IS reported by the most reputable source we can find.

If we can’t trust our news sources, then what can we possibly trust?!!

Maybe we are asking the wrong questions. In the case of the LNG plant on Lelu island, perhaps the question is NOT whether or not natural gas is good for Canada, but whether or not a natural gas facility is in the best interests of the Lax Kw’alaams.

Let’s bring this closer to home.  If you own a home, and hate the colour pink, are you going to paint your house pink?  What if the government tells you that you must paint your house pink, because new research shows pink is a great colour, will you immediately run out and buy pink paint?  Probably not.



Government reports and news articles are not really the best places to discover truth. In matters of social justice, we need to listen more carefully to the people who stand to lose the most.

Communities, such as First Nations, are very knowledgeable about the places they live in.  It makes sense, then, that ‘truth’ can be obtained by listening to what these communities have to say.  Truth is not in the reporting, but in what marginalized groups have to tell us personally.

Once we chose to listen, we may find something to truly believe in!  Until next time, this is Spatial Integrity – making the invisible, visible.

[1] http://bit.ly/28XMEid

[2] http://nyti.ms/28XV5Kw

Faceless Dolls: Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women made Visible


As part of our Solstice celebrations this year, my family participated in a Faceless Doll-making workshop.  This was held at the Guelph Women in Crisis Center (WIC). The event was co-sponsored by the WIC and OPIRG-Guelph. While we enjoyed decorating felt dolls and eating strawberries and bannock with community members, this activity was part of a much more serious and mostly invisible issue facing First Nations women today. The dolls we created become storybooks, visual art, and ‘maps’ which represent murdered and missing Aboriginal women.

According to the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), researchers identified almost 600 Aboriginal women, who are missing or murdered, over a five year period. Some key findings of the NWAC 2010 report are:

  • The majority of missing women disappeared from the western provinces (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba).
  • Over half of the women were 31 years or younger.
  • 88% of these women were mothers.
  • 53% of current murder cases remain unsolved.
  • 70% of the murder cases occurred in urban areas.

Despite these horrible statistics, very little has been done on a National level to address the problem.  In fact, former Prime Minister Harper refused to hold a federal inquiry into the issue, insisting that “most” cases of murdered Aboriginal women had been solved.[1]  This is interesting, given that 53% of current cases remain unsolved!  It was not until this year that current Prime Minister Trudeau has made promises to begin a Federal inquiry into the matter. Information on the inquiry can now be found at the government of Canada website: http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca.


The NWAC began the Sisters in Spirit Initiative in 2010. Their mission is “to help empower women by being involved in developing and changing legislation which affects them, and involving them in the development and delivery of programs promoting equal opportunity for Aboriginal women.”[2]  Their report concludes that ending the cycle of violence against Aboriginal women is the responsibility of all of us – all genders, all levels of government, and Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities alike.

The faceless doll project is an initiative begun by the NWAC, so that the many missing and murdered women would not be forgotten. Each doll created is a visual representation of each missing woman. The reasons the dolls remain faceless is to show not only how Aboriginal women are devalued in society, but that each doll can be any Aboriginal woman who experiences forms of violence in their lives.  There is also another reason. According to one article, a young student explained that the dolls were faceless because “society has stopped looking for them”.[3]

Every faceless doll tells a story.  Each and every doll created for display blankets becomes a type of map.  These dolls are both story and map, because they represent a specific place and time where another person has heard the stories of the missing women.  Each doll represents women who are loved and missed by their children and families. Every doll created by community members now gives a voice to people who have been unjustly silenced, and rendered invisible through our own silence and failure to act.

The blanket displays created by the NWAC perform many functions – as maps, history, stories and visual art.  Most importantly, the faceless doll initiative serves as a vivid reminder that missing Aboriginal women have not disappeared.  It is up to all of us to make sure that these women are not forgotten – and that the causes for injustice against First Nations communities are addressed, redressed, and changed!

