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Mushkegowuk creates GIS mapping department

Mushkegowuk Tribal Council’s new information services department is not quite a year old, but already the community is seeing the benefits of its efforts.
Kim Rozon, CreeGeo’s GIS education specialist, demonstrates how to collect data using a GPS to students at Peetabeck Academy in Fort Albany.

Mushkegowuk Tribal Council’s new information services department is not quite a year old, but already the community is seeing the benefits of its efforts.

Founded in April, 2015, CreeGeo provides GIS services, mapping, cartographic work, and training for community members. The goal, said director Barb Duffin, is to build capacity in the member communities so they can expand their skills and do their own land mapping.

The effort comes in direct response to resource extraction projects pinpointed for their traditional territories.

“We want to make sure that those values that have a spiritual and cultural significance are protected from any type of extraction,” Duffin said.

The council first brought in GIS services in 2010, in response to the introduction of the Far North Act and the ongoing modernization of the Mining Act.

The GIS software helps protect important cultural touchstones from resource extraction projects in forestry and mining, by creating a map of where they are located.

But, because federal funding isn’t provided for First Nations’ lands and resources departments or information services, the communities have to find their own way to fund those services. That’s when Mushkekowuk alighted on the idea of a fee-for-service model for GIS, and CreeGeo was created.

Mushkegowuk’s member communities can access the services on a cost-recovery basis, while the general public is charged a competitive rate, generating revenue for the department.

CreeGeo’s most recent project will introduce GIS education into the curriculum at the reserve schools.

Because of the existing education funding gap — First Nations get 40 per cent less funding than schools in the public system — on-reserve students aren’t getting the same education in GIS as their peers in the public system, Duffin noted.

CreeGeo is aiming to reduce that gap.

Kim Rozon, the department’s GIS education specialist, said the use of GIS in the classroom can not only enhance lessons, making them more relevant to students, but also lead them to critical thinking and broaden their capacity for learning.

“It’s particularly useful for Northern communities because they can actually make their lessons a little bit more locally relevant, or culturally relevant,” Rozon said.

“Instead of looking at a map of southern Ontario, they can actually look at a map of their home community, and the teachers can then use problems based off their home communities, rather than somewhere else that they don’t have knowledge of.”

Through the winter, Rozon visited schools in Mushkegowuk’s member communities to talk to teachers about the program, and she’ll start holding training workshops in the spring.

She’ll also be setting up community-based projects that will pair the community with a classroom to undertake projects that return a benefit. One community is interested in mapping out all its house numbers, for example.

Demand for CreeGeo’s services has increased over the last year, and eventually, Duffin said, they’ll expand into new markets, offer enhanced services, and add staff to their three-person department. She also anticipates that Rozon’s education program will be ongoing as revenue is generated to support it.

But there is still work to do when it comes to the protection of traditional knowledge. Companies must learn to meet with community leaders so that treaty rights are respected and proper consultation takes place before any project goes forward, Duffin said.

Duffin said Mushkegowuk has developed a good rapport with several forestry companies, but is still struggling to develop that same mutual respect with mining firms who tend to “roll their own way.”

In the works is a protection policy that will outline Mushkegowuk’s guidelines for consultation.

“Our stance is that this is protection that should happen on all lands regardlessof what ministry is trying to oversee the licensing, and the amount of protection should be on the territory, regardless of what work happens on the territory,” Duffin said.

Still, there has been a shift over the last year in how First Nations are regarded when it comes to territory rights, and she does see promise for change.

“It’s on its way,” Duffin said. “It’s not there yet, but we’re working towards something that’s going to be for the betterment of everyone.”