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Working With Indigenous People 101

- Indigenous Engagement Guide -

The following webinar was hosted by Canadian Environment Law Association - This is the first in a 3-part guide with Cambium Indigenous Professional Services (CIPS) who are Indigenous Engagement and Awareness experts.


In this guide, CIPS talks about how to work with Indigenous communities in an effective and meaningful manner.

Many individuals and organizations are unsure of how to work effectively and authentically with Indigenous peoples.  In this guide, CIPS provides the best strategies and approaches for engaging with Indigenous communities.


In a hurry and need answers fast for your communications or engagement strategy? Call or email CIPS at (705) 657-1126 Email: for a free consultation. Our approach to Indigenous Engagement and Awareness.

Topics include how to address community members, how to begin engaging with communities, planning proactively, what to expect during your first meeting, and do’s and don’ts of meetings with Indigenous communities. The full video is below and the transcription of the presentation follows. For more information on Indigenous Awareness Training, please click here.

Right on...Thank you April, welcome everybody. (I'm glad) I am surprised that there is so many people. I am really excited for that.


This is working with Indigenous People 101 It's funny, I use to call this working with Indians 101 but than we changed the name of what we call ourselves and now it is Indigenous People.


The outcomes for today's workshop. We're going to talk about

- Acknowledging traditional territories;
- Why should you care working with First Nations People;
- Addressing community members and how to present to them;

And some do's and don'ts when working with communities and a lot of this stuff...umm what I talk about I use personal examples of my working career with other people and it's quite fun and it's my job and I hope you all learn something from this today..



I'd like you to remember that the material that I present is a discussion from a gathering of all my
experiences and teachings passed on to me throughout the course of my travels and my career.

I've often been thought that experience varies with individuals and along with their interpretation or meaning. I don't claim to be an expert or I try not to disrespect anybody's culture and this is meant to be a sharing of knowledge and experience.


Every community is different and this presentation is meant to be an overview as not to directly link to any one community. At the end, knowing some of the people who are on the call I'd also like you to share some of your experiences and your teachings.




This is a very much safe environment, please be open for new ideas and opinions that may be different than yours. Feel free to ask questions and if you're nervous about asking questions in a public setting I will leave my email and my phone number at the end of today and you can email me or call me.


Especially given the fact that we don't get the see each other I'd love to have a phone call or a zoom call just to meet people. I am a very social person and I miss that interaction with people.

Please be respectful with comments or actions and questions of others. Also remember that we're not here to judge you, no one will and (you know) away we go!.



Before we begin, I'd like to acknowledge that where I am sitting today is actually at the Chippewa Treaty, the treat of treaty 18 which and it was signed in 1818 (in the fall of 1818). However, (not sure) people know this area is part of the Williams Treaty area but in fact it was a Chippewa signed treaty in Ontario and that's in Barrie, Ontario.


Related: Community Indigenous Engagement Methods

Please know that it's customary among First Nations to acknowledge the host community or the territory that you are sitting on and I get asked that question a do we open with that acknowledgement but we'll talk about that later on, a little bit further as well.





My first question I get all the time when I meet new people and I'm traveling is "What do we call you?". I always laugh and I say my name is Gary (laughs)...I get to meet a lot of people so I do enjoy that question and I get that quite a bit so much that I have to make a slight a bit about it!


Related: Introduction to Indigenous Engagement

So, what do we call the community? Do we call it a band? a tribe? a reserve? a community?. The people who live there, do you call them Indians? First Nations People? Aboriginal (Aboriginals)? Natives? Indigenous Peoples? Lately I've been getting a lot of First Peoples.






So, what do you think? That's always the big question and I often respond with - just ask the community what they want to be called and that's a very simple question. It never really dawned on me until I started working out west and they (some of the community members) when I asked them what they like to be called in the report system that we were writing for them


Related: Why is Indigenous Awareness Training Important?


They very much liked to be referred to as Indians (and Tribe) and I'm like Oh, that's not how we write in Ontario. It's just a learning experience for me as well so feel free to ask that question.

