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Achieving Meaningful Engagement

With Indigenous Communities

This is the second Indigenous Engagement Webinar hosted by the Canadian Environmental Law Association. Cambium Indigenous Professional Services will discuss and share insights into Indigenous governance structures, operations structures, lands and treaties, and how to develop an effective framework for Indigenous engagement planning. To find out how CIPS can help with your organizations Indigenous Awareness Training, please click here.

Video below followed by the transcription.

Video transcription below.



Right on and thank you April. I hope everyone is having a great day and it's snowing where I am today and that's always fun in May (laughs).

This presentation is a bit of an overview of how to start beginning to achieve effective and meaningful engagement with Indigenous Communities.



Please remember that when you are looking at working with Indigenous Communities it takes many months of planning and understanding and this is meant to be an overview. Many of you have from
last week, I will leave my contact information (with my name spelled correctly this time) for you to reach out and call me or email me and that was great that I got a lot of people email me
last week with further questions or help and I'm always there to help out.


Related: Introduction to Indigenous Engagement

By the end of this hour hopefully you have an understanding of an overview of our government structure, knowing yourself and your project team, a model of an approach and some of the nuts and
bolts of consultation.


Before I begin, like I did last week and I'll do today and even next week is that I'd like to acknowledge that I am in treaty 18 today which is a Chippewa treaty signed in 1818 along the shores of Lake Simcoe. Make sure when you are approaching to work with an Indigenous Community you research on how to actually do the proper engagement.

Why is Indigenous Awareness Training Important?

If you ever want Curve Lakes land acknowledgement we actually have it on the website, just type in "Curve Lake's land acknowledgement" and you'll actually find a pdf and it's on the web for you.

Away we go...



For those of you who do know me I find a lot of humour in a lot of things but I always find it funny that both provincial and federal governments say you must work with Indigenous People.


They don't actually provide you with the right communities to contact or who to contact and they don't tell you when to do it and that's the biggest challenge of this whole Indigenous Engagement piece.


We are going to hopefully break down some of those barriers and for those who work in this field the planning process is initiated by some sort of catalyst. An issue that people are concerned about or interested part of the overall planning exercise and that's usually when it's the right time to start engagement. Need help with your Indigenous Engagement? Contact us here.

I will also try to answer the question if Indigenous People are stakeholders or not.


I often find it comes down to a few things. It's usually the language that people use and also the people and if both parties know how to respect each other as people and both parties know how to communicate effectively we wouldn't actually need a rigorous consultation process.


I often say this to people, and people who work with Indigenous Communities know this (and a lot of people don't), First Nations people are just like anybody else, we are just people too. Related: What NOT to do when it comes to Indigenous Community Engagement

I sometimes make the joke that we are a species at risk and we need a recovery strategy and all that and that's just my ecologist background talking.


What is the basic governance structure?

We have a
Chief and Council and it's elected one of three ways by the membership of that community. We have an Indian Act election which is a two year term. A First Nations election act which is a four year term or we can create our own through a custom electoral code.

Related: 5 Principles to Effective Indigenous Engagement


In our leadership we have one elected Chief, sometimes there's also a hereditary Chiefs depending on who you are working with in different communities. We also have one counselor for every hundred members of the community with a minimum of two and a maximum of 12.

Please remember a Chief is not a Mayor is a term that people need to respect when they are
doing business with us (First Nations). Ironically when working in the public sector I get to meet with a lot more Chiefs than I do Mayors because we are more open and we want to bring you into our community to work with us.


The basic operational structure of a community.

Job titles vary greatly from Nation to Nation. Departments delineations do remain fairly constant and it's because of the funding streams of the federal government.


We have administration, economic development, public works, health, housing, consultation, social and education but we don't always have is an IT or a computer person or a GIS (geographical information systems). Some communities do and some communities don't. How do First Nations Work?


It's one of the challenges we have especially when we start taking on this rigorous consultation framework of where projects are happening within the territory.


Related: Indigenous Community Engagement Methods

There is no planning department in most First Nations and the role of consultation can vary within a community depending on the number of staff that can support within the band office.


