Dec. 11, 2020

UCalgary leads way in launch of Canadian Mountain Assessment

Project to provide comprehensive view of Canada’s changing mountain systems based on western scientific and Indigenous knowledge
The Rockies
The Rockies

What better time than on Dec. 11 — International Mountain Day, as declared by the United Nations — to formally launch a project as vast, ambitious and colossal in scope as the Canadian Mountain Assessment (CMA)?

Initiated by the Canadian Mountain Network and led out of the University of Calgary by Dr. Graham McDowell, PhD, a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Geography, this study will provide the first comprehensive, nation-wide view of Canada’s changing mountain systems based on both Western scientific and Indigenous knowledge.

  • Photo above: A range in the Rocky Mountains. Photo by Canadian Mountain Assessment

The CMA plans to compile available knowledge related to Canada’s mountains, inclusive of Indigenous knowledge, which has often been overlooked by the scientific community. The compilation of scientific knowledge is based on an in-progress systematic review of all peer-reviewed articles that have been published about Canadian mountain systems to date. Ultimately, it could incorporate several thousand studies, notes McDowell.

Bringing Indigenous wisdom to the table is a core component of the project. “The diversity, uniqueness, and specificity of Indigenous knowledges, which are often rooted in epistemological and cultural foundations that are distinct from western conceptions of mountains, will greatly enhance our collective understanding of Canadian mountain systems,” McDowell says.

 Graham McDowell

Project lead Graham McDowell


Ira Provost, manager of Piikani Nation Consultation, who is a project adviser for the CMA, agrees. “The CMA is taking one of Canada’s primary, most life-giving, enriching landscapes and helping the scientific community understand it from an Indigenous perspective,” he says, “one that can be complemented by science.”

To date, the advancement of research and government policies related to Canadian mountain systems has been constrained due to the lack of a nationally inclusive assessment on the state of Canada’s diverse and rapidly changing mountain systems, says Dr. Shawn Marshall, PhD, a professor in the Department of Geography and departmental science adviser with Environment and Climate Change Canada, who will be contributing to the project. “The Canadian Mountain Assessment addresses this gap and is expected to set the mountain research agenda for Canada for the coming decade,” says Marshall.

“For the public, our work will translate into greater appreciation for why Canada’s mountains are so incredibly important," says McDowell, "enhanced understanding of how they are changing and with what consequences, and increased awareness of what needs to be done to ensure the vitality of mountain communities and environments in the years ahead.”

Including the Indigenous perspective in this study is crucial.

“Indigenous people have had complex knowledges of our environment since time immemorial,” says Provost. “These knowledges come with inherent connections with the land, as seen by how we utilize and work in harmony with the environment. I have great respect for western science, but I feel there’s much that science misses. In my opinion, Indigenous knowledge exceeds in areas where science is limited. To include this perspective will provide an incredible amount of insight.

“I feel like this project has got so much potential. The openness and willingness to work together has been amazing so far.”

In total, about 24 per cent of Canada is covered by mountainous terrain, from major mountain ranges such the Canadian Rockies to smaller ranges like Nunavut’s Baffin Mountains. Spread across our vast country, Canada’s mountains are home to a wide spectrum of ecosystem types, each with their own distinctive plants, animals and geological features.

Further, around 1.3 million people live within Canada’s mountain areas while an additional 75 per cent of the country’s total population lives within 100 kilometres of mountain areas. As McDowell writes in an essay published in Canadian Geographic: “Regardless of where we live, many of us depend on resources from mountains, derive enjoyment from trips to Canada’s many mountain parks and value mountains as sites of biodiversity and icons of our country.”

However, says McDowell, “Our relationships with, and dependence on, mountains is at a critical juncture.”

The security of our mountain environments has become increasingly threatened by both climate change and the impact of human activities, such as infrastructure projects, housing developments, resource extraction and pressures from recreationalists. Climate changes are also leading to a rise in forest fires and facilitating the spread of the destructive mountain pine beetle, while glacier and snowpack reduction are impacting cold-adapted flora and fauna as well as the timing, availability and quality of mountain-sourced fresh water.

“Canada’s mountain environments are special places, of spiritual importance to many, but they are under a great deal of stress from environmental changes and developmental pressures,” says Marshall. “As far as we can tell, our Canadian mountain ranges have never been studied from an integrated biophysical, social, and cultural perspective. It’s necessary and extremely valuable to pull together the big picture like this. It’s exciting, too.”

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