The Four C’s of Social Justice: Creating a Foundation for Change


“Maybe their hearts were in the right place. Maybe not. Either way, these are solid contenders for the title of “worst attempts at helping others since colonialism.”[1]

In the last few weeks, I have discussed four components of any successful social justice project – Consult, Collaborate, Clarify, Commit. These four concepts build on each other, and work together, when engaging with any marginalized community. A failure to address any one of these concepts can easily result in a failure of the entire project.

People sometimes use a pneumonic to help them remember complex things.  A popular pneumonic is the KISS principle – Keep It Simple, Smart-folks! At home, we have taught our daughter the value of THINK before speaking.  Is it True?  Is it Helpful? Is it Important?  Is it Necessary?  Is it Kind?  Our daughter understands that if she thinks about each part of THINK, and the answer is NO… It might be better to not say what she was going to.

The four C’s I have been discussing can work like THINK.  Each ‘C’ provides a kind of check list which social justice advocates need to think about in each and every stage of a community project.

Am I consulting with each community partner, in a way that fully includes their knowledge and needs in the project?

Am I collaborating with my partner(s) – making sure that they have full power to make important decisions?

Am I clarifying the goals, responsibilities, and outcomes of the project – and making sure everyone understands the part they play?

Am I committing to the promises I make, and making sure that my partner(s) are committed as well?

There have been many International Development projects which have failed, and even harmed the communities which were involved.  Here is a small list of some of these projects, and where they went horribly wrong when applied to the Four C’s Checklist

  • With the One million t-shirts for Africa[2] campaign, Jason Sadler attempted to provide free t-shirts to over one million Africans. In 2010,Sadler ran a company called I Wear a Shirt, where companies paid him to advertise by wearing their logo t-shirts.  Despite the fact that Sadler had never been to an African country personally, he decided to get rid of his excess t-shirts by shipping them off to ‘needy’ Africans.  He then went one step further, by running YouTube campaigns to get others to send him their old t-shirts for the small fee of $1.00 USD.  This campaign ultimately failed, and caused an onslaught of very valid criticism over how African communities did not actually need these used shirts and how the effort was harming communities and local economies.  Checking the Four C’s Checklist – failure occurred at the first C… Consult.
  • In 2012, rapper 50-Cent visited refugee camps in Somalia. Afterwards, he began a Facebook campaign to donate meals to needy children. Check this out: The catch was that you had to ‘like’ his Street King energy drink in order to have him send money for the meals. If his page received one million likes in a short period of time, he would donate one million extra meals. It was clear from this campaign that the money for the meals was already ear-marked and ready to go.  In order for the money to be sent, however, Facebook users had to check that they liked 50-Cent’s energy drink.  Simply stated – this campaign was less about helping impoverished refugee children, and more about promoting and advertising for 50-Cent.  Ultimately – this campaign was nothing more than a form of tied aid[3]designed to further 50-Cent’s cause.  Following the Four Cs Checklist, this campaign was doomed to failure.  While it is not clear whether 50 Cent consulted with Somalia families, it is very clear that there was no engagement in collaboration
  • Moving a little closer to ‘home’: in 2015, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), made the decision to open commercial herring fisheries on the BC west coast. This was despite the concerns of First Nations communities that current herring stocks could not sustain large commercial harvests.  The DFO refused to listen, and held to their belief that their methods of measuring herring populations were superior to First Nations scientists and knowledge-holders.  The DFO opened the commercial fishery in Heiltsuk territory with less than 24-hour notice.  The Heiltsuk retaliated, and blockaded DFO offices in Bella Bella and Vancouver, BC.  The conflict resulted in the DFO being forced to close the Central Coast fishery for the season. This conflict could most likely been avoided if the DFO engaged in meaningful consultations from the beginning. DFO efforts failed from the first ‘C’ – Consultation.  For more on this issue, check out

In each of the above cases, the project failed before it ever reached the final stages of implementation. By remembering the Four C’s each step of the way, complex issues can be simplified.  Engaging a community with each “C” ensures that important foundations of social justice are achieved – integrity, inclusion, equality, resilience, sustainability, innovation, and accessibility.  These foundations are critical toward achieving real social change, and are, after all, the foundations of the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) discussed in my first blog post of this series (

This is the work that Spatial Integrity commits to with every one of its partners:

Consult – Check

Collaborate – Check

Clarify – Check

Commit – Check!

