In February 1991, Líl’wat members were protesting the building of logging roads near Ure Creek in the Sea-to-Sky corridor. Engineers were blasting rocks and destroying sacred pictographs depicting legends and marking ancient burial sites. The protest culminated in civil disobedience, dozens of arrests and ultimately court. Jones became a court-ordered native observer in the tense dispute that dragged on for months.
“Where’s the evidence? Show me pictures of the rock paintings that have been destroyed,” asked the presiding court judge.
“I don’t have pictures or evidence,” Jones replied.
He then made it his personal mission to map and photograph heritage sites throughout Líl’wat territory—a time-consuming and difficult task in the heavily forested, rocky terrain. Never again would he be without legally defensible evidence about Lil’wat use and occupancy of their lands.
It has been a long road, involving all manner of roadblocks, in the fight for Aboriginal title and rights since then. In the 1997 Delgamuukw decision, the Supreme Court defined Aboriginal title for the first time and recognized oral history as admissible evidence in court. One of the primary ways to record oral history is through maps.
That landmark legal decision, along with treaty negotiations, spawned Aboriginal mapping offices across the province. Like many First Nations in the 1990s, the Lil’wat began to use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to map their territory and create a traditional use study. GIS is a technology that collects, manages and analyzes knowledge of the land and waters.
With support and GIS training from Ecotrust Canada, the Líl’wat Nation have launched a permanent GIS Program not only to produce maps to legally prove use and occupancy, but to manage local resources in an integrated, comprehensive way. The GIS Program is key to the Líl’wat exercising management authority over their entire territory.
“My approach to GIS is very basic: information has to inform decision-making,” says Sheldon Tetreault, senior administrator for the Lil’wat in Mount Currie. “It’s a challenge to take information to Band Council and present information that’s useful for decision-makers. Maps provide a focal point for discussion. Once you bring out a map, everyone gathers around and points out areas and stories.”
“A picture is worth a thousand words,” adds Liz Jones, Director of Lands and Resources for the Lil’wat. “The maps easily show what the problems are and what the solutions can be. GIS takes it to the next level where you can do analysis, answer questions and resolve conflicts.”
Competition for resource use in the Sea-to-Sky corridor between Squamish and Lillooet is intense. The Líl’wat alone receive some hundred requests (known as “referrals”) for various development permits every year. Already, 140 independent power projects have been proposed in the region. With so many demands on the land — from new real estate development and the 2010 Olympics to fisheries and forestry — the Líl’wat need to integrate decision-making.
“Through GIS and proper planning, we can avoid or minimize conflicts between resource users who may have conflicting demands for use of our rivers, lands and wilderness,” Tetreault says. “We have to look through three lenses — economic, cultural and environmental — before we make a decision about land and resource uses.”
The Líl’wat are pulling together maps and information from every department under one roof. More than 700 maps have already been catalogued in a unique digital database, which is being shared with other First Nations.
“I thought GIS was just about making maps, but it’s more than that,” says Leroy Joe, the Lil’wat’s GIS Technician. “It’s more involved. There are people, software, hardware, data collection—all of this is integrated into the system.”
Along with the Lil’wat’s values, adds Liz Jones.
“The GIS office is about getting the Líl’wat Nation’s vision out there,” she says. “I go to meetings with government officials and they have their maps. My vision is to come with our own maps rolled up under our arms that describe our own vision. Information is power.”