I know in some communities that consultation is only 25% of a persons work load so that's already a challenge there if you need to do consultation for a certain project if that person is only able to dedicate 25% of their workload to engaging with proponents.


The basic structure of traditional territories is a geographic area by which a First Nation identifies that they traditionally occupy (there's a map of the Williams treaty clause 2 for your knowledge) and the bottom part by lake Simcoe going down to the shores of Lake Ontario is the Gunshot Treaty.


We are going to start getting into how I work with people who want to work with First Nations in the engagement framework, I do a 5 concept approach. I do a process of knowing yourself and what you want to do.

Related: Understanding Indigenous Treaties in Ontario


I spend a lot of time working on that and I try to create a collaboratively working relationship. The next step is knowing all of our relations in the area, number 4 is actually achieving consensus on our plan and how to do it and than we actually bring it to life.

For the purpose of this talk today because I think it's at 190 slides typically when I do this whole training, we're just going to focus on the first two.


Step one, knowing yourself and your approach.


History has taught us that the level of participation through engagement or consultation has pretty much been manipulation.


This is consistent up to about 2004 with little to no information is shared. Little opportunity to provide feedback or even help in the decision making process, it gives the illusion of participation and participants
may be blamed for their concerns rather than looking for the underlying cause.

More recently, what we seen now is a form of tokenism and that's what happens in the consultation process. There's a lot of communities or boards that are formed with Indigenous participation but they have no mandate or clearly defined roles of what that group is supposed to do.


Information is shared but there is no time really to provide a lot of feedback and it maintains the status quo of this whole, manipulation process and I've been subject to that in my career. I've been asked to join different things and I get really excited and thing we're going to make a difference and all of a sudden we're just...hanging out and that's not good either.


What we need to do is aim for a level of community empowerment where we create a group that actually creates input and determine the direction and formation of the policy or the programs that are taking place.


It creates and equal partnership along public officials and decision making and the communities are allowed to control itself and determine it's own goals and values and that's actually what true consultation and engagement looks like.


To quote one of my teammates, she always tells me "you don't know what you don't know" and that's always what we have to think about. People start coming to us and want to work with Indigenous People so we always ask them "what is your past experience when working with Indigenous People? You might not have any and that's ok too.

Related: Indigenous Engagement Training

What is your knowledge of the community you want to work with or the people there? What are there common interests? Do most of them live in the urban centre adjacent to the community? Do you guys know any of that?

What's your history of working with that community? Some groups may have had some struggles in the past and it's important to identify those and talk about that. The final one is and I often talk about this a lot is who is the actual best team to put forward. I've worked with a lot of brilliant people but if people are nervous or afraid to speak in front of groups than maybe that's not the best person to put forward.

Does the team that you're putting forward know the traditional and (or)
Indigenous knowledge systems? And how to incorporate them? What do they know about governance? Cultural protocols and traditional law and that can be highly variable and this is one of the things that I always find very interesting.


A teammate will have an experience in a part of Canada and they will apply that to the rest of Canada and that's also a challenge because you have to look at what is the best overall best protocol and practice for that individual group of communities that you are working with.

The communities inherent right to the land.

What is the language? I often find that funny when I used to travel (and would be traveling) up through the Northwest Territories and everybody would be like "Gary, what does that sign say?" and I'd be like..."I have no idea". It's Cree, it's Inuu, it's a different language altogether.


Develop your position.

Understand where your relationship is now and identify the internal issues or hurdles within your organization to create this relationship. In step 3 you have to understand what you want from this relationship.


Number 4 is to develop a distinct and value based strategy to develop that relationship and in step 5, this is the fun part, where everybody is like, "you should be engaging really early on".


You need to do all this background on yourself before you can even formally engage with the community and in step 6 you actually go to the community and present and begin that relationship process. You may have to come back and modify and tweak some of that because it may have not gone as well as you thought.

I've had...the worst case scenario where the community has actually asked us to leave. You just have to be prepared for that and be honest with yourself and figure out how to improve for the next time.


What do you do as an organization and what are your actions.

You make a formal commitment and not to perceive...a formal commitment to your organization and the community to make a commitment for overall good and that's important. At the end of the day, a lot of organizations, I want First Nations to be able to call you for your expertise on help (and receiving help) and not just when you want to do engagement with them.


