Where Are We?


By Harmen Boersma

Where Are We?

The Canadian Geographic Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada has been published by The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, Ottawa, in December 2018. This large-size, hardcover set of four colourfully illustrated books has been a cooperative effort with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Metis National Council and finally Indspire: Six Nations of the Grand River.

One of the volumes honours the well-known layout of an atlas: large detailed maps, mostly extended over two full pages with extensive detail of Indigenous peoples’ boundaries, place names and landmarks. The first map (p. 10-11) provides a global view of the whole Canadian landmass from sea to sea to sea at a scale of 1:16M. However, except for the colour markings, all others are too crowded to distinguish any detail.

Following are a set of 6 maps at the scale of 1:5M and the second set of 17 at the scale of 1:2M. It feels like one is slowly landing out of space approaching the earth and taking a picture of the country at three pre-determined heights providing increasing detail of the land and its Indigenous cultures. To a white immigrant settler these maps and their markings appear from a different place on earth, except the coastlines are familiar on three sides with the large bays and the great lakes in the centre. Finally, we settle on the ground, move among people and we cannot help but ask: Where Are We? The rest of the volumes introduce us to the peoples on the land. Their ages old stories have been highlighted and then compressed into these too few pages and volumes. It is an invitation to come in and search farther and deeper.

What an impressive introduction to the Indigenous People of Canada. Even though boundaries and indigenous names of nations are indicated, place names written down and residential school sites marked, there are no, to us familiar, highways and railroads crisscrossing the land anywhere. No current Canadian cities have been marked, yet the maps indicate land settlements up and including the current decade.

The maps volume shares space with the results and hopes of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Writers share their perspective on relations of Indigenous people to immigrants-settlers from all over the world and the Canadian state. Essentially, they claim that their life style and cultures have been “systematically attacked, dismantled and destroyed” by the Canadian state. Their hope is “to shift the national narrative away from a culture of domination and oppression towards one of respect, reciprocity and understanding.” (P. 60) Canada has a “long history of broken promises and false hopes for which reconciliation remains a massively complex exercise that all Canadians are called to embrace and contribute to.”  “At heart is (a desire to) building a better, richer, and healthier country for all forms of life.” (p.77) The alphabetical glossary of terms on p. 80-101 is a thoughtful addition, as many of the terms provide a clearer understanding of the Indigenous mindset.

Observing these cultures and their vision as a first generation hyphenated Canadian, who married and raised a three-generation family, this universal call echos loudly within my heart, too. It only took a few years after arrival on Canadian soil, to meet Indigenous people on our travels and in the communities we have lived. Share my surprise and ignorance when I was called upon the teach an elementary classroom of students a one-month geography-history unit called now respectfully The Indigenous People of Canada. If only this atlas had been available then… However, the Indigenous cry was heard by our class from the newspapers, the radio, movies and fieldtrips. These young Canadians grappled with a news clip reporting the suicide burning of a young Indigenous youth.

Each one of the other three volumes deal with the Inuit, First Nations and the Metis. A leader of each group introduces their volume. Then follow up to sixty pages of beautifully illustrated stories about a great variety of topics.

The Inuit describe Nunavut, Nunatsiavut, Nunavik, early history, colonialism, family structures, traditional clothing, urban Inuit, Inuktut writing systems, place names, wildlife, climate change, sea ice, permafrost, health, housing, education, research, Inuit games, visual arts, performing arts, filmmaking and media, the Inuit as circumpolar people.

The First Nations chose residential schools, climate, wild animals, forced population movements, seasonal movement, connection to the land, rivers, lakes water resources, reconciliation, natural environment, food, justice, arts and culture, traditional land use, environmental challenges, protected areas, trade, education, traditional ways, sport, ceremonial spaces, urban Indigenous populations, economy, origins, Racism, Treaties, language, governance, and finally community.

The Metis cover identity, communities, fur trade, bison hunting, red river carts, lifeways, worldview, oral tradition, languages, veterans, scrip, early nationalism, Red River resistance, aftermath of 1885,  road allowance people, Metis settlements and farms, activism 1950 to m1970s, modern political life, Metis and the constitution, material culture, music and dance, heritage days, arts and culture, educational cultural organizations, adaptive nature, and at last Metis today.

As settler-Canadians what volume topics matter to us? Learning English well but relishing our native tongue still, choosing a place to live, finding a job to apply our skills, finding a life partner, building a family home together, changing allegiance from one nation’s government to another,  raising five children, testing ideals in social movements, caring for domesticated animals, growing some of our own food, absorbing relaxing times along the Rideau and its tributaries kayaking, canoeing, cycling and hiking, participating in and contributing to communal faith and worship, meeting people of diverse cultures and nations in respect or reject…  Sometimes we shine and other times we suffer rejection and oppression by the dominant powers in Canada and the Western World.

Each volume is graced with the same circular logo specially designed for the set by graphic designer Shaun Vincent. He chose symbols of the eagle, char, water streams, prairie sky, Metis beadwork, trees, inushuk, ulu tools, dream catcher, mother and daughter, wolf, four directions, and the compass.

Each volume opens with the same sub theme: Indigenous perspectives, much older than the nation itself, shared through maps, artwork, history and culture. This statement calls for the question: how do Indigenous people see their relationship to Canada? Do they want to be citizens of Canada or be Indigenous nations sharing the land in federation with Canada? How do they apply the 1982 Canadian Constitution to their people and to other Canadians? Canada has more diversities that are not yet being expressed in political realities.

Meanwhile my tour through the imaged Indigenous culture and my dip into the Canadian settler culture are coming to an end. The books are closed and returned to the shelf. The mind picks up the daily duties.  We put on our lined coat, hat and gloves and step onto the frozen deck, walk down the tiled icy path and start up our F150X pickup truck. Turning out of our graveled driveway onto the snowplowed village street, we turn onto the black paved highway heading into town. We park at the largest box store to purchase the best priced veggies and bread. We pump gas at the lowest priced fuel station on the strip. We complain about being stuck in traffic on a ‘will-it-ever-widen’ main street connecting the super highway to the commercial centre and beyond to homes spread throughout town and country. When we ‘finally’ get home, we read the local newspaper and after a simple supper turn on the computer for world news. Soon it is time to yield to sleep.

My subconscious goes into overdrive. I notice a mass of people flocking together from every language, culture, race to something in the far distance. I sense a spirit of anguish but also of respect. Just when the distant ‘something’ approaches, a loud knock on my front door awakens me. It is pitsdark in the room and I feel the mighty force of the ‘something’ overpowering my space. Is its power suit star-sprangled green, hammer & sickle red, the Five-starred red or another alien colour?  Suddenly a bright light blinds my eyes, and a clear voice sounds distinctively: “When will you follow the paths of righteousness? The time is short.” Then all is dark again and I am struggling with the choices of my heart.


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