For more information about Spatial Integrity and the services we offer, check out  Until next time, this is Spatial Integrity – making the Invisible, Visible!




Commitment: a Contract for Change


“Say what you do, and then do what you say”

I have been blogging about the “Four C’s of Social Justice” these last few weeks. In week one, I discussed ConsultingCollaboration was covered in week two.  Last week, I talked about Clarification. This week, I will explain the concept ofCommitment, as it pertains to social justice programs.

We can understand this commitment in two ways.  First, we can be committed to social justice and equality. According to Antioch University, social justice involves actively committing to “advocacy for the elimination of violence and oppression, the alleviation of poverty, promotion of environmental justice and sustainability, and the diminution of inequality.”[1]

Being committed to social justice is simply not enough, however.  When we engage with communities to support them and help them achieve their goals, we need to also hold ourselves accountable for the promises and agreements we make with them.  This brings us to the second critical part of commitment – striving to always say what you do, and then do what you say!

In modern social jargon, the word, ‘commitment’ is both a thing (noun) and an action (verb).  According to many social development and leadership University workshops, “commitment implies passion, intensity, and duration, directed both towards group activity and intended outcomes”.[2] In this context, commitment is a ‘thing’.  This is fine and good on paper, but in ‘real space’ – on the ground, commitment must be realized as an action – more than a thing.  As Dumbledore explains to Harry in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (J.K. Rowling),

It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities…

All too often, in social development projects, commitment becomes the thing – rather than actions and agreements we make with individuals and groups.  Sometimes, we even make light of our commitments.  As the popular joke goes, “I am committed… or should be…” In order for social change to occur, we need to move beyond an objective view of project commitments, committed funding, and a commitment to the ‘cause’.  Commitments must become actions, promises, and contracts to the partners we are collaborating with.  These ‘contracts’ we make with our collaborators are similar to marriage vows – we carefully consider what we are committing to, and then uphold our agreements… ‘For better or for worse’.

In a Canadian context, the government is legally responsible and committed to guarantee “Meaningful Consultation” to First Nations groups, under Section 35 of the Constitution Act (1982). Although this obligation is intended to help First Nations communities, however, many groups continue to be harmed and marginalized under new government resource policies which directly impact them.  I argue that this process has failed many First Nations communities, because – while the law ensures a commitment to consult – there is inadequate commitment to the needs and rights of the First Nations themselves.

A perfect example of this is with ‘meaningful consultation’ with First Nations communities directly involved in expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline project happening in BC.  For more information on this, check out  In this situation, government and industry consultants often seem more concerned with making sure that the pipeline proposal is passed – not with ensuring valid concerns of the First Nations are heard and implemented in final decisions.  As Sundance Chief and Tsleil-Waututh member Rueben George explained in an interview with CBC, many coastal First nations believe the proposal will pass, despite many environmental, health, and sustainability concerns these groups have (

The reason Meaningful Consultation in Canada seems to fail many First Nations’ communities is that the government remains committed to their own resource use and economic objectives, rather than making commitments to First Nations communities which are meaningful to their needs.  If we expect to truly create real social change, we need to move past the idea of commitment as a ‘Thing’ and an obligation, and toward an ideal of committing to the needs of the communities we are helping.  This means entering into a committed relationship with each community we engage with.  Commitment, in this context, means we must accept the needs of our ‘partner’ as equally important to our own.