Today marks the Summer Solstice in the northern hemisphere.  It is traditionally a celebration of warmth and light, and the longest day of the year.  It is my hope that we can all take some of that light and use it to illuminate some of the invisible problems for people in our world – not only today – but every day!  Until next time, this is Spatial Integrity: Making the Invisible, Visible.



Image source: http://www.rabble.ca

[1] The Globe and Mail, http://bit.ly/28Lzwf8

[2] NWAC. Sisters in Spirit 2010 Research Findings. What Their Stories Tell Us: Research findings from the Sisters In Spirit initiative.

[3] Faceless Doll Project. http://bit.ly/28MsqLo

A ‘Jumbo’ Conflict: Economic Opportunity, or Loss of Sacred Space?

Last week I watched the documentary, Jumbo Wild. Check out this website: http://www.keepitwild.ca/. This is a story about a new ski resort near Jumbo Glacier – a remote wilderness location in the Kootenay Mountains of British Columbia (BC).

Jumbo Mountain


The proposed Jumbo ski resort is about 55 miles west of Invermere, BC. It is a story about conflicts between the Province, developers, local residents, environmentalists, and First Nations for many years. The BC Liberal government stands to profit from this development. Over the last many years, the BC government has supported this ski resort.  The government not only approved the project in 2012, but changed the Local Government Act – making Jumbo Glacier Resort a legal municipality.  They have provided the resort with $260,000 in funding and approved its 5-year financial plan – paid for with one million tax-payer dollars through 2018.

Local residents are concerned that there are already too many ski resorts in the region. Environmentalists are concerned about the ecological impacts the resort will have on the receding Jumbo glacier and sensitive grizzly bear habitat. Most importantly, the Ktunaxa First Nation claims the resort will harm a sacred space called Qat’muk. Check out this video to learn more: https://vimeo.com/31890388


Ski resort developers have tried to discredit Ktunaxa claims to the region.  This is a colonial tactic which Canada has used since the first European settlers arrived.  This link shows how Jumbo Valley is discrediting the Ktunaxa: http://beforeqatmuk.com/. The ski resort makes two claims: (1) the Shuswap First Nations (who currently support the development) have more rights to the region than the Ktunaxa, and, (2) the Ktunaxa are lying about the region being a sacred space to them.  Check out this link to learn more about the sacred space court case: http://www.thecourt.ca/2015/12/ktunaxa-nation-v-bc-bringing-aboriginal-spirituality-into-section-2a-of-the-charter/



Source: http://www.tetongravity.com


Source: www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca


Jumbo developers say that the Shuswap live closest to the proposed ski resort, and therefore get to say what happens. It seems that Jumbo developers are quick to band together with a community that supports them – whether or not their ‘facts’ are true or not!  The above maps tell a different story, however! It is true that the Shuswap Reserve is close to the resort area, but Reserve location has nothing to do with shared traditional territories! Jumbo’s argument only serves them, and perpetuates colonial land grabs which marginalized First Nations groups in the first place.


As often happens in resource conflicts, people are making the argument that their story is more important than anyone else’s. In the case of Jumbo Valley, this oversimplifies a complex problem. Jumbo is not just a story about grizzly bears or a chance to ski in pristine wilderness.  The Ktunaxa have an important story to tell us, and we need to listen!


In Canada, government and industry often put their own wants over the needs of First Nations communities. Indigenous knowledge and narratives have been discredited and ridiculed by settler society.  It was not until the late 1970s that First Nations could make legal claims to land and resources by telling their oral histories. Today, many First Nations groups use this legal precedent to protect the sacred spaces they have historical access and rights to. By trying to discredit Ktunaxa oral history, Jumbo ski resort developers are promoting injustice and discrediting themselves! Ultimately, Jumbo continues to marginalize First Nations and render them ‘invisible’ – just like we have done since the 1800s throughout Canada.

In 2012, the BC courts refused to hear Ktunaxa claims regarding Qat’muk. Today, the Ktunaxa have ‘won their day in court’. The Supreme Court of Canada has agreed to hear their appeal. Check out this news report: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/jumbo-ktunaxa-nation-supreme-court-of-canada-1.3495494.  The final decision is important, because it will prove Canada’s commitment to ensuring equality and justice for First Nations’ communities.  Until Canada makes the decision to give really listen to First Nations’ claims to sacred spaces, injustice and inequality will continue to be the foundation of our Nation.

