Dec. 11, 2023

International Mountain Day: ‘Benchmark’ assessment reveals depth of Indigenous Peoples’ relationship with Canada’s mountains

Geography project leader Graham McDowell says 1st-of-its-kind project combines scientific and academic knowledge with First Nations, Métis and Inuit experience
People sitting around a table with a mountain in the background
Some members of the Canadian Mountain Assessment team meet in Banff in May 2022 Courtesy Graham McDowell

Graham McDowell, PhD, has spent nearly four years working with dozens of scholars, Elders and Indigenous community members designing, researching and drafting the Canadian Mountain Assessment (CMA), a 370-page “first-of-its-kind look at what we know, do not know, and need to know about mountain systems in Canada.”

But, he says, noting that today is International Mountain Day, the work to understand the country’s mountains is just getting started. “It's easy to look at something like this as the final word, like this is everything we know, but really it is just a beginning,” says the project leader, and postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Geography in the Faculty of Arts. 

“It really provides a detailed and rich articulation of things that we know about mountains, but we could never hope to bring in all of the Indigenous knowledges.”

Some of the knowledge gleaned from First Nations, Métis and Inuit contributors includes observations about changes to caribou behaviour, ancient insights into the dynamics of mountains that pre-date scientific observation, and specific hazard prediction such as Blackfoot warnings to white settlers about Turtle Mountain before the devastating 1903 Frank Slide.

“When folks were moving into that area, the Blackfoot told them don’t settle there, that mountain shakes, that mountain trembles,” says Dr. McDowell, an environmental social scientist.

Rather than transcribing that oral knowledge into text in the book, published by UCalgary Press, readers scan QR codes throughout the pages to see videos of various Indigenous contributors speaking.

A man gives a presentation to a room full of people

Graham McDowell presents results of the research at the Whyte Museum launch event in Banff on Nov. 4, 2023

Katie Goldie, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies

The assessment’s collaborative approach adds more than just facts, says McDowell.

“It’s not just here’s a bit of knowledge that we didn’t know before, but it’s an understanding of the depth of relationships that First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples have with mountain places and the importance of those places to a variety of Indigenous Peoples across the country.”

That’s reflected in the chapter titles, such as Gifts of the Mountains rather than referring to “mountain resources.”

The chapter Mountains Under Pressure explores the effects of mining, logging, climate change, and other drivers of change. “Mountains are incredibly important sources of fresh water, and a lot of that fresh water comes from snow and ice. So that climatic sensitivity then translates into dramatic changes in water availability, quality, temperature, all of which have social and ecological implications, not only within, but also well downstream of mountains,” he says.

Blackfoot Elder Hayden Melting Tallow speaks behind a podium

Blackfoot Elder Hayden Melting Tallow speaks during the Canadian Mountain Assessment book launch and reception at the Whyte Museum in Banff.

Jungmin Ham, Rocky Mountain Outlook

The “benchmark assessment” identifies specific gaps in knowledge about Canadian mountain ranges and suggests how to fill them. It recommends setting up a national institute for mountain studies, increasing government support for mountain communities and research, including commitments for mountains in Canadian policy frameworks (such as the federal Sustainable Development Strategy), and repeating the mountain assessment every 10 years to track progress on research and action for mountains in Canada.

McDowell also hopes others will build on the CMA’s unique transdisciplinary process, which was carefully co-designed with Indigenous contributors. “There's a tremendous amount of scientific and academic knowledge, but there's a tremendous amount of First Nations, Métis and Inuit knowledge and experience of mountains too,” says McDowell. “I think we really see how working collaboratively just helps all of us know more.”

A group of people wearing hiking gear standing on a hiking trail with a mountain in the background

Some members of the Canadian Mountain Assessment team on a hike near Banff.

Courtesy Graham McDowell

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