As a consultant, I must make a series of decisions when committing to a community.  Most importantly, I need to decide whether my own personal commitment to a mandate is more or less important than the needs and desires of the group I am partnered with.  Before I make any commitments to the group, I must decide whether or not I am prepared to do whatever it takes to help the community I have made promises to.  Once I make a commitment to these individuals, my commitment becomes a social contract which I work towards – for better or for worse.  Commitment is not a thing to be entered into lightly, or which emphasizes my own needs over my partners’.  Once I am committed, it becomes my responsibility to ensure that I do everything possible to follow the four C’s of my contract – Consult, Collaborate, Clarify, and Commit.

Real social change will happen when each of the four C’s become less about me and my objectives and more about really listening to and hearing the needs and desires of my partners’.  Next week, I will wrap up this blog series – and conclude with how these four C’s work together to help us ‘be the change we want to see”.  Until then, this is Spatial Integrity – making the Invisible, Visible.

[1] Antioch University. At Our Core: AUNE’s Commitment to Social Justice, Diversity and Inclusion. Accessed May 19, 2016.

[2] The Social Change Model of Leadership Development. Accessed May 20, 2016.

Clarify: Making Invisible Goals Clearly Defined

clarify     As a chef, several years ago, I learned that ‘clarify’ is a cooking term for making clear broths and clear butter (ghee).  The key word here is ‘clear’.  To clarify is to make things clear.  To clarify, however, we are not talking about cooking here – we are discussing social justice!

In social justice programs, clarifying is an important part of the consulting process.  As discussed in the last two blog posts of this series, the consultant collaborates with a community in order to help them decide on projects most important to them.  The third part of this process is clarification.  Unfortunately, some projects can fail, simply because the consultant failed to clarify the project goals so that everyone involved understands exactly what will happen, and who has specific responsibilities.  Even more importantly, failure to clarify can mean individuals have different understandings of what will happen.

Different understandings often lead to ‘misunderstandings’.  Misunderstandings can lead to resentments and even harm to the people you are trying to help. A perfect example of this is a group I was involved with a few years back.  This group was involved with an Indigenous group, helping them to build their community.  An elderly community member was asked if their stories could be posted on a “blackboard” (which was part of an online social media site).  This person understood blackboard as a physical item – such as those found in schools.  They were very upset when they discovered their stories had been shared on the internet – and asked for them to be immediately removed.  Of course, by this time it was too late – the blackboard had been viewed and shared across the world, and this community member lost control over their own stories.  All of this could have been avoided if jargon and modern terminology had been fully explained to the individual.  Assumptions were made which eventually caused harm to a person being ‘helped’.

In short, the clarification process takes care of many of these misunderstandings.  The ‘rules’ are simple.  When consulting with marginalized communities, don’t use jargon.  Be sure to adequately define what you are saying. Always communicate with the people you are working with to make sure they fully understand what you are saying.  Always end each planning session by asking the community to state what they understand you are doing.  Always restate what YOU understand the project and goals to be!

Most importantly, make sure everyone involved understands: (1) what they are doing (their role); (2) what their individual responsibilities are: and, (3) how they benefit!  Clarification involves communicating with the group, summarizing goals, establishing roles, and explaining the time frames, benefits, and boundaries of the final project.

Clarifying the goals is the responsibility of all involved parties.  It is the duty, however, of the consultant to make sure clarifying the goals occurs. The consultant has three goals.  First, they make sure they are understood.  This is accomplished by educating themselves about specific languages, cultures, historical backgrounds, and traditions of the group they are working with.  Second, they make sure that any decisions or project outcomes are clearly representative of everyone in the community.  All too often, the ‘loudest’ or most outspoken individuals in a group drive the outcomes, and they may not be the individuals who have the greatest stake in the plan.  It is up to the consultant to clarify that all needs are represented.  Finally, before any plans are implemented, the consultant needs to do a final ‘check in’ with the group.  This is the time for making sure everyone completely understands – and agrees with – the project goals.

So far in this series, I have discussed three of the four C’s of social justice: consult, collaborate, and clarify.  Next week, I will unwrap the final ‘C’ – commit.  As we will see, commitment is one of the most critical to successful social change.  Until then, this is Spatial Integrity – making the invisible, visible!