You can always call the band office after hours and it's usually on the voice mail of the First Nation that you're working with on what they like to be called.






There's a lot of motivators on why you want to work with First Nations People. The primary one that I usually get brought into with my career in the environmental field and the EA (environmental assessment) world is we're trying to avoid legal challenges in the mining sector and oil and gas sector you might want to protect shareholder value or protect your public image.

Related: 5 Principles to Successful Indigenous Engagement

The big thing right now with a lot of the groups I get to work with (I'm always excited about this) is they are trying to understand on how to do the right thing. That is really exciting for me and I enjoy that time with people.






The big thing when I talk to people working with Indigenous Communities I like them to be more proactive instead of reactive and unfortunately that's part of the legislative framework we work in, especially in the environmental field, Indigenous Engagement is usually further down the checklist than actually where it should be and I often tell people that if you have a project idea that's probably when you should be reaching out to local Indigenous Communities or the rights holders of that area because that is actually the time for them to be more active in the project after you decide something.




Consider the following suggestions within your groups operation. Have you developed and implemented engagement programs focusing on building relationships instead of the policies and the framework we work in often write in Indigenous Engagement plans for people and we actually have Indigenous Engagement out front prior to a lot of the initiations of the EA process and it's a different way to look at it but it actually creates a better result (s).

I work with a lot of companies and I provide training to their employees on how to work with Indigenous People similar to this presentation. We also do the Blanket Exercise and different exercises to help people understand the perspective of Indigenous People. I also try to build the capacity within Indigenous Communities to help them work more effectively with you.

I do a lot of work with the Indigenous Guardians program where I go out and actually certify them in Western science using different levels of certification that you would see similar Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests or Environment Canada.




We try to educate people to make business development with Indigenous Communities a priority as well as work force. We've been really successful in that area around the wind farm strategy of Central Ontario or into the Boreal Forest of Ontario. We trade revenue sharing opportunities, there's also an obligation through treaty for revenues sharing and that's one of the things that people don't know. Where I'm from, it's actually written within the treaty that mining, forestry and aggregates actually have an obligation of taxation
through treaty.


Related: Understanding Indigenous Treaties in Ontario

We try co-management of Indigenous knowledge and Western science about how to best manage the land use practice and that's a big thing that I strive for personally to work with and just how to co-manage and share the land together. We try to create equity position partnerships..




How do we begin to engage?

That's always one of the things that I get asked is "how do we begin to do this?" and these are the things that I have observed, doing this for 17 years. I never thought I'd actually do engagement a lot with Indigenous Communities. I thought I'd be more as an environmental scientist representing that aspect of it but I do see a marriage between the two of them and how they work out well together.




Timing is everything.

When I used to work out in Inuu territory, unfortunately Salmon season would happen on the coast and a lot of the community members would be out fishing. In that part of the world they are regulated by the DFO or the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and when they can actually go fishing.


I've actually encouraged my team to go out there and go fishing with them. To help them get fish for the Winter and it also builds that relationship with the communities and as a fisheries guy I am just excited to be out there fishing.




Another big one is I like to call ahead to make sure people are going to be there, right? That was a great big one in Inuu territory as well as a fly in community and the expense of traveling there was very high but than they're also a nomadic people so they weren't actually there in the Winter.


I was trying to explain to my field staff that it was very important to call ahead to make sure there's people to be there in the Winter when we're about to fly into the community.

It was really interesting, they're so shocked when I actually brought that up because (I said) "I don't know about you guys but it's minus 50 and I don't feel like walking 9 Kilometers from the airport to the community where to Polar bears are all around. That was just my two cents and that helped that conversation (move along?).




When there is a death in the community, it hits the community pretty hard and it's not uncommon for the Band Office to shut down all operations completely.


There's different protocols within different Nations about what is happening. When there is a death in the community they may ask you to go home and come back later and try not to be so disappointed when that happens.