The big one here is to please bring a budget. Engagement and relationship building is not a cheap thing and it does take several efforts and several expenditures of money. One of my past clients, they really understood it and they actually spent $400,000 with a Northern First Nation Tribal Council and provided a lot of educational materials and working partnerships and stuff like that.


They really understood that because they need to do that before they can even talk about their project. I thought that was one of the best examples Canada has ever seen and it should be talked about more on what they did.


Educate your team! Develop a training program. Train those who are going to go to the community so they feel comfortable and that's what you guys are doing today.


It might be far from outside the normal activities, we've gone as far up north as inviting people to learn how to do a sweat lodge with us.  Need help with your Indigenous Engagement? We can help. Contact us here.


We bring in Elders, we do traditional teachings about the sweat lodge and than we actually go out and do it. That's a great way to actually develop an internal policy and a team effort for that connectivity to each other.

Like I said, make sure the team member that you use and you'll hear me say that a lot, is the right one. Personal politics or potential prejudices might need to be understood and explored.


Begin to develop a joint vision and more formal agreements. This is where (my friend) Cheryl was on the call last week and asked the question "Do they prefer a consultation process or a M.O.U which is a Memorandum of Understanding".


This is where you can actually start thinking about ways you want to engage and this is where you would bring those questions up to the forefront as part of your engagement plan.

Your actions build trust and how your actions are perceived also builds trust. Make sure you have the right team members, from both sides working together.


If you want to try something, do some cross cultural training. Have different community members come in and do training events and have training (like what we're doing today) together.


Create an open house, have people come in from the community or go to the community to present about what the project is or just about your organization.


Who are you? You just showed up to a new town and you want to start a new business what's a better way to go to your Indigenous neighbor and have a presentation.

Make sure that if you are doing an open house that you have a door prize or several give aways to the community because that's one of our protocols.


Do a joint tour together, show community pride and that's what I'm doing on one of my projects. Once we're done the building that we are doing together, we're actually going to do a big canoe down the river system and into a lake near by.

Have a feast which is just a pot luck. When I host a feast with community members and proponents I often ask (my proponents) to bring a dish from their country, where their family is from.

Offer free admission to events like the Mayors dinner, Pow Wow's or any grand openings and jointly participate in a charity event, dragon boat, walk for a cure or walk for water.


I often try to help people with when they should start working with First Nations and when should they reach out. I often say that you should start reaching out when you have a project idea.


That way it saves time because the problem with a lot of the policies that we work in, consultation and engagement of both the stakeholders and the Indigenous Community fall further down the line and that's one of the greatest challenges that we have that we face collectively together when we do this work. That's always the question I get and these are the questions you should start thinking about:

1) When do we need to contact the Indigenous Community?

2) Which ones in our area. Some of the challenges that people have with question number 2 is that when you use different websites and web based data sharing items, it might lump a lot of that information together so that if you were to do a project in Southern Ontario, it actually lumps all the different treaties together and calls it the Upper
Canada treaties. That's actually very confusing for people when they need to figure out which communities to contact.

What also can happen when you start reaching out to the wrong communities or the communities who don't have traditional or treaty rights to that area is that you're actually opening the door to a potential land claim by a different a different community over a different nation. You have to be very careful when you use that data.

3) How to we contact them or who do we contact? That's a big thing and we often talk about looking at the
community consultation process however if you call the Band Office or the government office in each community they'll be able to direct you to the right person for consultation. Typically what I do is send out a letter is I actually contact the consultation team and I also c.c the Chief.

4) We kind of talked about what happens if we invite the wrong communities. Most communities will say "sorry, we don't actually have traditional rights to that area and we're not interested". I've had communities say, when I've been brought into a project after they've reached out "We have no traditional rights, however please make sure you add this into your environmental design" which I thought was a great response from different communities.

Another question I've been getting a lot lately is...

5) What is our proponents/municipalities responsibility over the provincial or federal government? We're going to talk about that later on because number 5 seems to be coming up quite a bit in the work I do.


Step 2: Building a collaborate relationship.


