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A decolonized climate atlas to inspire action.

A decolonized climate atlas to inspire action.

A decolonised climate atlas to inspire action and change


In 2018, when the University of Winnipeg’s Prairie Climate Centre (UWPCC) launched the first version of the Climate Atlas of Canada, the centre’s executive director Professor Ian Mauro knew the interactive portal was groundbreaking. The website “democratised climate data by making it accessible”, he says.

Clicking on any one of the thousands of squares on the grid, some denoting cities such as Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton, Vancouver or Vancouver, will open a detailed climate report and forecasts of the impact of climate changes.

“You could look at your jurisdiction, click on your region, get the data and understand the kind of change that is likely to be anticipated,” says Mauro.

These projections were astonishing. Between 1976 and 2005, there were 10 days a year when Toronto’s temperature reached 30C. Torontonians can expect to see an average of 25 days with 30C if climate change mitigation measures fail or are not implemented in the next three decades.

Edmontonians will now experience more than 11 of these days per year, from just four. Even Vancouver, a city known for mist and rain would see the number 30C days increase to five.

And yet, despite this ostensible precision, the map was still “wholly inadequate”, says Mauro.

What about Indigenous communities?

While it presented data from areas in which First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities are located, the data, especially for communities in rural areas and the large expanses of the north, were incomplete.

“Essentially, the 2018 map was complete for the dominant society – settler communities and named places [such as Montreal or Halifax] – but did not reflect Indigenous communities at all,” Mauro told University World News.

This is corrected by the climate atlas that was released in March.

In addition to information on Canada’s major population centres and rural areas peopled by settlers, such as Estevan, Saskatchewan (population 13,000) or Wesleyville, an outport on Newfoundland’s rugged east coast (population 2,100), the atlas now, importantly, includes the same granular climatological information for the country’s 634 First Nations reserve communities, 53 Inuit communities, and many Métis communities.

The First Nations icon allows users to toggle the map to foreground First Nations’ communities and allows users to “drill down” to find Indigenous data and place names that have been integrated into the climate atlas. The grid can be set to either 100 km x 100km or 60 kmx 60 km.

The atlas for the Athabasca Chipewyan Nation in Northern Alberta shows that the number 30C days will more then double to nine. The number of 30C days for residents of the Long Plain First Nation, South Manitoba will increase by 38 to 53 per year. The worst case scenario is that the thermometers reach 30C in the Long Plain First Nation on 77 days, which is almost 20% of each year.

The number of warm days will increase in far northern communities that belong to the Inuit. This will mean that it will be less snowy and icey.

The drop in the number of extremely cold days is even more alarming. For example, in Pangnirtung (on the southwestern side of Baffin Island), where Mauro did most of his graduate work, the number -30C days is projected dropping from 43 to 4.

“When you think about the loss of the cold, you think about permafrost, you think about the infrastructure, buildings built on that permafrost … you think about roads and runways [built on the permafrost]. This is really serious stuff, the loss of that cold,” says Mauro.

Storytelling is a powerful tool

Equally important, says Mauro, are the 75 films (20 produced over the past four years) accessible through the map featuring elders, chiefs, knowledge keepers and other community leaders who tell their First Nations’ stories about how climate change has affected their people and their land, and what measures they have taken to mitigate the effects.

According to Hetxw’ms Gyetxw (also known as Brett Huson), a citizen of the Gitxsan Nation (northwest interior of British Columbia) and a research fellow at UWPCC, stories have an additional virtue: making it easier for the general public to grasp the impact of climate change by showing how it is already affecting peoples across the country in a way that is not (yet) obvious to the nation’s predominantly urban and suburban population.

“One of the things we were looking at when developing the map was communication. There’s very much a lack of connection between the general public and research that’s being done around climate change. These videos tell the story of climate change and how it’s impacting people,” says Hetxw’ms Gyetxw.

“One of the great things about Indigenous ways of knowing is that a lot of our understanding of the world is told in very dramatic stories that are linked to the land.”

Hetxw’ms Gyetxw exemplified this link between the land, his First Nation and climatic events by telling me the story of a mountain goat named Tsibasaa, which serves as a cautionary tale.

