Who owns what?

Land claims on behalf of Canada’s First Nations (formerly dubbed Indians by Europeans who supposed they had landed in Asia, reminding us that faulty maps can lead to strange results!) are spotlighted in How Maps Change Things. The Caledonia story focused it: a housing development halted, mounting resentment and confrontation, round-the-clock police presence, even agents of the U.S. Border Patrol moving in to tamp down threats of spreading violence. Caledonia opened up broader questions of history and geography: was the land for miles around legally and ethically transferred from First Nations ownership to the people of what is now Ontario?

The issue is not confined to Caledonia.  Much of British Columbia – some say 100 percent!  is a potential target for land claims. If that statement (pp. 30-33 in the paperback book) is not surprising enough, ponder the size of the province: stretching from the Rockies to the Pacific and from the 49th parallel to the 60th, from Washington State, Idaho and Montana north to Alaska, the Yukon and Northwest Territories, it takes up about four times as much of the planet’s real estate as the United Kingdom. It’s even bigger than Texas!

Some readers look on mention of land claims a scare tactic. It can’t possibly be that bad, they say.

Now comes the news.

On  June 27, 2014 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that First Nations’ claims to the land can be based on how much land they utilized, not how much they settled.  In legal language it’s a matter of “sufficient, continuous… and exclusive occupation.” Clearly, the debate has been reframed.

So, can maps from the days before the Europeans came on the scene clarify how far First Nations pushed to hunt and fish and graze and explore? Would maps not give us convincing evidence?

Unfortunately it’s not that simple. No such maps exist. At least not in the modern, popular understanding of what maps are.

But – and here’s the crucial question – can the operative concept of maps grow to include stories and songs?  That may seem an impossible stretch, but the Supreme Court of Canada takes a broader view. In a 1997 ruling on land claims, the Court said that oral traditions of aboriginal culture were to be treated with the same respect given to Western scientific methods and written documents.

Can a 21st century nation accommodate such new understandings sourced in another culture, another time? If so, how? What do the events of these days – originating in the nation's top court, now reverberating from coast to coast – mean for the continuing question of whose land this is? Is peaceful co-existence possible, or must the conflict continue ad infinitum, whether through gunfire and domination or by courtroom battles on sometimes tilted playing fields?

Suddenly, what some have seen as an exaggerated statement in a book leaps off the page. It helps us understand the day’s news. Pipeline plans, always controversial, now become more complicated. Even iffy. National energy supplies and the economy will feel the effect, perhaps for years. Who knows, even the land you live on or where you do business may yet be claimed by someone else! We’ll be hearing more on this in the days to come.

Updated July 9:

And the news does indeed continue, as in this report from Caledonia dated July 7. 2014.