Collaboration: The Ability to say, “Yes-And”

collaboration  Last week, I discussed consulting as the first ‘C’ in successful social justice projects.  This week, I will tackle the idea of collaboration as a critical component in development and research work with marginalized communities.  Collaboration is a word many people have heard stated in recent news articles.  This word is not always completely understood, however.  The dictionary defines collaboration as “(1) to work with another person or group in order to achieve or do something, and (2) to give help to an enemy who has invaded your country during a war”.[1]

These definitions often imply that one group has less power to achieve their goals than the other group.  Each group brings a ‘story’ to the table, and collaboration often involves convincing the other group that their ‘story’ is not as meaningful or important. Many collaborative efforts fail, because one group ends up saying “no” to the other group.  A dominant story is created, which means one group ‘loses’, while the other group ‘wins’.

As successful collaborators, we sometimes need to change our own stories. The people we work with can introduce new stories and new possibilities.  These changes are often unexpected.  Unexpected changes in our plans can be uncomfortable for us.  When this happens, it is important to remember a concept taught in Improvisational Theatre (Improv) – “Yes-And…

Many people learn from an early age to respond “No”, or “yes, but” when faced with a change in expectations.  Collaboration, like Improv, requires a “yes-AND”, response, however.  Try this exercise for yourself:  if someone asks you if they can tell you a story about a dragon, and you say “no”, what happens?  The story is finished and never told.  If, however, you say, “yes! And the dragon is a queen who was magically cursed by a witch”, the story continues and builds as both of you create a new story together.

Collaboration which is based on “yes-and”, helps create a new ‘story’ which benefits everyone!  It is critical to remember that collaboration is a two-way street.  Both the consultant AND the partner have to engage in yes-and, or the project is over.  This makes collaboration a way for everyone involved to tell the story they want to be told.  As soon as the word “no” is uttered, the story stops, and the project is finished.  Collaboration has failed. Important work cannot continue. “Yes, BUT” is equally harmful to the collaboration process, because “but” is simply another word for “NO”.

Many collaborative development and social justice projects have failed or stagnated.  For many First Nations communities in Canada, ‘collaboration’ with government agencies has not worked – the words ‘but’ or ‘no’ have been a key part of the project vocabulary.  One example of this is the story told about herring harvests on the BC coast last year.  Even though the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) is mandated to collaborate with west coast First Nations communities regarding important marine food harvests, the DFO made a decision to allow commercial live herring harvests in important Heiltsuk territories.  This decision was made without consulting with Heiltsuk leaders in a way that they expected to be included.  In short, the DFO said “no” to the Heiltsuk, and the Heiltsuk in turn said “NO” to the DFO.  This resulted in protests and blockades which ultimately caused key ocean areas to be closed to any commercial fisheries for the season.  Collaboration between the DFO and the Heiltsuk leaders was finished – simply because one of the parties failed to engage in “yes-AND”.  For more information on this critical event, check out this news report:

Failures to collaborate with First Nations on the West Coast continue, including issues like Lelu Island (, the Northern Gateway Pipeline (, the Keystone pipeline (, and the Great Bear Rainforest ( Every one of these conflicts involves inadequate collaboration.

Collaboration, if conducted well, can reduce global conflicts.  This is because all involved parties are actively engaged in a conversation based on Yes-And.  This conversation creates a story which includes everyone!  The more we learn to say yes-and to each other, the more we allow everyone to tell their story equally.  Once we accept each others’ stories as equally valuable, we are able to create new and better stories.  Real collaboration changes our reality for the better, and allows everyone to discover new innovations, new possibilities, and new realities.  This is what it will take to discover sustainable life-styles that benefit each and every one of us.  Collaboration is only a step in the process, however.  Next week I will discuss the third ‘C’ of social justice – Clarify.  Until then, this is Spatial Integrity – making the invisible, visible!

[1]  Accessed April 28, 2016.

