Joshua Baxter demonstrates his knowledge of plotting teacherages (buildings serving as a combination school and living quarters).

In today’s increasingly interconnected global society, geospatial technology is revolutionizing the way everyone interprets the world around them. In July and August of 2009, 12 youths from the Eabametoong First Nation reserve (also known as Fort Hope) in northern Ontario, Canada, took a giant step into the technological world of global navigation satellite systems by exploring their own community through a geographic lens.

The community mapping project in Fort Hope began with my offer of employment from Frontier College, a Canadian nonprofit organization that has played a part in the development of literacy across Canada since 1899. One of the organization’s initiatives is the Aboriginal Summer Literacy Camp program, where I served as a counselor. The program, which has operated for four years in more than 40 communities in northern Ontario, provides more than 2,000 children the opportunity to engage in creative literacy activities each summer.

As the daughter of Michael Strutt, manager of training and support and network/infrastructure products for Topcon Positioning Systems (TPS), I was eager to add a mapping component to the program. TPS made my idea a reality by loaning two GMS-2 receivers for use in a community mapping project.

 Map reading, left to right, Alexis O’Keese, Esther Ooshag, Adam Moonias-Waboose and Toni Shawinimash.

The purpose of conducting a community mapping project with Fort Hope youth was multifaceted. Primarily, it demonstrated a point that Frontier College’s programming promotes: Literacy is about more than having the skills to read and write. In today’s society, literacy means being able to engage in a global society, grasp the possibilities and advantages of around-the-corner technologies, and grow individually and communally. “There remains a huge disparity, in terms of access to resources and services, between children and youth living in the isolated First Nations that take part in the summer camps and those that live in urban centers,” says Casey Sabawi, Frontier College’s community coordinator for Aboriginal Programs. “The GPS equipment that was loaned by Topcon Positioning Systems was extremely valuable in providing the children and youth living on reserves the opportunity to experiment and avail themselves with technology that they would otherwise have been unable to access. Activities with the GPS equipment took place outdoors and complemented Frontier College’s philosophy that every place is a learning place and that literacy extends beyond the classroom.”

Alongside the value of new forms of learning, the project also aimed to engage the youths in the social issues facing their community. By asking them to conceptualize their community spatially, the mapping project provided a new avenue to discuss what their environment means to them and what they need in order to combat the obstacles of life on a reserve. 

Toni Shawinimash maps the dump just outside of town.

A Learning Experience

The mapping project was implemented in four stages over the course of two months.

•           Interactive instruction was provided regarding map reading, compass directions, latitude and longitude, and GPS was introduced through board games and discussions.

•           Interested participants were trained on how to properly use the Topcon GMS-2 receivers for basic data collection and management.

•           The group brainstormed about elements to include on their map by answering questions about what places are important to them and why as well as what they would like to see included in their community.

•           Small groups collected data outside of regular structured camp activities to allow each child a chance to plot a variety of lines, areas and points around the community. 

Nathanial Roundhead (left) and Joshua Baxter input the fire hydrant into their map. 

Throughout this mutually educational process, I quickly discovered that the places the youths selected for the map were inclusive of Fort Hope's relatively small population and geographical area. As a result, the finished map included virtually all of the offices, buildings, stores and homes on the reserve.

While it isn’t easy to pinpoint exactly why each place was chosen on a group level, it became evident that all of these places play a different role in each child’s life depending on what is important to him or her. For example, some children who face serious medical conditions would place the nursing station as very important since they rely on it for their well-being. For others, school ranks the highest as it provides a place for learning, socializing and an opportunity for the future. Yet other students might have chosen church as being important to them because of the role that faith plays in their family and personal lives.

Mapper extraordinaire Nathanial Roundhead.

An Important Perspective

On a practical level, the project helped to improve the mapping and directional skills of a group of First Nations youth as well as develop their ability to effectively use modern technology to collect raw spatial data. It also provided the opportunity to learn about a technology that is increasingly becoming more important for First Nations people, especially in relation to land claims and resource management issues. The exposure to such technology may spark an interest in a future career or provide an incentive to further their education.

From a social perspective, this project allowed for a unique look into the community of Fort Hope through the eyes of its youth. The composition of Fort Hope is a microcosm of a city that one would find anywhere around the world. While the challenges youths face may be different than in urban centers, life still depends on basic services, places for community members to congregate, ways in which to get from one place to another, and the appreciation for a place to call home. Clearly, the youths of Fort Hope understand the importance of these places in keeping their community a healthy and functioning place in which to grow.