Trustee wants board to tackle potential bias in TDSB's map collection

A Toronto District School Board trustee is raising concerns about whether the world maps that currently hang on classroom walls are truly representative of the students who use them.

And Parthi Kandavel, who represents Ward 18, Scarborough Southwest, is hoping to have staff look into ways of evening the playing field.

At issue is the traditional world map — called the Mercator after the man who drafted it in 1569 — which has been criticized lately for presenting a Eurocentric view of the world and unfairly diminishing Africa and South America.

"We have students whose origins are from all over the world," he said Friday. "The objective is to have more meaningful representation on our classroom walls."

Kandavel, a former elementary school teacher, says he doesn't want to mothball the board's Mercator maps. He's more interested, he says, in adding other representations of the world that reflect more accurately other land masses that appear diminished in the Mercator — such as Africa, South America and Asia.

"There's a teaching moment to talk about bias," he said. "But certainly having a wider, and more representative selection of maps is the objective."

He says he got the idea to update the TDSB's map collection from Boston Public Schools, which last month opted to add the so-called Gall-Peters map to some of its classrooms.

The Gall-Peters map presents the world's land masses more accurately. For instance, on the Mercator, Greenland seems to be about the same size as Africa. In reality, Africa is about 14 times larger, and that's reflected in the Gall-Peters map.

Last Wednesday, Kanavel penned a motion for the board's program and school services committee. The motion asked staff to report on a way to update school maps by next summer. He wanted staff to look into ways to bring board policy more in line with Boston's attempt "to remove bias and decolonize the curriculum."

But trustees asked him to withdraw the motion because he hadn't consulted with staff before writing it, Kandavel said. He said he's preparing a new motion that he'll introduce at the committee's May meeting.

The new motion will ask that staff figure out which maps are in use in TDSB classrooms and suggest which new maps could be added to those collections to present different views of the world.

Academics say the Mercator map is so far off because it was created for European seafarers whose main concern was navigating between the Old World and the New. In emphasizing those latitudes, land masses to the south became distorted.

But the Gall-Peters map has its deficiencies too, according to Trustee Shelley Laskin, who is also a cartographer. She points out that while Africa is elongated to show its real area, Canada is squished into an unrecognizable shape.

"Regarding the notion of 'decolonize the curriculum'," she wrote in an email to CBC Toronto last week, "shape matters too. ..Elongation of Africa impacts your impression of it. Look at Canada. You will see that Peters is not appropriate for Canada because of the distortion of shape.

"The map-maker's dilemma is that you cannot show both size and shape accurately."

She said she prefers one of the compromise maps, such as the so-called Winkel-Tripel.

That map attempts to strike a balance between the Mercator and Peters projections by more accurately showing both the earth's land masses and shapes.