Consultation: Duty, Rights and Privilege

consultingLast week, I began a six-part blog series, Consult, Collaborate, Clarify and Commit: The Four C’s of Social Justice.  This week, I am discussing the first ‘C’ – Consult.  Consulting can be a problem in social development projects, because it can mean different things to different people.  Webster’s Dictionary defines “consult” as, “(1) to go to someone for advice, (2) to ask for the professional opinion of someone, (3) to talk about something with someone in order to make a decision, and (4) to look for information in something, such as a book or map.” In all these definitions, there is an assumption that someone or something has more knowledge or ability to give us the answers we need to solve a problem.

We consult with lawyers.  We consult with physicians.  We even consult with wedding planners and event caterers.  In all of these cases, we need to talk to someone who has more experience and knowledge than we do – and need their advice to make the right decisions.  When we accept someone as being the ‘expert’, it often means that there is an unequal power dynamic in that relationship.  By this, I mean that the consultant can be ‘better’, more knowledgeable, and even more important than we are.  This is especially a problem in marginalized communities, who have a long history of being told that their needs are less important than the needs and desires of others.  In many cases, this history is so prevalent that the community members believe they are inferior, unimportant, and lacking knowledge to help themselves.  They have become disenfranchised and disempowered.  They do not need yet another ‘consultant’ coming in to tell them that they are doing it all wrong, and need an expert to give them the answers they cannot provide for themselves!

In some cases, the consultants themselves become trapped in an idea that they know best, have the best answers, and need to be listened to so they can ‘fix’ the problem.  While I was in Tanzania a few years ago, I was sitting in a coffee house, overhearing a Canadian teacher talking to their friend about a problem in the school they were teaching in.  According to them, the students they had did not know how to ‘properly’ clean things, lived in filth and squalor, and were downright ‘stupid’ about how to avoid disease and health problems.  I was dismayed at their attitude – which showed me that they really believed they had all the correct answers, and that the students lived backwards lives with no understanding of how things were supposed to be done.  These Canadian teachers were the ‘experts’ in their own minds, and everyone else in Tanzania had to be properly educated.

In Canada, one of the government’s responsibilities to First Nations lies in a legal ‘duty to consult’.  In this context, there have been problems in British Columbia with successful consultation and accommodation.[1] All too often, this duty has become one of informing, rather than consulting. Under Canadian law, the government is not required to come to an agreement with the specific First Nations group.  Instead, consultation is designed to ‘reconcile’ conflicts between the community and the actions of the government, especially when those actions may impact Treaty rights.

This duty to consult does not apply to private industry, even though it is considered to be good business practice.[2]  This has led to situations where railroads and electric lines are built on or through Reserves.  In these cases, First Nations have little or no say in the construction.  This also means that gas or oil companies can survey or build on areas of land which affect First Nations communities directly.  It is these cases that have led to many conflicts in recent years over land and resource rights across Canada. In 2014, the Tsilhqot’in case showed that this form of consulting has not worked well, and has done little to change the problems positively.[3] To learn more about this important legal case in Canada, see this link:

These are just a few examples of how ‘consultancy’ which privileges the knowledge of one group often leads to social injustices, inequality, and power struggles.  If we are going to truly work with and help marginalized communities, it is going to be necessary to redefine what ‘consult’ means, and how we engage with those communities.  For First Nations groups, this change means we need to consult at the beginning of projects, provide them with all the information they need, give them time to consider the options, AND apply their concerns or needs into the proposed plan of action.

In development work, consulting needs to happen in a way that fully includes the community.  In every case, individual community members must be seen as equal partners in the consulting process. As I discussed last week, participatory action research is a way to fully engage communities, and allow their knowledge to be equally important to the consultant’s.  Once we have redefined consulting in this way, it allows us to help communities in better and more meaningful ways.  Meaningful consultation leads to collaboration – the second of the ‘four C’s’ of social justice.  Next week, I will discuss collaboration in more detail.  Until then, I am Spatial Integrity – making the invisible, visible!