Until next time, this is Spatial Integrity: Making the Invisible, Visible.


Source: http://www.desmog.ca


Land Acknowledgements: What they ARE, and what they are NOT…


By G. Mülzel – Nordisk familjebok (1904), vol.1, Amerikanska folk [1] (the colour version is available in this zip-archive).Nordisk Familjebok has credited the image to Bibliographisches Institut, Leipzig., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=846880

This week I read a very important blog post for any small business, which may be operating ANYWHERE in the world!  This post, entitled “Our Homes (and Businesses) on Native Land”, can be read in full at https://communityedition.ca/blog/2016/06/01/our-homes-and-businesses-on-native-land/.

Spatial Integrity is currently established in the city of Guelph, Ontario.  Guelph, and many of the businesses/institutions located here, has been recognizing the importance of providing a Land Acknowledgement for First Nations’ communities across Ontario.  These acknowledgements are not just being conducted in this province, however – this is a form of verbally recognizing First Nations’ rights which is occurring across Canada!

What IS a Land Acknowledgement?

According to the Laurier Public Interest Research Group (LSPIRG), the definition of a land acknowledgement is: “… a formal statement that recognizes the unique and enduring relationship that exists between Indigenous Peoples and their traditional territories.” In more ‘basic’ language, this is simply a statement that we (as Canadians) recognize that everything we do happens on land occupied by First Nations peoples, and that everything we do impacts people who lived here long before our ancestors first moved here!

It is very easy for Canadian business owners, students, researchers, and citizens, to begin thinking we have exclusive rights to do whatever we need to in order to make our own lives better.  Sometimes, what we do can cause unintended harm to communities who have been here long before we can imagine!  This includes First Nations communities, and marginalized people who have established themselves in the places we live long before we can imagine.  A simple Land Acknowledgement can change our perceptions as ‘owners’ of the space we live, to tenants of the place we live on – much like renters of residential spaces.  It is our responsibility, therefore, for us to provide Land Acknowledgements when we conduct our business, and NOT of the First Nations communities themselves!

This is, in fact, who we are – people who ‘rent’ the spaces we live in.  The places we live, and where we conduct our businesses, have been occupied by people who resided here thousands of years before our ancestors ever arrived in Canada.  The area we now call ‘Guelph’ was occupied by the Attawandaron (Neutral) people before the year 1500.  This region was used as a gathering place for many of the Six-Nations Indigenous groups who called this land ‘home’.  Once European settlers moved in, the Attawandaron people were decimated through war, disease, and policies which included the Indian Act of 1927 and Residential Schools.  For more information on this history, check out this website — http://wampumkeeper.com/wellingtoncounty.html

Deciding to engage with a Land Acknowledgement forces us to change our perceptions from land and resource ‘owners’, to people who are ‘renting’ the spaces we conduct our business in.  We come to see ourselves – not as people with exclusive rights to land and resources – but as individuals who are committed to collaborating and consulting with the communities on whose land we currently live.  It is not the responsibility, therefore, for First Nations groups to remind us of our obligations as ‘tenants’ – but for us to consistently remind ourselves of our responsibilities to ensure that we ourselves remain accountable for our actions.  We need to remember that we are here as responsible members to a common cause which helps everyone make this a better place to live, work and thrive in!

As such, Spatial Integrity commits to its own Land Acknowledgement:

Spatial Integrity acknowledges that we currently operate on the traditional territory of the Attawandaron (Neutral) peoples.  We also offer respect to our Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe and Metis neighbours.  At one time, the Attawandaron, who lived in the region of Guelph, Waterloo and Hamilton, numbered over 30,000. Their community was ultimately wiped out through disease, war, and colonial policies. Today, we honour the ancestors of many Six Nations residing here.  At all times, Spatial Integrity is committed to honouring First Nations leadership and knowledge.  Spatial Integrity remains mindful of the harm done to First Nations communities through colonial policies; both past and present. We are committed to our duty to consult and collaborate with First Nations’ communities toward their sovereign rights to land, development and resource management.