More recently I actually feel that we get invited to attend the communities funeral process and I often tell my staff to have a nice change of cloths when going into a community. It doesn't have to be a suit just a collared shirt and some pants that you haven't been wearing in the forest for a few days just to show that level of respect.


Your first meeting...I always find I get older...I find this more fun, not so much scary but it is actually quite fun. It's fun how people portray themselves, I've seen it where people feel that (in Toronto) that they're a big senior member, rank or file and they expect that to be recognized within the First Nations who have never met them before and that's a challenge. (Related: Digital Indigenous Engagement Guide)

I also find it funny when members come into the community and they want to meet with the Chief right away. I often try to explain to someone (with a little bit of sarcasm), when I give teachings to people that (if that's the case), if you want me to bring the Chief, please bring Trudeau with you. People are like "what?" and that's the same category of people that we're dealing with.


What to avoid.

Be professional during your first meeting but the big one is I often talk about following the mood of the meeting. What NOT to do when it comes to Indigenous Community Engagement


I've had an experience where we were actually representing the communities interests through a project and we actually came in with the regulator and the proponent. We happened to all drive in from the airport on the same bus and that actually led to the community to believe that we weren't there to represent the communities interests in the project.

Related: Working with Indigenous Communities - A Beginners Guide


What I've learned from that are two things. One, wait for the second bus to come around and ride in on a different shuttle and two, the mood of the meeting got really, really sad and really negative. Instead of pushing it through, which most people will try to do I actually stopped our meeting and said "you know what, we need to come back at a different time" and we actually did.


That actually really built that relationship with that community in that treaty area because we were listening and following the mood of the meeting. That was so critical at that moment to build that trust about the proposed project.


It's customary to acknowledge the territory. It's been pretty neat for me and my career, I've lived away from my home for about 20 years and I started coming back into my home community and kind of feeling like an outsider but I also had some serious questions about protocol in the community.


One was "do I acknowledge our traditional territory" and it was pretty funny. I asked the Chief (and Council) "Do I do this?" and they were like..."you are at home...what are you going to say?" - "Ok, fair enough, that's all I needed to know". I had my other teammates who weren't from our community to actually acknowledge the territory. It was a simple question, right?


I've been away for 20 years, I come back, I had all these questions as I am used to working outside of my community and my territory and now I am back in it. I had those questions and that's ok too.


People need to participate more in the community and some of the people that I do know (on the call, and they get to work with me quite a bit) and we do a great job at that and I find that our interactions within the community and together I really enjoy them together.


We participate and we go to community events, we visit the community all year round not just when we want something because you don't want to that kind of neighbor only showing up when you need something. We want to be more active in the community.


Remember, words have impact. I often find that's a lot of my job and that's reviewing documents to make sure that we don't say the wrong things. We are just people too so it's important to understand that. Christopher Columbus never discovered, he arrived here so things like that.


Get the pronunciation right. Our languages aren't complicated so practice saying the words right, spelling them correctly and that's always a challenge and it takes a lot of time and effort to do that.


I throw a lot of community meetings with meals and feasts and I try to educate people on not what to bring. I had an incident in the high arctic where I requested fruit juices and stuff like that and they never bought fruit juices, they bought koolaid and high sugary juice so that it was causing people to become ill and sick because of diabetes and other health issues. Make sure you have the right foods so that people who organize these events (like myself) actually know.


Side note: Not sure what to bring? Call us or send us an email and we'll tell you: (705) 657-1126 Email:

A lot of time we do ceremony together. We ask women to wear a long, light weight dress. If you can't ask to borrow or bring one or ask to borrow one or better yet, purchase one from a local craft maker. Men typically wear shorts (like quick dry shorts) or quick dry pants if we are in the sweat lodge (just because it is so hot).


How do you seat the room. This is always a big one to when we have community meetings, this is not the way to do it (see image below). We don't use that western style of schooling, a lot of people (especially in the north) will recommend that's a residential school way of sitting.


We sit like this (see image) so we can see each other and interact with each other. I actually like to look and read the body language of a lot of people making sure...if we're talking too complicated or that they're just not "feeling" the meeting.


