The Use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) by First Nations

by Benjamin D. Johnson
School of Community and Regional Planning, University of British Columbia
© 1997


First Nations are taking an increasingly active stance in the governance and management of their traditional territories. The Canadian aboriginal population is articulating a desire to re-acquire lands amounting to over half of the national territorial base through formal land claims processes, while bands, communities and nations are taking steps to manage resources on their traditional lands. The development of First Nations governments as self-sustaining political institutions is heavily dependent on the resolution of these two issues: land claims settlement and management of local resources (Makokis and Buckley, 1991). Land claims and resource management planning are activities involving the acquisition, manipulation and analysis of data that has a fundamental spatial component. For example, land claims are predicated on the formal identification of places of traditional occupancy and use by those undertaking the claim.

Geographic information systems (GIS) are a computerized means to consolidate and analyse spatially-referenced data. What separates GIS from a traditional digital database is this geographical component wherein all data are explicitly assigned a real-world location, allowing the integration of diverse data types and complex topological analyses (buffering, overlays). GIS is a powerful planning tool for helping resolve problems with a strong spatial component.

First Nations have applied GIS technology extensively to planning applications and are proving to be one of the fastest-growing new user groups of GIS. The intention of this paper is to explore the secondary sources concerning First Nations present use of GIS. It will begin with a brief introduction to GIS technology, followed by a discussion of the relevance of GIS to the First Nations context. Problems in reconciling traditional spatial knowledge with a digital information system predicated on European cartographic concepts will be discussed, followed by a look at real-life applications of GIS, exploring the nature of projects undertaken throughout North America. Finally, the complexities of implementing a GIS in the unique First Nations context will be discussed.