A new atlas maps Indigenous histories across Canada

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As a kid, maps and atlases brought the world to life for me, combining the stories of land and people in a visual way.

So when Canadian Geographic recently asked me to help edit their new Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada, an idea that originated with magazine’s parent body, I was thrilled to participate in such an innovative project.

“The Royal Canadian Geographical Society was interested in ways to celebrate Canada’s 150th, and we looked at ways we thought appropriate for that event,” CEO John Geiger told the Nation. “Nothing was more important than recognizing and participating in the reconciliation process, of which education is vital.

“What we do is tell stories with maps.”

That began a conversation with then-Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, and later with partners from the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the Métis National Council (MNC), and Indspire.

For AFN Education Director Janice Ciavaglia, it was important to have this unique educational resource written by Indigenous people, and to make something that features Indigenous cultures and communities as they are today for both First Nations and non-Native students.

“There’s something magical about books – the smell, the feel – that makes them more real,” Ciavaglia explained. “It would be nice to see [the atlas] in every classroom. It’s a shared history – not just for First Nations schools.”

As a teacher, Ciavaglia hopes that it can be a fundamental resource in schools and libraries nationally, across many subject areas and grades.

Geiger sees it as useful for adults as well as children. “It should be in school libraries and schools across Canada,” he insisted. “It tells important stories of our history and current reality that have been neglected, overlooked, hidden or ignored. Every Canadian would benefit from reading these works.”

In addition to the four volumes of books – focused respectively on First Nations, the Métis, the Inuit and maps – the project also includes the creation of a giant floor map, which is set to travel across Canada. The floor map envisions Canada through an Indigenous lens, through Indigenous languages and goes beyond borders created by European settlers.

Geiger says an app is available for download. Anyone in Canada can use their GPS to figure out whose traditional land they’re on while offering a traditional greeting in the local language. A website also includes content from the atlas.

The Royal Canadian Geographical Society wanted to ensure that content creation was Indigenous-led. To that end, the three volumes focused on First Nations, Inuit and Métis content were all handed over to the AFN, ITK and MNC respectively. The fourth volume features dozens of pages of maps of Indigenous homelands, languages, treaties and modern reserves, as well as a history of residential schools and a glossary.

For the First Nations volume, that meant asking 29 First Nations leaders, artists, activists, educators, writers and others to submit works, art and photos, complemented by maps and other illustrations, to focus on all different themes, from the environment to residential schools to language.

“We felt it was important as a First Nations organization to contact communities so they could tell their personal stories,” said Ciavaglia. “We wanted to get a variety of different themes, so we gave a theme and the writers wrote along those lines, so the stories belong to them.”

From Eeyou Istchee, that includes a submission by journalism student Jamie Pashagumskum. The Chisasibi resident wrote about the importance of a connection to the land, and his section features a map of Eeyou Istchee, as well as photos of a Mihtukan and a walking-out ceremony.

Ciavaglia admits that the project was difficult for her small team to accomplish. “I learned the publishing industry has strict deadlines,” she told the Nation. “We had about four people in the education sector at the time, it wasn’t a large crew, so I had to read through it at home or on the plane, as a pet project.”

Even though she says the AFN doesn’t develop curriculum, she acknowledges that there’s a lot of interest in having educational resources like this. In the future, she’d like to see individual First Nations doing similar projects to have their children see their lives reflected in the text.

The atlas is not yet available in stores, but Geiger says it’s getting a lot of interest. “All indications are that there’s a huge appetite for these books. After a very long struggle, and lots of difficult times, there’s a genuine interest in understanding and building appropriate relationships with Indigenous Peoples and I feel the book will be successful.”

The book will be available for pre-order July 15 and distributed in August.

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