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.

By clicking on any of the thousands of squares in the grid placed on a map of Canada, some denoting cities like Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Edmonton or Vancouver, or regions such as Ungava in Northern Quebec, a user can access detailed climatological data and predictions of the impact of climate change.

“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.

The projections were striking. Between 1976 and 2005, there were 10 days a year when Toronto’s temperature reached 30C. If climate change mitigation measures are either not implemented or fail, in less than three decades, Torontonians can expect an average 25 days of 30C.

Edmontonians will go from experiencing four such days per year to more than 11. Even Vancouver, famous for mist and rain, would see the number of 30C days quintuple 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.

The climate atlas released last March corrects this.

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 squares on the grid can be set for either 100 km x 100 km or 60 km x 60 km.)

On lands of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in Northern Alberta, for example, the atlas shows that the number of 30C days will more than double to nine. The citizens of the Long Plain First Nation in Southern Manitoba will see the number of 30C days rise by 38, to 53 a year. The worst-case scenario is the thermometers there reach 30C on 77 days, or almost 20% of the year.

Far northern communities belonging to the Inuit will also see a rise in the number of warm days, which means the number of days when it snows and ice forms will decline.

More alarming, however, is the drop in number of extremely cold days. In Pangnirtung, on the southwestern coast of Baffin Island, for example, where Mauro did much of his graduate work, the number of -30C days is projected to fall 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.

The power of storytelling

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 landslide that destroyed the Gitxsan city of Temlahmid a thousand or so years ago being caused by an angry Jehovah-like God (like the city of Sodom, according to the Book of Genesis), the story links the landslide directly to human actions.

The inhabitants of Temlahmid were not faithful stewards of the land, for they cut down too many trees on the mountain and over-harvested. The damaged root system could not hold the land together when heavy rains came.

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.

An area reconceptualised

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. First, it required reconceptualising the 10,000,000 square kilometre area bounded 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).

Two-eyed seeing, writes 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] have nothing to do with the romanticised views in social studies classes and public schools. All these denigrate dumb little stories about the [Great] plains and the West and what people know of Indigenous people now is us after we have been through colonisation,” Hetxw’ms Gyetxw tells me in a derisive tone.

One of the arguments Western scientists have used to denigrate IKs is to point to the fact that they are oral and not written, the often-unstated premise being that oral cultures are incapable of empirical or mathematical thought.

However, as Hetxw’ms Gyetxw says, “Many First Nations had mathematics that they just told in a different way. If you look at, for instance, Kainai Nation [in Southern Alberta], they have monuments that are mathematically accurate to the solar system and stars. So, we mapped out things just the same as any other peoples. 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

For his part, Mauro says 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 link between climate change or, to be more precise, recognition of climate change and IKs is evident, Mauro notes, in the fact that the Inuit noticed changes in the position of the sun, the moon and the stars before Western scientists began studying the phenomenon.

While working on a documentary called Qapirangajug: Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change in the late 2000s, Mauro and the Inuk filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk heard from Inuit across the northern territory of Nunavut that the sun, moon and stars were no longer in the same places they had been since time out of mind because the Earth had tilted on its axis.

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

Eventually, Mauro found two possible explanations for what the Inuit, who it must be underscored had been carefully noting the position of the sun, moon and stars for thousands of years, reported.

The first explanation was the Novaya Zemlya effect. Essentially, this is a mirage caused by light being refracted between different thermal layers of the atmosphere. The effect makes it seem as though the sun rises earlier than before, which means it appears to rise in a different 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 Letters, as 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. As they get hotter, they get bigger. 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.

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 News has reported elsewhere, these ethnographers stole artefacts and human remains, which Indigenous peoples around the world now demand to be repatriated.

“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.

Accordingly, Mauro says, the videos in the climate atlas in which Indigenous peoples tell their stories were produced 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 that span the country tells a different story.

One from the high Arctic tells how the thinning Arctic ice makes ice fishing and hunting dangerous in ways previously unknown.

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”.

However, for First Nations peoples, the term has a very different meaning.

Hetxw’ms Gyetxw describes the “natural law” of his people as the linkage between the people and the land. Anything the people do with the land requires that they keep in mind the ecosystem and how it is balanced.

“We come from the land, so we believe that if you disturb it enough, you are going to hurt yourself. We look at the Earth as our mother. So the laws that govern our peoples are not manmade interests [eg capitalism or industrial logging]. They are purely about how you can preserve this ecosystem and these lands for seven generations into the future, because we will never exist in the future if we do not look at it this way.

“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 ended our interview by stressing that he hopes the Canadian climate atlas could serve as a model, both for its detailed climatological information and the way it foregrounds 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 is being used for planning. They look at these climate futures and they try to figure out how to prepare 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] are making amazing changes.

“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.”