Community engagement protocols.


Does the company you work for have one? How to work with Indigenous People? That's a really good question and a lot of people really don't know the answer to that question. Does the community want to work with (or have one) a consultation and accommodation standards.


This is our communities consultation standards. This is a great document and outlays a history of our community, our treaties, the costs that might be incurred (when trying to do business with us). Items like that and it's all in this package and it overlays everything quite well.


Make sure you read it, Google them or if you need help trying to find some in Ontario, send me an email and I will happily point you in the right direction..


Be a part of the community. Ask to get involved, attend pow wow's, you might want to put a booth up if you have employment opportunities (at the pow wow) for people. Attend a sweat lodge, we do a lot of those in the far north.


We're big fans of hockey and baseball so if you have the opportunity and you're a coach or you may have played semi pro or pro sports and you want to coach some individuals this is a great opportunity (right there).

Related: Indigenous Awareness Training - A Foundation for Success

The big one that I like to do is take the young people and provide them with training on what it's like to be an ecologist or environmental scientist. That's how I (jokingly) got stuck in the environmental field but I got participating in the environmental field.


There is an organization in North Bay that hired me and some of my friends and we got involved that way. I also lived near a lot of the MNR employees and they were able to bring me in as well. It was a great opportunity for me to have some training at a young age.


Some do's and don't when working with communities.

These are mainly do nots just because of the things I've seen if it goes South in a hurry.


I was talking to April and Anastasia about this yesterday. Be careful about the amount of acronyms
you use. We live is such an acronyms kind of world and I have multiple spreadsheets about multiple projects about what the acronym means.


We actually...someone sent an acronym to me the other day and I didn't know what it was and I had to look at 4 different excel spreadsheets to figure out what that meant.


It was actually something around climate change and you'd think that as an Environmental Scientist I'd be able to figure that one out. Just be aware of that right, you can lose people with the amount of acronyms that you are using when you are presenting.


Technical language.

Make sure you can explain it in language that people can understand. One of the great examples that I often use is that I once showed my Grandfather (when he was still alive) a map that I made of all the fish populations within one of our lakes. (see this page: 3 ways to effectively communicate technical information to First Nation Communities.


He grew up fishing there and I came up to show our community as well and he said "I have no idea what you're talking about". I readjusted the graphs and the language (there would be a stop side), these fish are in trouble, these fish are ok and these fish are doing really well and that's what people understood.

Our language is based on the use of adjectives and not nouns as you see in English so please remember that.


Are Indigenous People stakeholders?

I often get that a lot and it's more so these days because people write things up. It's like Indigenous People's comments and stakeholders and that's typically what I see. A stakeholder is a person, group or organization that has an interest or concern, right? and that's the big thing.


Some examples of stakeholders are creditors, directors, employees or government. Where a First Nation is not we have the legal right to launch a legal action against your project and put it, potentially in jeopardy. We have constitutionally protected rights so that's the big difference is between us and a stakeholder.


Timelines, that's a big thing. I always find that funny especially now in the different policy world that we all live in, we have all these different timelines.


I personally, find it fun because I never make a "gantt" chart for doing projects. I feel the projects will come to terms as they need to and that's just my personal belief systems on that.


A good working rule is that our timeline is our problem and one of the challenges I foresee is that we often...we are so busy with everything that's going on, we over complicate things with timelines. It doesn't allow people a full time to digest what we're trying to explain to them so we need to have more time to do that. 


If you push for the sake of your timeline you might find that future projects not getting the same attention or audience as you previously had. 


Don't tell the community what dates to meet. That's always a big thing and I often get told "please have Chief and Council and your consultation people ready for this date". We're very busy in the band office as well as consultants that represent First Nations and I try to help everybody meet or a common meeting spot about when they can meet but ask, be more respectful and ask which dates work best for the community.


Have a wide range of dates available and that will be more easier to accommodate and also understand that traditional practices such as hunting and fishing might take up certain times. Typically what I do up an Indigenous Engagement plan I make sure to tell people that this is duck hunting or goose season, this is fishing season or this is deer or moose season right, just so people know.           