[1] New Relationship Trust. 2009. Best Practices for Consultation and Accommodation. Meyers Norris Penny LLP.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

Consult, Collaborate, Clarify and Commit: the Four C’s of Social Justice

Venn_diagram_of_Participatory_Action_ResearchMany development projects and social initiatives have fallen apart when confronted with four simple concepts.  These concepts include consultation, collaboration, clarification, and commitment.  Together, these concepts form the foundation of what today is called Participatory Action Research (PAR).  PAR is a development strategy which states that research must happen with people, and not on orfor people.  By using a PAR strategy, researchers and social activists strive to better help marginalized communities achieve their goals in the best way possible. Unfortunately, many organizations – armed with good intentions – have produced more harm than good when attempting to work with communities they are mandated to help.  This is often little more than a failure to remember the four C’s that are the foundation of their work!

This is the first post for a six part blog series. Next week, I will discuss the first ‘C’ in detail – Consultation. The intent of this blog post is to introduce the four concepts which can lead to reduced conflicts, improved community capacity, and greater sustainability for the partners involved in development projects. In the final week, I will bring all four C’s together, and show how these concepts can best help marginalized communities. This week, I will discuss PAR more generally.

PAR is an important strategy in development work, because it has proven to be effective in addressing many of the United Nations (UN) sustainable development goals (SDGs).  These 17 goals are designed to “end poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and tackle climate change by the year 2030”.[1]  For more information on these important goals, check  PAR is now recognized as a valid way to address the SDGs, because it focuses on community and household problem solving and supports rural participation and traditional or Indigenous knowledge systems.  For many years, researchers attempted to use strict western scientific methods to solve community problems, and failed to accept that the communities they were ‘helping’ often had centuries of knowledge about the issue.  PAR tries to work with communities to discover how their own knowledge can contribute to a solution.

Since PAR allows communities to become co-researchers, they are actively involved in every step of the project – designing the research, collecting the data, analyzing the data, and even writing the final reports.  The role of the researcher, or consultant, becomes one of facilitation and providing skills or information that can help the community achieve their goals.  This process ultimately allows the community to engage in projects which are relevant to them, and acknowledges them as ‘experts’ in project decisions and results.[2]  One of the tools used in PAR is community and participatory mapping.  Mapping becomes a highly visual way to simplify complex issues, and help communities better realize what problems they need to focus on the most.

Effective PAR, by its very nature, must therefore use the four C’s: Consult, Collaborate, Clarify, and Commit.  Neglecting any of these steps can result in a failed project at best, and at worst, harming a community in sometimes unexpected ways.  Next week, I will be examining the first ‘C’ in participatory action – Consultation.  Until next time, this is Spatial Integrity, working to make the invisible, visible!

Online Mapping: Opportunity for Development, or a “Frightening Future”?

mapsMuch of my work involves mapping, and I often turn to online mapping platforms such as Google Earth to create useful maps for the people I work with.  A couple months ago, as I was checking out TED talks online to avoid doing the work I actually needed to do, I came across a talk by Monica Stephens.  Stephens, who is a Geographer and Assistant Professor, gave a talk titled The Frightening Future of Digital Maps.  For anyone interested, the link is

In this video, Monica argues that social media and online mapping is shaping the way we see and understand the places around us.  The people who actually supply the data, and where the data comes from, can limit access to the world for certain people – even without meaning to!  In social media and online mapping, shared data is often associated with a geotag – for example, when people share an image or status update of where they are now on their phones.  This geotag is associated with a specific location somewhere in the world.  75% of all geotagged data is created in the United States and in Europe.  Similarly, 60% of all geo-referenced Google content is generated in the United States.  This means that much of the knowledge sharing on social media becomes biased toward the viewpoints of North Americans and Europeans.

In the United States, this bias further becomes an issue of class, gender and privilege.  To explain, after Hurricane Katrina, Google Maps became inundated with geo-tagged images and updates from New Orleans.  The majority of these images were located outside of the 9th Ward – the section of the city populated mostly by non-whites and people living in economic poverty.  This caused an unintentional bias toward the wealthier areas of the city – those inhabited by wealthier white individuals.

