Mapping Colonialism: Understanding the Intersections of Landscape, Industry, and British Columbia’s First Nations

British Columbia as a natural space holds the fascination of many, being toted as, “the most beautiful place on earth” with every license plate issued across the province. From the National Parks to the cut blocks, there are countless nuances in regards to how the province addresses the landscape within its boundaries. To understand the intrinsic link between Canada’s Western most province and the nature that blankets it, the concept of landscape must come into play. Unpacked by W.J.T. Mitchell in his edited collection, “Landscape and Power”, landscapes are powerful entities that hold and exert this power through possessive actions on behalf of a colonial administrator in ways such as, “manifestation of law, prohibition, regulation and control.” (x) Regarding British Columbia’s natural resources and how governing bodies treat them, Mitchell’s definition can be understood as truth. Colonial consumption of the abundance of products that the forests of B.C. have to offer is a prevalent practice and have worked for decades to shape the growth of the province as well as the First Peoples that currently and historically have populated the space. One of the predominant exports of British Columbia has been it’s timber and for that reason the forestry industry is at the forefront of the continual exploitation of resources. By seeing maps of areas that have been deforested, there is the heightened ability to understand the mass of product that is being taken away each year, as new scars appear on the mountainsides. The ability to see change comes form the production of several different kinds of map, each of them highlighting and reinforcing colonial ideals of exploit. Challenging these maps and looking to what they don’t show is a way to better understand the systemic oppression of First Nations in Canada.

Regarding the difference between industry and population, how does comparing land treaty maps with forestry maps highlight the disparities that First Nations communities face across the province of British Columbia? It can be seen in unpacking the colonial practices of map-making and relating it to natural exploits, resource commodification and capitalism, that there is the ability to focus in on what is being ignored. To tease out the blind spots in the forestry-based maps, comparisons with land treaty agreement maps are helpful, as they tell two very different stories as to the nature of the land. Looking at what is highlighted in the legends of each map creates a space to question and inquire into what is not being seen, the foundation of map as “truth” and “objective” then becoming unstable and open for challenge.

Examining the Idea of Landscape.

            Within the Western Canadian sphere, there is a large value imposed on the landscape and what it offers in terms of identity and industry. The development of the west has historically centered on the glorification of landscape as a foundational block in the Canadian identity. W.J.T. Mitchell muses about landscape as a something of a currency between the human race and the natural world, stating that, “it is like money: good for nothing in itself, but expressive of a potentially limitless reserve of value.” (“Imperial Landscape” 5) Taking interest into the way that Canada has managed the natural resources that compose a large part of its national identity is indicative of the industrial and colonial values imbedded in the fabric of the country. A way of perceiving the approach that has been taken in the forestry industry towards the natural resources is that, “geography and conquest go together.” (Said 247) This is particularly true when the concept of conquest is coupled with the colonial desire to exploit the land, control it and bar those who have traditional had rights to it from using the space.

Within the intersection of map-making, understanding the landscape and power dynamics, Said makes another salient point that when outside powers are involved in the land, the colonizers frequently work to rewrite and remap the spaces with the purpose of erasing the native peoples from the land. (250) Speaking to the British Columbian landscape directly, Bruce Braun notes that a colonial logic holds steadfast at the heart of forestry in the West and that the natural landscape is viewed as a national asset only through the erasure of the indigenous rights to the land. (27) This further substantiates the prior claims made that maps, in and of themselves, work to produce and promote the exploitation of land that does not traditionally, nor rightfully belong to them.

What Is Being Hidden?

So much of what is known about forests and wilderness is shaped by still images or video clips. Johnathan Bardo goes as far to posit that, “with modernity, there is not wilderness without a picture,” (“Pictures and Witness at the Site of Wilderness”, 309) which begs the question as to whether or not the overlay between photos and forestry and treaty maps provide enough context to understand the subordination of First Nations peoples.

To being by first looking at maps and their involvement with our general understanding of space, several facets must be considered. First and foremost, the barriers that are included on the maps work to show the respective interests of the conglomerates creating the content.

Indigenous and Northern Affairs. Screenshot of War Lake from “Treaty Negotiations“. April 2016. Government of Canada

The barriers on some of the treaty maps are included to signal language divides, whereas others connote land limits as prescribed by agreements and proposed treaties. In terms of forestry maps, the markers are overlapping and annotated heavily, marking forested blocks, private land, First Nations territory, parks and other assorted boundaries. These marks are made from the data findings of summer students and industry workers, who have regulations to follow but also have the business at the forefront. What is easy to forget with looking at these sprawling depictions of industry are that they are but pieces in the larger patchwork of the landscape of British Columbia itself.

In her novel, “Eating Dirt” Charlotte Gill gives a perspective of boundary in terms of a cut-block from the ground.

“Many of the trunks are marked with lines of spray paint or ribboned with tape – they’ve survived by inches, for now. This is the block boundary, where the ecosystem cleaves in two. (…) The wind rushes through the canopy. This is the voice, according to local indigenous myth, of Dzunukwa, a witch-spirit who eats misbehaved children but who’s blessing brings great wealth.” (85)

Her artful description of the boundary between harvested landscape and what remains, ties in threads of provoking thought. Each map is not mutually exclusive, just as every lived space is not representational of one singular experience. It has been noted by Bruce Braun that the forests of British Columbia are deeply embedded with the legacy of colonialism, which also involves the presence of politics and culture when reading the space. Taking these ways of seeing and applying them to images of maps, the boundaries seem to show only lines that apply to the foresters, while in actuality what cannot be seen are the whispers of political discourse and colonialism that have previously carved out different paths across the landscape.

