Google Maps Empower First Nations in Ongoing Pipeline Debate


By Jonny Wakefield

August 28, 2014

Whether for charting land claims or detailing the extent of an environmental disaster, Google Maps could prove a powerful tool for First Nations. 

At an upcoming workshop this week at the University of Victoria, Google employees will be training members of remote First Nations communities how to use freely available software to produce maps of their traditional territories.

Dubbed the Indigenous Mapping Workshop and supported by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, the four-day event will bring together around 40 First Nations. Staff from Google Earth Outreach will be on hand to teach attendees how to use the software. 

With the recent Tsilhqot'in ruling on aboriginal title and number of controversial resource projects slated to pass through aboriginal land, questions of traditional territory are once again making headlines. 

According to Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the UBCIC, geospatial imaging software like Google Maps could give First Nations leverage in their negotiations with resource companies. 

Phillip cited the recent breach of a tailings pond at Imperial Metal's Mount Polley mine as a case where Google Maps could help First Nations chart the impact of resource extraction on their traditional territory.  

"If you could develop a map showing all of the waterways that would be impacted by that spill, that would be a very graphic representation of the harm that has been inflicted on the environment," he told the Canadian Press

Brian Thom, a University of Victoria anthropologist who co-organized the event, told the Victoria Times Colonist that up-to-date and accessible online maps would be an asset in land use, pipeline and fisheries negotiations.

sample map he helped prepare for the conference showed the traditional aboriginal uses of lands around Ladysmith, B.C., as well as the names elders used to describe specific landmarks.

The map uses markers to indicate areas that are sacred to the Stz'uminus First Nation, and includes links to videos and additional information on the sites.  

"The indigenous mapping movement is empowering because it is accessible, accurate and defensible," Thom said.