Instead of the Temlahmid, a Gitxsan town, being destroyed by a landslide a thousand years back being caused by an angry Jehovah like God (like Sodom according the Book of Genesis), this story links the landlide directly with human actions.

Temlahmid’s residents were not faithful stewards, as they cut down too much tree on the mountain and overharvested. The land was not able to withstand heavy rains because of the damage to its root system.

This destructive landslide is commemorated in the name of the goat – Tsibasaa – because goats can strip the land of vegetation on slopes thus removing protection against landslides. “The goat represents the landslide and that name, Tsibasaa, is bestowed on the chief so that the community will always live on from generation to generation,” says Hetxw’ms Gyetxw.

Reconceptualizing an area

Indigenising the map took place against the background of reconciliation between (settler) Canadians and the Canadian government, and Indigenous Peoples (First Nations, Inuit and Métis) that followed the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which in 2015 issued 94 “calls to action” to bring about reconciliation.

The effort involved much more than including climatological data from Environment Canada for the First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities and a few Indigenous stories. It required a reconceptualisation of the 10,000,000 kilometres area that is bordered by the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic Oceans and the Northern American border.

“Maps have always been a reconceptualising tool of Western colonisation,” Mauro explains to me – as he would have done in one of his geography courses at the University of Winnipeg.

“They have been a tool of oppression in a very real way. They’ve carved up the land and, in many ways, they’ve defined land in terms of who gets it, who takes it and who controls it.”

Central to the decolonisation of the atlas was the shift away from a hegemonic reliance on the Western scientific world view and the adoption of what the late Mi’kmaw elder Albert Marshall (from the Eskasoni First Nation on Cape Breton, Nova Scotia) calls Etuaptmumk (two-eyed seeing).

Marshall, in the Journal of Environmental Studies (2012), “refers to learning to see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledges (IKs) and ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strength of Western knowledges and ways of knowing, and to use both of these together for the benefit of all”.

Two-eyed seeing, both Mauro and Hetxw’ms Gyetxw explain, means recognising Indigenous peoples and their stories about the land as having both spiritual and equal scientific and-or ecological value to Western science.

“Indigenous knowledges [the plural is important because different First Nation have different belief systems]They have nothing to do the romanticized views in social studies classes or public schools. All these absurd stories about the poor are demeaning. [Great]Plains and the West. What people know now about Indigenous people is Contact us after we have been through colonisation,” Hetxw’ms Gyetxw tells me in a derisive tone.

One of the arguments Western scientists use to denigrate IKs involves pointing out the fact that they are not written but oral. The often-unstated premise that oral cultures cannot think empirically or mathematically is a common argument.

However, as Hetxw’ms Gyetxw says, “Many First Nations had mathematics that they just told in a different way. Kainai Nation is one example. [in Southern Alberta]They have monuments that correspond mathematically to the stars and the solar system. We did the same thing as any other people to map out things. The understanding of the world has to be rooted in mathematics, whether you tell it in a numbers-based story or not.”

Divergent communication pathways

Mauro claims that IKs are highly empirical. “It’s the way in which they are communicated that is different. The Western kind of science and Western people are very text-based, whereas Indigenous people have traditionally had a kind of orally-based culture, and it doesn’t mean that it’s not empirical; it just means they’re communicating that empirical understanding in a different kind of way.”

The Inuit noted changes in the position and positions of the sun and moon in their observations of climate change. This is Mauro’s evidence of the link between IKs and climate change. BeforeThe phenomenon was first studied by Western scientists.

While working on a documentary called Qapirangajug, Inuit Knowledge & Climate ChangeIn the late 2000s, Mauro, Zacharias Kunuk, the Inuk filmmaker, heard from Inuit in Nunavut, that the sun, moon, and stars had moved to different places because the Earth was tilted on its axis.

“It sounded unbelievable,” Mauro admits. “At first, it was like … whoa … what are we talking about here?”

Mauro eventually came up with two possible explanations.

Novaya Zemlya effect was the first explanation. This is basically a mirage caused when light is refracted between different layers of the atmosphere. This effect makes it appear as if the sun rises earlier that usual, which can lead to it appearing to rise in a new place. This effect, which has become more prevalent and stronger because of global warming, is also known as “optical ducting”.