Until next time, this is Spatial Integrity – Making the Invisible, Visible!

Grassy Narrows: An ‘Invisible’ community becomes Visible!


Grassy Narrows

Grassy Narrows is a small First Nations community in remote Northern Ontario. According to their website, they are an Ojibwa community who identify as the Asubpeeschoseeewagong First Nation. Their Reserve has fewer than 1000 members. Under Treaty 3, signed in 1873, they were given a large area of land which they were allowed rights to hunt, trap and fish. Between 1876 and 1969, the Residential School system had disrupted much of their culture, and they became increasingly marginalized from their traditional resources and lifestyles.[1]

even-the-chief-of-this-reserve-has-mercury-poisoning-but-ontario-has-no-plans-to-clean-it-up-1464724518Image of the Grassy Narrows community today. Source: https://news.vice.com

To make matters worse, much of the land and waters Grassy Narrow’s members still hold today has been destroyed by logging and private industry.  Between 1962 and 1970, Dryden Chemicals Ltd dumped almost 10 tons of mercury-laden waste into the English-Wabigoon river system.  The toxic sludge eventually made its way into Lake Winnipeg. For almost 50 years, the two First Nations communities in this region have suffered from mercury poisoning, loss of important food resources, and loss of jobs and a steadily declining economy.  Dryden Chemical has denied any accountability for their actions, claiming that mercury present in the water is due to natural sources, and that factory effluent is only a small percent of the mercury present. While the Federal government has paid close to $9 million to Grassy Narrows for social services and economic development initiatives, Ontario has contributed little to the community. Through it all, the Province of Ontario has shrugged off any responsibility they might have for clean-up costs and financial support to Grassy Narrows.

1024px-Dryden_millDryden Chemical Paper Mill. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10536091

More than 50 years later, several members of Grassy Narrows made the long bus ride to Toronto.  On June 2, 2016, Grassy Narrows joined over 2500 supporters at Queen’s Park, in front of the Provincial Parliament Building.  There, people rallied and marched in support of Grassy Narrows.

20160602_124306Parliament building at Queen’s Park, in Toronto, Ontario. Source: Paul Stephany, 2016.

While Premier Kathleen Wynne remained hidden away, invisible to the assembled audience, Grassy Narrows elders and youth educated those assembled on this shameful story in Ontario history.  As of now, no clean-up of the mercury has occurred.  Even though scientists support research which shows that clean up of the area is possible, the Ontario government still insists that more study and analysis is necessary.  Meanwhile, Grassy Narrows community members are still sickened, dying, and poverty stricken!

What is clear is that, while scientific and community commitment to water cleanup is intact, political will remains ambiguous. The story of Grassy Narrows needs to be told and retold, until the government of Ontario is forced to listen and finally collaborate with this community to make the waters and people healthy once again!

After the rally, Grassy Narrows members, along with supporters and allies, flooded the streets and marched from Queen’s Park to Allan Gardens – just over two kilometers away. The street was blocked off, and all traffic halted, as the growing surge of concerned citizens walked and chanted the entire way.  One by one, each person symbolically turned away from a government intent on ignoring the voices of the people, and began their first steps toward Ottawa.  Discontent with Ontario’s response to their plight, Grassy Narrows stands poised to once again tell their story to Justin Trudeau – forcing him remain accountable to his promises to begin reconciling past injustices with First Nations groups across Canada.

This last Thursday, a few voices joined with a swelling number of voices – telling a story which must be heard – and even more importantly, MUST be acted upon.  This is a story which needs to be removed from the back shelves once and for all.  Perhaps, finally, we will begin listening to each of these stories – and acting as a Nation who is truly concerned with redressing the harmful chapters of our collective history!

For now, this is Spatial Integrity – making the invisible, visible!


[1] http://www.grassynarrows.ca/