Google Map’s campaign for crowd-sourcing the places added to online maps has created this same type of bias.  Individual users are encourages to “enrich Google Maps with your local knowledge”.  Ultimately, the majority of people that are actually adding descriptions, places and features to the maps are white, wealthy North Americans.  93% of these ‘knowledge enrichers’ are male.  This means that this form of knowledge sharing does not include women, Indigenous, black or people of colour.  In the end, what we see on the maps surrounding us are pictures presented by a dominating white male culture.  Already marginalized individuals are being pushed further into the background – ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

In the end, the geo-tagged submissions we provide to Google and social media are filtered and ranked – creating a world which limits access to the places around us, based on our demographics, our status, our education, and our economic privilege.  If we are not careful, maps – rather than opening doors to greater possibilities, may limit our movement and access to the world around us.  Becoming aware of the possibility of Stephen’s “Frightening Future” can help remind of our own biases and our responsibility to everyone to ensure their knowledge is included in the decisions we make for the future – whether it be in development, social science research, policy making, or environmental sustainability decisions.  Maps can help us in these endeavors – as long as we remember to look at the ‘same’ maps!

Decolonizing our Maps


The other day, a friend asked me about the work I do, and why working with First Nations communities and cartography was so important to me.  I was struck with one question in particular: “Why do you need to make maps?  Aren’t there already a lot of maps already out there?”  The short answer is simple – “Yes AND No”.  The history of cartography as it pertains to Indigenous communities is far more complex and difficult to explain in one short answer, however.

In North America (as in many other countries), maps have been used by European settlers to relegate Indigenous communities to the small parcels of land we now call Reserves (in Canada), and Reservations (in the United States).  Jordan Engel, the founder of a project called the “Decolonial Atlas”, states that, for many First Nations, “there is no truth in cartography”.  Engel explains his viewpoint further:

“Colonial powers, without the consent of Indigenous people, drew up imaginary political borders, which, more often than not, don’t reflect any real natural or cultural boundaries”.

For anyone interested, Engel’s project can be viewed in more detail at  It is important to interject here that the statement “there is no truth in cartography” is not completely accurate.

I believe that there is always an inherent truth to be found in maps and cartographical charts.  Maps provide us with a picture of how we understand the world around us, and what the places we chose to display mean to us and for us.   Perhaps more accurately, the maps that many of us use and understand today hold little truth for First Nations groups.  This is because of the way that Native place and space was changed by European settlers and redrawn to exclude Indigenous peoples from the land and resources they had long-standing sovereign rights to. What became ‘truth’ for the settler was little more than a paper-thin ‘lie’ for First Nations communities who could no longer access important resources and sacred cultural sites.  One of the simplest ways to rewrite history using cartography is through changing the names of the places listed on the map.

Some of you might remember last August 2015, when Barack Obama visited Denali National Park in Alaska.  The tallest mountain in North America, standing 6,190 metres above sea level, can be found in Denali National Park.  This mountain was named Mount McKinley by a gold prospector in 1896, in honour of then President William McKinley.  The Koyukon Athabascan people who called the area home knew this mountain as Denali, or “The Great One”, however.  From 1913 to Obama’s visit in 2015, the naming of Mount McKinley produced much conflict over the proper placename.  Last August, Obama official changed the name of the mountain back to Denali – and with this name change came a different understanding of the region’s and the people’s history.

Maps lay out specific understandings of place and space.  Place names hold specific history, use, ownership, and sovereignty over the places drawn on the map. What is important about maps is that they allow others to control spaces, people, and resources. Even more importantly is that these same maps can be redrawn and created to include cultures and people which were originally drawn out of the map.  Most importantly, in the words of cartographer Doug Aberley, “Maps can show a vision for the future more clearly than thousands of words”.[1]

This is why working with cartography and First Nations communities is important to me.  We can use the same tool (the map) which marginalized these communities in the first place to restore social justice rights, improve food security and resource capacity, create better cultural understandings, and establish new awareness for the histories of the places we live in.  By engaging marginalized communities in collaborative research and community mapping, we may ultimately create a better and more sustainable future for us all.