Consultation obligations.

duty to consult can widely vary on every project that we're on. There's a ton of influences on that project and it can be the nature and scope of the project or the established rights of the Indigenous Community or treaty right community.

The strength of the claim asserted by the First Nation or treaty right and what is the overall impact on the communities and on the treaty rights as well.


What does consultation involve?

It involves an information component where you provide information to the Indigenous Community on the project and attain information that could affect rights.

There's a response component where you actually go to the community and listen to the concerns raised by that community and determine how to address those concerns. Make sure, (it's a process) you include to attempting to avoid minimizing or mitigate adverse impacts on those treaty rights.



The First Nation role in this whole process and the courts have stated this is to make their concerns known, respond to a ministry or third party attempt to meet those concerns and to attempt to reach some mutually satisfactory solution.


What is a third party? Well a third party or an engagement specialist is a person who helps navigate this. The Crown may delegate to most people or proponents, certain aspects of consultation and I usually say now that you can typically expect the Crown to delegate it to a proponent or a municipality.


These engagement specialists provide information regarding the proposal, gather information about the impact of the project both, with the Indigenous Community and about the Indigenous Community.

However, the Crown has the legal responsibility to meet the duty to consult and that's one of the things that create a big challenge. I often say "where does that leave you?" and it's funny because it's the perspective of both the First Nation as well as the proponent doing the work.


They both feel powerless, frustrated and confused and it really doesn't have to be.



What people need to do is actually shift the desire to engage because (especially) if you look at the duty to consult and accommodate it's such a forced action and it's by legal doctrine so you really need to start forgetting about that and start a new perspective of working together.


This idea of working together is beneficial because it encourages long term, stable mutually beneficial relationships and you can see that in certain mining projects. It accelerates the speed of
business and improves efficiency and it opens up other portals of opportunity.


This is a neat diagram and I always put this up for people to see and this is actually where a lot of Indigenous Members who do the work that I do. We often sit in these two circles (image below) and I always like to give them a little shout out at this time because we live in these two orbs where we have the traditional knowledge that we work with.


We also have our Western science education and we're in the middle because we're constantly sitting, explaining to both sides about what's happening and this common feature overlap is extremely stressful to sit in. I always like to acknowledge all those who do the work that we do (at this time).

From a needs analysis perspective, what does the community need,
technical support and expertise. They might have consultants on staff that they reach out to all the time or in house capabilities but they might not so they need time to actually gather information and talk to those experts in that time (and they also need time).


A lot of people fail to realize that there's multiple projects going on in a territory and it's not just your project that can potentially impacting Indigenous Rights. People need to understand that there's a multitude of projects and people just need to slow down a bit.

What do you need to do is usually a community coordinator and engagement specialists, realistic expectations of your timeline and that's what we talked about and actually have a focused study design.


As a person who gets to be brought in and review a lot of this stuff I always find it funny when they come to us and there's not focused timelines or study designs of what's actually happening on the ground.


Before you begin review each community consultation protocol prior to contacting them. Try Googling it and like I said if you need some help in the future feel free to reach out to me and I will provide help and try to provide it to you.


Draft a letter to meet the requirements of that protocol so if you look at, I talked about our community protocol in Curve Lake last week, it actually kind of spells out exactly what we expect in a letter.


It's funny that people still don't look at that and provide that information to the consultation people because that actually helps to speed up the response process.  

Mail it out or email it if they'll allow you to email it to them. Before I begin a relationship with a community I usually mail it out first so I can understand when it's there.


Once I establish a relationship with a First Nation I will actually just start to email them back and forth but that's just my personal experience. Typically, wait 2 to 3 weeks after they receive it, don't mail it and than write 2 to 3 weeks, wait 2 to 3 weeks after you know it's been received by the community to follow up.


Now you get a response and this is one of the things that I hope you do. You ask what is the best way to communicate information to the community. Do you want some workshops, do you want some meetings, do you want some one on one's or interviews or online surveys, how would you like the flow of information to get to the community.


I often talk a lot about watershed because when we look at impacts to the community and the traditional rights we actually look at the watershed itself and not just the individual reference point to where that project might be.


We look at the cumulative effect to the whole watershed based on the number of projects already happening there so I often recommend doing some sort of watershed planning exercise to get everybody involved.

