Innovative atlas puts Indigenous knowledge on the map — literally — to help tackle climate crisis

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Hetxw’ms Gyetxw spent his childhood on Gitxsan territory in the Northwest Interior of British Columbia, and he’s seen the dramatic ways climate change has altered the land where he grew up. The river he used to skate on no longer freezes over. The glaciers he remembers have disappeared. 

“We’ve watched the world change,” Hetxw’ms Gyetxw said in an interview. “I’m going to be 40 this year, but in my lifetime I have watched our land change completely.”

Hetxw’ms Gyetxw is Gitxsan, a matrilineal society which doesn’t use last names. He goes by his full traditional name.

Now living in Winnipeg with his family, Hetxw’ms Gyetxw has used his first-hand experience to bridge the gap between Indigenous knowledge and Western science, and to help create a new interactive tool aimed at understanding and addressing climate change in Canada.

The Indigenous Knowledges component of the Climate Atlas of Canada, launched today, is the culmination of years of work by Hetxw’ms Gyetxw and the team at the University of Winnipeg’s Prairie Climate Centre, in collaboration with Indigenous communities across the country. 

Hetxw’ms Gyetxw, seen here in a childhood photo with his grandparents, used to skate on this river in the winter. Now, he says, the Xsyeen River in B.C.’s Northwest Interior rarely freezes over. (Submitted by Hetxw’ms Gyetxw)

Launching a new map of Canada 

“We’ve launched a new map of Canada,” Ian Mauro, executive director of the Prairie Climate Centre, said in an interview. 

Until now, the interactive atlas did not show climate change projections for Indigenous communities. Only Canadian urban centres were included.

The newly-launched feature provides information about the impacts of climate change on 634 First Nations communities and 53 Inuit communities, while also profiling projects surrounding climate change adaptation and mitigation across the Métis homeland. 

The map also shares videos from Indigenous elders and knowledge keepers, centring their knowledge as a resource. It highlights projects aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions, such as the Cowessess First Nation wind-solar battery storage project in Saskatchewan, and community efforts to adapt to climate change, like the Métis wildland firefighters.

Mauro, who is not Indigenous, said it was important for him as a geographer to help put Indigenous communities on the map — literally in some cases — and work toward reconciliation. 

“It’s a massive contribution from Indigenous communities to all of Canada … to think about a different way of approaching this hugely complex issue that is grounded in that millennia-old yet current and modern Indigenous wisdom,” he said.

WATCH | How the Indigenous knowledges section of the Climate Atlas works: 

Indigenous knowledge not just about the past

The unique approach illustrates how Western or Eurocentric climate change science and Indigenous expertise can complement one another. It’s the embodiment of a concept sometimes called two-eyed seeing, which Hetxw’ms Gyetxw describes: 

“Through one eye you’re looking at the world through the Western sciences and the other eye you’re looking through traditional knowledges … you’re taking all perspectives and you’re seeing the world as it truly is, not just in one segmented way.”

Hetxw’ms Gyetxw said Indigenous knowledge is often stereotyped as only being about the past, or relegated to topics like hunting and fishing. He hopes this new tool will help Canadians see the bigger picture.

“Indigenous knowledge encompasses everything,” he said. “It encompasses the weather, it encompasses what things are going to look like in the future. We take into account the biology, the ecology, everything about our lands.”

WATCH | Cowessess First Nation members on wind-solar battery storage project: 

 

The project was funded by Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Assembly of First Nations, and the Métis National Council. 

Cassidy Caron, President of the Métis National Council, described climate change as “one of the greatest challenges of our time” and said Métis hunters are having to travel further to find caribou, forest fires are destroying traditional traplines and families are struggling to put food on the table due to the rise in food prices and limited access to traditional foods.

A statement from federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault said the Climate Atlas “demonstrates how climate research and Indigenous knowledge can be combined to advance reconciliation, climate preparedness and environmental protection.”

Pushing past the ‘paralysis of analysis’

Inuk climate advocate Siila Watt-Cloutier said climate change is drastically altering many aspects of life for Inuit, including how they navigate the thinning ice when they hunt and fish. (Simon Fraser University)

Siila Watt-Cloutier, an Inuk climate advocate, was a key partner in the development of the Indigenous content on the Climate Atlas. 

She said climate change has had a dramatic impact on the daily lives of Inuit. The thinning ice makes the conditions difficult to read, and even seasoned hunters have fallen through. The thawing permafrost has hurt infrastructure — leading to airport runways buckling and in some cases, homes built on stilts warping.

According to projections from the Climate Atlas, her home town of Kuujjuaq in Nunavik, an autonomous region of Northern Quebec, is expected to have an average of 40 fewer days a year where temperatures drop below 0 C by the end of the century, if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at the same rate. These higher temperatures would greatly impact the Inuit community where life depends on the ice. 

But instead of only seeing Indigenous people as victims of climate change, Watt-Cloutier said it’s time for the world to look to them as problem solvers.

“We are after all, the inventors of the kayak, the boat that is replicated worldwide. We can build homes of snow, warm enough for your mothers to birth in. This is ingenuity architecture at its very best,” said Watt-Cloutier, who is an officer of the Order of Canada and a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. 

She said much of the world seems to be stuck in a “paralysis of analysis” when it comes to addressing the climate crisis, but that Inuit and other Indigenous people can help lead.

“We want to be there at the tables negotiating. We want to be there teaching the world what is happening and how we can move forward.”

“We have much to give and we have much to offer. I think Indigenous wisdom is what the Western world needs to heal, to understand and to get back into creating a more sustainable world. Indigenous knowledge is the medicine the world seeks.” 

WATCH | Looking to Indigenous people for solutions to a planet in peril: 



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