The other explanation is that global warming has indeed affected the Earth’s axis, as was reported by Dr J L Chen (Center for Space Research, University of Austin in Texas) and others, in their 2013 article “Rapid ice melting drives Earth’s pole to the east”, published in Geophysical Research LettersAs well as in subsequent studies.

“The effect has to do with the changing position of the oceans in the ocean basins,” says Mauro. “As the ocean thermal expansion happens, the oceans get bigger. They get larger as they heat up. This has started to happen and has actually shifted the oceans in the basins, and this has caused a slight shift in the actual tilt of the axis of planet Earth.”

Graeme Reed, a senior policy advisor at the Assembly of First Nations (and a University of Guelph PhD student researching the intersection of Indigenous governance, environmental governance and the climate crisis), and I discussed the relationship of the time lag between the Inuit’s recognition of the change in the position of the sun, the moon and the stars, and Western science’s explanation.

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Reed inverted the Western hegemonic narrative that would say, “Western science has validated what the Inuit were saying.” Instead, like the climate atlas, he privileges IKs and says Western science should be seen as “a confirmation of the Indigenous science [based on detailed observation and narratives] that has already existed”.

Avoiding past mistakes

In working with First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples, Mauro and his staff have been acutely conscious to not recapitulate the way 19th and 20th century ethnographers dealt with Indigenous peoples and their knowledge/stories.

As University World NewsReports elsewhere have indicated that ethnographers snatched artifacts from the graves of Indigenous peoples.

“It’s very, very important that we do not repeat the colonial mistakes of the past, which were to extract knowledge from Indigenous peoples,” says Mauro.

According to Mauro, videos in the climate Atlas in which Indigenous peoples share their stories were made collaboratively.

“We follow OCAP (ownership, control, access and possession) principles, so the communities own the footage, they own the content; they get to sign off on the actual (digital) tools that are developed.”

Each of the 75 videos from across the country tells a different tale.

One of the high Arctic’s ice fishermen explains how thinned Arctic ice makes hunting and fishing dangerous in ways that were previously unimaginable.

One from British Columbia tells how a 100 years of suppressing forest fires, the exact opposite of the Indigenous strategy of controlled burns, has led to “old and decadent” forests that are more prone to disastrous fires.

Responding to the prediction that sea levels will rise to the point that, in 80 years, their reserve on Indian Island on the eastern shore of New Brunswick will be inundated, the Mi’kmaq First Nation is building a 16-foot berm to protect their ancestral homeland.

Each story underscores the intimate relationship between the First Nations and the natural world from which they draw their food, identity and living by what they call the “natural law” means.

The words “natural law” may appear to be the same as the jurisprudential term which, according to medieval Catholic theologian St Thomas Aquinas, was derived from reason, and is exemplified by the American Declaration of Independence with its reference to “the laws of Nature and Nature’s God”.

The term is however very different for First Nations peoples.

Hetxw’ms Gyetxw describes the “natural law” of his people as the linkage between the people and the land. The ecosystem and its balance are essential to any activity that people make with the land.

“We come from the land, so we believe that if you disturb it enough, you are going to hurt yourself. We consider the Earth our mother. The laws that govern our peoples do not serve manmade interests. [eg capitalism or industrial logging]. They are about how to preserve this ecosystem and these land for seven generations into future. Without this, we will not exist in the future.

“We’ve always governed ourselves by the system of natural law, which tells us that if you extract something from the land, you have to give something back.

So it’s a constant, reciprocal cycle.”

A new model

Mauro concluded our interview by saying that he hopes that the Canadian climate atlas could be used as a model because of its detailed climatological information, and the way it highlights Indigenous peoples.

“It’s a Canadian tool, but what it shows is a path forward in terms of how the two-eyed seeing approach actually makes a difference. We know that the atlas can be used for planning. They take a look at the climate futures and attempt to plan for them. It’s actually saving lives, saving infrastructure and supporting community resilience.

“And now with the Indigenous data in there and the IKs stories, it is showing how communities on the frontlines [of climate change]Amazing changes are being made.

“The atlas is an example for other jurisdictions to think about how to do this. And do it in a way that the relationship between the scientists and the Indigenous communities are based on respect for each other.”

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