How a giant floor map is helping students confront Canada's colonial history

A massive map that covers half a school gymnasium floor invites students to learn about geography and history through an Indigenous lens.

'I feel just incredible and happy that there's something like this,' says Indigenous researcher John Doran

The map was opened for the first time before a small number of students from the University of P.E.I.'s education program. There are no provincial borders or names. Instead, there are First Nations communities, languages spoken, treaties and residential schools. (Thinh Nguyen)

When Indigenous researcher John Doran first unrolled the map on the floor of McDougall Hall at the University of P.E.I., he couldn't believe his eyes.

It was huge. It can cover about half the floor of a school gym, measuring 11 by eight metres.

He walked around the Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada Floor Map, trying to take it all in. The name of Prince Edward Island is nowhere to be found, nor are the names of any other provinces. There are no provincial boundaries.

Instead, there are the names of hundreds of First Nations communities, the languages spoken, the treaties. Red dotted lines outlined unsettled territory.

Around the edges is a timeline of events in Indigenous histories from around 2000 BC to 2017.

Doran, an assistant professor of Indigenous education at UPEI and a Sixties Scoop survivor, was surprised by the sheer amount of information.

"I feel just incredible and happy that there's something like this. When I was growing up, there wouldn't have been," he said. 

During the event, each student was handed a card with the original name of a place, its meaning and co-ordinates, and was given a few minutes to locate it. (Thinh Nguyen)

"It's so all encompassing. For instance, around the edges, you see things that were markers in Indigenous histories. On the map, there are things like the land claims, the residential schools, First Nations communities and reserves. It gives children, or I hope anyone who sees it, an idea of just how big everything is."

Created by Canadian Geographic Education, a program of Royal Canadian Geographical Society, the map was developed in collaboration with Indigenous educators and consultants.

It arrived in P.E.I. in June, but remained unopened until Oct. 15, when it was brought to Doran from the Department of Education and Lifelong Learning.

And he was thrilled.

The map can raise awareness about Indigenous histories and cultures, but in a fun way, since people can walk around on it and discover things, Doran said.

"It's a sneaky way of learning. It's not like looking at an atlas in a book. I mean that's great, but this creates a different sensation."

Student overwhelmed by details in map

He brought his students to the unveiling of the map. The students in the bachelor of education program are doing Indigenous specialization with him.

Student Alyx Ellis said she was overwhelmed by the large amount of information on the map, but she loved the presentation.

Education student Alyx Ellis attended the unveiling of the Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada Giant Floor Map at McDougall Hall. (Thinh Nguyen)

"It's not laid out in the traditional map you colour when you're in Grade 5 and you understand Canada in a way that all the colonial borders are set up," she said. "This map is not like that."

During the unveiling, Doran hosted a game for his students.

Each was handed a card with the original Indigenous name of a place and its coordinates. They had a few minutes to locate it.

Ellis looked at the card she got. It said Inukjuak, an Inuit community in northern Quebec. Inukjuak means "many Inuit lived here."

She couldn't find it, so she switched to reading the co-ordinates. Eventually, she found her spot with a little help from her classmates.

"It was a little bit disorienting to try. But it was fun."

She wishes there were a map like this when she went to Westisle Composite High School. Although she grew up near Lennox Island First Nation, she didn't hear a lot about Indigenous peoples, she said.

"We never really had the conversation about the history of Canada, or the real impacts of residential schools and why people were living on a reservation."

That's why Doran hopes the map will visit other places beyond UPEI, he said.

"We would like to take it around to different schools on the Island and include it in the curriculum. There's so much you can do with it."

Possibilities for young students

Vicki Allen-Cook agrees. She is the arts education and creativity curriculum leader at the Department of Education and Lifelong Learning, who brought the map to UPEI.

There are endless possibilities for students of all levels from K to 12 to learn from a map this size, she said.

Vicki Allen-Cook from the provincial Department of Education and Lifelong Learning helped bring the map to UPEI. (Thinh Nguyen)

"It could be at the K-3 level, through phys-ed, where students would do movement and study different Indigenous games or music or dance that would be taking place, so they'd become different animals with different movements.

"It depends on what grade level. We're looking at the high school level, about murdered and missing Indigenous women and how this map would tie in with what happened."

Bringing it to schools across the Island is not hard, as long as there's a place in the school to accommodate a map this size, she said.

"We're so lucky because P.E.I. is so small, so we have a better chance of accessibility," she said. 

"But you need a substantial space, it needs to be a school gymnasium or a cafeteria, definitely a large space for the class to be able to interact."


Thinh Nguyen

Associate Producer

Thinh Nguyen is an associate producer with CBC P.E.I. He can be reached at

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