From far away, the map covering the lawn on Parliament Hill looks like modern-day Canada.
When you get closer, though, you see that the traditional provincial borders have been stripped away, replaced by huge swaths of green, purple and yellow to represent Indigenous traditional lands. The only cities are those with significant Indigenous populations, such as Ottawa, Thunder Bay and Winnipeg.
This is the map that accompanies the Indigenous People’s Atlas of Canada, a new resource created by Indigenous leaders that gives a first-hand account of their history to K-12 students. Along with the map comes a four-part atlas that describes at length the history of Canada’s three distinct families of Indigenous peoples: First Nations, Métis and Inuit groups.
The massive project began in 2016, when John Geiger, the CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, met with Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett to understand how his company could contribute to reconciliation.
“We really wanted to do something that would make a difference,” Geiger said. “This is a different way of looking at our country … through the lens of Indigenous peoples, their languages, their treaties.”
Indigenous-Crown Relations covered most of the project’s $2-million price tag.
The society then reached out to Indigenous organizations across the country for their support of the project. Many representatives of those partners, including the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Métis National Council, celebrated on Parliament Hill with their parliamentary colleagues on Monday.
Geiger said the society’s goal was to facilitate a timeless resource to teach young people of all ages about the truth of Canada’s past — and to prepare them for a more just future.
“It’s harder to change the way people think when they’re adults, when all their ideas are etched in granite,” he said. “It’s easier to engage with young people … to teach them all the facts of Canada.”
Clement Chartier, president of the Métis National Council, said his participation in the project came with one condition: that the distinct territories of the Métis Nation, including modern-day treaties, be included on the map.
Two years later, Chartier quickly found his home of Buffalo Narrows, Sask., on the map.
Chartier agreed to participate, in part, because he wanted to help dispel some of the myths about Métis people, whose history has been misunderstood in recent times.
“The term ‘Métis’ is going … from a people to an adjective to mean anyone with mixed ancestry,” he said. “For us, (this project) is very good.”
Dotting the map are the names of Indigenous languages, including Cree and Dene, and the geographical location where each language is spoken. The size of the word, officials said, depends on how big the Indigenous population is in a given region.
Chartier said he hopes the map will help children learn Michif, the Métis language that’s a mix of French and Cree.
The response to the project has been overwhelming, Geiger said, with the atlas hitting bestseller lists across the country after its soft launch in the spring.
“It’s right away taken off, and has had a huge impact, much more broad than the school system,” he continued.
There are currently 60 maps and 25,000 paper copies of the atlas available for teachers across the country, in both English and French.
Teachers who want to bring the resources to their classrooms for a three-week period must be added to a growing wait-list. However, all four parts of the atlas are available for free online.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which wrapped up its report in 2015, did not specifically recommend the creation of an Indigenous-centric atlas or map. But the report does recommend improving education, including developing a “culturally appropriate” curriculum, and lessons dedicated to the residential-school crisis.
The atlas is far from done. Geiger said the next step is to translate both the four-part atlas and the map into various Indigenous languages so children in schools across the country can learn their own history.
Anna Desmarais is an Ottawa-based reporter for iPolitics. Follow her on Twitter: @anna_desmarais