Both sides of the fence to learn the issues within the watershed. It's a social time of gathering and to share some knowledge and stories together.


Considerations or additional cost when planning a community meeting.

You're going to need honorariums.

You need to provide meals and potentially accommodations as well as transportation to the event for maybe the elders or the community members. I always find it funny because people pay Western experts to compensate them for their time and Indigenous People should be no different.


That's one of the big things and I often get feedback from community members when we host a meeting on reserve and they provide a bill and I provide it to a proponent. The proponent is always shocked because I think they think that things run free on the reserve or that we should give them something for free.

Engaging different groups within the community. I like to bring youth - Make sure youth are involved because they are the next leaders of the community.


I also like to have Elders come out because they've lived in the community the longest and they have to pass on that knowledge to the youth as well and it's a great time to get them to interact together.


Brainstorming. I organize my life through Outlook calendar as well as several spreadsheets. If you're like me and like to be organized this is an example of a table header that I use when I work with Indigenous Communities or I'm just actually developing a plan to work with different communities and feel free to copy that one and use that one too.


Bringing everybody together. I actually love this part and for some reason I still get extremely nervous when I present in front of my own community but not everyone else's and I don't know why. I think the pressure of presenting in front of your family.


When I suggested a nice feast or meal and everybody is like "God Gary, you must spend a lot of time eating" and my answer is yes, I do! I like having a lot of meals together and it's a great time to exchange knowledge together and to try and figure out your commonalities or your strengths. What will bring people together?
Create a code of conduct. Bring in additional mediators or facilitators who are not a part of the project if you might need that and if it's a project that can create a lot of anger you might need security.


I've actually seen that more on the Non-Indigenous side when I've been a part of public information sessions about aggregate operations.


What do you do when people just won't come to the table?

Sometimes, people won't participate in a process. Maybe they just don't have time or they might just not want to but you need to figure out why they're not participating and that's very important.


Does it have something to do with the process you are trying to do. Maybe they don't like the other consultants (or the consulting team) and they don't like where the project is actually headed.


In most cases it could be a miscommunication that needs to be clarified. Or, the big one is most communities have a lot of projects on the go and they don't have to proper capacity to participate.


What you need to do is offer support and try to create a strategy that shares the flexibility and meeting times to help cover these challenges. Offer communities that may not feel comfortable participating another way of doing it and how we can address their concerns. Be sure to document all attempts and strategies as part of your record of engagement.  


Sub working groups. As a project starts (underway) you might find a core working group of knowledge holders and that can help tackle a lot of these questions and that's a great way to start doing that. An elder once suggested to me that you create a sub working group in areas where people are interested in working in.

For a lot of working groups, how do you pair Western science with
Indigenous Knowledge? Understand the policy and legislative requirements as well as natural law. How do you create an out reach strategy and for better communication and that's a big one right? How do we get the information out to people that's easily understood?

Create a clear terms of reference. Goals or mandates of the working group. What are your core principles? Who is the membership? What is the frequency of meetings? That's a big one because everybody has busy lives, we have children, we have different things going on so work with the number of meetings you believe is proper. What is the accountability? What is the responsibility? How do all the committees work together?

How long does it take and I get this question all the time..."How long will all this take Gary?" There is no simple answer to this right because this is a very complicated thing and there is no one size fits all. Each community is different and each project is representing and understood by the community in different ways so make sure you understand that.

It does cost a little bit more than people often think. It's funny because when I do proposals for engagement I often say I don't know how much it is going to cost so please bear with me. A qualified Indigenous Engagement specialist doesn't have to be Indigenous themselves. They just need to know how to work with Indigenous Communities well and that's all.

And that's it! I welcome any questions and we can explore anything you guys have right now.

At Cambium Indigenous Professional Services, we have over 25 years experience in the community engagement field. Are you planning to work or do business with an Indigenous community or organization? If so, we can help. Please contact us here and we will help ensure your engagement efforts are successful with the desired outcomes.

Related Articles and Guides:

Understanding Indigenous Treaties in Ontario

Working with Indigenous People 101: Indigenous Engagement Guide

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