[1] Aberley, D. 1993. Boundaries of Home: Mapping for Local Empowerment. New Society Publishers. Gabriola Island, BC.

The Work that Reconnects

I had the amazing opportunity last weekend to participate in an important workshop: The Work that Reconnects. As drawn from the website, , This work involves

“Drawing from deep ecology, systems theory and spiritual traditions, the Work That Reconnects (WTR) builds motivation, creativity, courage and solidarity for the transition to a sustainable human culture. First emerging in 1978, this pioneering, open-source body of work has its roots in the teachings and experiential methods of Joanna Macy.
The Work That Reconnects has inspired thousands of people to take heart and work together for the sake of life on Earth, despite rapidly worsening social and ecological conditions. It has also inspired people to co-create experiential practices that serve the Work in specific groups and settings.
To learn the basics of the Work That Reconnects and its distinctive approach, people come to workshops that range in duration from a day or weekend to a ten or thirty-day intensive. But the Work That Reconnects extends far beyond such dedicated events, for its methods are widely used in classrooms, faith communities, grassroots organizing, and environmental and civil rights campaigns.
Earlier in its development this approach was known as “despair and empowerment work,” “psychological peace work,” and “deep ecology work.” Its theory and practice are described in the following books: Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age, by Joanna Macy in 1983; Thinking Like a Mountain: Toward a Council of All Beings, 1988, by John Seed, Joanna Macy, Arne Naess and Pat Fleming; Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World, 1998, by Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown; and Active Hope: How to Face the Mess we’re in Without Going Crazy, 2012, by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone.

I am grateful that I had the opportunity to participate in this amazing event!spiral.png

Last Stand for Lelu

Last Stand for Lelu is a short (24 minute) film, directed by Farhan Umedaly and Tamo Campos.  Acording to the website,

“A great injustice is being done on Lelu Island near Prince Rupert, B.C., the sacred and traditional territory of the Lax Kw’alaams people for over 10,000 years. The B.C. provincial government is trying to green light the construction of a massive LNG terminal on the island – Pacific Northwest LNG, backed by Malaysian energy giant Petronas, without consent.

The Lax Kw’alaams are the keepers of Lelu Island and its connected Flora Bank, a massive sand bar that is part of the Skeena River estuary and known by fisheries biologists as some of the most important salmon habitat in Canada. The project would devastate the Skeena River, the natural wildlife and countless communities in the path of the LNG pipeline that will feed the terminal with fracked gas from Northeastern B.C.

The Lax Kw’alaams have voted unanimously against the project and became legendary when they rejected a $1.15 billion dollar deal from Petronas in an attempt by the company to gain consent.

Ignoring the voice of the Lax Kw’alaams, Petronas, with full backing of the Provincial Government have illegally begun drilling into Flora Bank where they now face off against warriors of the Lax Kw’alaams who have occupied the island since August 2015.

Join the resistance of the Lax Kw’alaams on both land and sea in ‘A Last Stand for Lelu’”.

Leila Darwish, an activist involved with Stop Pacific NorthWest LNG/Petronas on Lelu Island, is campaigning for support against Petronas’ construction efforts on unceded Lax Kw’alaams land.  Her work includes providing screening opportunities of Last Stand for Lelu, in an effort to raise funds in support of the Lax Kw’alaams Keepers.  For more information on the ongoing conflict, check out this Facebook link:

Spatial Integrity, owned and operated by Paul Stephany, supports the peaceful campaigns of the Lax Kw’alaams to secure sovereign rights to lands, waters and resources which comprise their traditional territory.  As such, Spatial Integrity is currently collaborating with social, environmental and Aboriginal groups in the Guelph area; in an effort to create a screening and fundraising event which will help support the Lax Kw’alaams in their efforts – both financially and educationally.

Spatial Integrity is planning a community event (date and venue to be announced) which will feature a screening of Last Stand for Lelu, as well as a special opportunity to discuss the issue with a Skype conference of one of the Lelu Island camp members of the Lax Kw’alaams community.  Please watch this space for upcoming information on this important event!