Understanding the Images.

Speaking to the medium of the map, there are several entities to discuss and understand. While there are legends and colours on the physical entities that signal certain values and boundaries, much can be understood from looking at several different varieties of maps. And while all this stands as true, maps are a biased medium. There has already been a note regarding their colonial nature, but there are also other facets that distance them from being a neutral entity for understanding space. When looking at a satellite image, it is just that, an image. In the essay “Territorial Photography” by Joel Snyder works to describe images as having the ability to, “harmonize the landscape with industrial progress.” (187) When the satellite image of a cut block is seen, the naked land is at the forefront of the viewers mind, the industry has erased whatever boundaries or history may have been there prior. It can be understood that the still images taken from an aerial view showcase the intersections between industry and landscape and ignore the people that own, manage and exploit the land. This ignorance also renders the map unable to acknowledge the nuances of the landscape and its history.

Taking into consideration the implications of distributing intellectually lacking satellite images as a way of mapping the historically rich and acclaimed wilderness of British Columbia, a lacking device is created for understanding the plight of First Nations in the West. With the static understanding of British Columbia as a patchwork of cut blocks, First Nations have had their voice revoked in the process of colonial exploitations of their traditional lands; the myth of abundance and resilience is continually enforced. This myth confounds the Aboriginal’s resilience under duress with the concept that no matter what occurs in the natural world they are able to adapt and change to suit the new reality. This is a hurtful but prevalent manner of justifying the continual pillaging of natural resources, one that is not included in the monochromatic green of the satellite photo.

Google Maps and Canfor Corporation. “War Lake Comparison” 2017. Sourced from Digitalglobe and Folklore Contracting Ltd
Indigenous and Northern Afairs. “Map of First Nations” 2016. AANDC.

While what is not framed is important, what is being framed is just as fascinating. Speaking to the concept of change, Bruce Braun writes that, “nature is increasingly remade in the image of the commodity” (11) nodding to the need for justified exploitation. The fact of the matter is maps shape what we believe we want the West to be, this typically takes form in a colonial based perspective of unclaimed sprawling luscious forests that have withheld the test of time. While the satellite images are void of historic meaning regarding logging and export, they signal that active industry exists and is leaving a physical scar on the earth.

Another aspect of maps that falls short is their isolation from one another. While the aerial image mapping dissociates industry from humanity, maps that indicate First Nations territory and lands are vague in terms of the terrain that is covered. The absent aspects of each map take away from the possibility of a cohesive knowledge, a commonality between all the maps are their legends that work to “stabilize meaning.” (Braun 9) The knowledge that the legends convey as well as ignore speaks to the leanings of the content and the distribution while challenging the educated viewers position, asking them to look for intersections in available maps.

Uchteno. “Printable Map of British Columbia” 2013.

Final Thoughts

            Historically, maps have not been overly concerned with the lens they present, favoring colonial values over the historic land ownership. The colonialist lens that is therefore provided works to impact the landscape as well as the First Nations who have rights to the land. This act of erasure has been occurring since the first contact and continues today as a method of subordinating Aboriginal rights to historic lands. Not only do maps generally erase the experiences and ownerships of groups of first people within Canada, but within their many shapes and forms leave out crucial information necessary for contextualization. While certain maps are made specifically to highlight a certain land-based division, it is at the intersection of seeing maps as images and documents of knowledge that their analysis can be fruitful and revealing. By addressing the map and its production, there is the chance to see who is producing the content, which makes the lens easier to understand. Forestry maps are consistently based on industry and exploits while satellite images only show an aerial view, giving little to no context at all. To continue to unpack the maps, legends can be used to both understand what the map is conveying about the landscape, as well as making cross referencing easier to access as a production of knowledge. What has come from interpreting maps as a source of culture is that they are rife with knowledge. Spatially they create and understand the landscape of Canada in a multitude of different ways, negotiation both colonial and First Nations values. They also work to enable readers to think critically through comparing and contrasting knowledge pulled from individual sources. By looking at what is in plain sight, or what has been exempted from the process of mapping, the perspective and leanings of the content can make themselves easily available for critique.

Works Cited

Bardo, Johnathan “Picture and Witness at the Site of Wilderness”. Landscape And Power, W.J.T. Mitchell, 2nd ed., The University Of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2002, pp. 291-316,.

Branch, Government of Canada; Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada; Communications. “BC First Nations Maps.” geospatial material. N.p., 3 Nov. 2008.

Braun, Bruce. The Intemperate Rainforest. 1st ed., Minneapolis, University Of Minnesota Press, 2002,.

Canfor Contracting. “Planting Overview 2017/2018.” War Lake: N.p. 2017,.

Gill, Charlotte, and .. David Suzuki Foundation. Eating Dirt. 1st ed., Nanoose Bay, Greystone Books, 2014,.

Mitchell, W.J.T. “Imperial Landscapes”. Landscape And Power, W.J.T. Mitchell, 2nd ed., The University Of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2002, pp. 5-34,.

Mitchell, W.J.T. “Introduction”. Landscape And Power, W.J.T. Mitchell, 2nd ed., The University Of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2002, pp. 1-3,.

“Outline Map Of British Columbia With Maps Update 19501734 Bc Canada Map British Columbia.” N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.

Said, Edward “Invention, Place and Memory”. Landscape And Power, W.J.T. Mitchell, 2nd ed., The University Of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2002, pp. 241-260,.

Snyder, Joel “Territorial Photography”. Landscape And Power, W.J.T. Mitchell, 2nd ed., The University Of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2002, pp. 175-202,.

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.