A big one that I put on the calendar for people is our Little NHL (hockey) tournaments so that's also important for people to know that we're just doing other things.  


Don't tell the community that you have to treat them with equality. Equality is another term that's pretty stressful and I get told that a lot that why aren't we all equal at the table and lately, I've been trying not to snap and I try to have an educational answer but we don't have equality yet with Non-Indigenous society and that's the way things are at the moment and hopefully with time things will improve. 


Please don't come, especially in the EA (environmental assessment) sector as this is where it usually gets off the rails.


People come with a draft plan before the engagement or consultation process has started. That also signals to the community that you're just meeting with them because you "have to" and get checked off the list and that's a part of the challenge, right?


That's why I like to bring communities in right off the bat so that we can actually feed into this drafting of a plan right? What are some of the environmental features, what are some of the cultural features that you would not know as a Non-Indigenous person in that area.


Or someone who has never lived in that area and you might be a consultant who is coming from a far to work in that area.  Don't confuse reserves with reservations. Reservations is a term for booking hotels and restaurants and a reserve is a community in Canada.


Don't impose direct eye contact and I've seen this a lot with my Non-Indigenous staff in the past when I used to travel. They used to tell me in the car that no one was looking at us so (I'd tell them) that's ok, they we're listening to us.


That's why they have ears and people are like what? I say, yeah, they were listening. You don't listen with your eyes right? And some people might be afraid when we have residential school survivors they are often, if they looked at the individual they'd be punished so you have to understand that.  


Don't overdress. I have a great example. We were going up to Bear Island in Temagami and there was all these people out there and we met on the shore and we actually had to drive a boat because it's an Island community and I asked them, "do you have all the equipment you need?" and they responded yes, we have years of working with Indigenous People Gary and we don't need to bring any equipment.


So, we meet them there at the dock and they're all wearing really nice suits and high heeled boots and I laughed because I don't know how you're going to get into my boat because my boat is a Zodiac and it's made of rubber, inflatable so those shoes might puncture my boat so please come in careful.


Also, you're going to get wet and you didn't bring a rain jacket and we're going to be bouncing up the lake and all this stuff. I just thought, if you really knew where you're going you'd know not to wear this. 


This is typically of not how to dress when you come to work with me (see image) and this is what we look like.

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and this is what we look like...


Don't obsess about meeting durations.


This is fun because I look at the clock here and it's already been an hour and a half and I know some of you have to leave by 2, so I'll try to keep this going and open it up to questions.Typically when I do meetings with communities I schedule the whole day.


We might only have a couple of hours with the community but my whole day is free just in case, how long it takes. It takes as long as it does and so I always have that availability when I start working with a community.


This is a big one and I learned this one and until about 10 years ago I never went to a public information session for a Non-Indigenous component of a project but I started going to them to help my team. To help survey the Indigenous, urban Indigenous population but it was funny because what I learned there those were shear chaos.


There were just people running around, all these questions, temperament and all this anger and I was like wow, this is completely intense and I'm going to go back to the reserves and work.

What was interesting was when I brought the team with me to a community they thought we had to fill in these dead periods of silence and I said no you don't. That's people thinking and processing about what is being said but you don't get to do that in a normal, public information session or a stakeholder engagement period. This is a different way of doing business.


It's ok, please try not to be intimidated by going to communities and I know it's a big thing.


I know people get really nervous about doing it and quite frankly, as an Indigenous person I still get nervous as well so don't think that you're alone in that. If you make a mistake simply just apologize, we're only human and that's a big part of it and it's perfectly acceptable to say I don't have the answers but we can get that information out to you and follow up in a few days.


Sometimes there might be a question that you never thought of and it might take a few days to come up with an answer. That's perfectly ok as long as you follow up, right? And make sure you share that information with everybody so people learn from that.


And that's it so we can open it up to questions. If you feel that you need to reach out to me, there's my email and my phone number.


This is just a photo (image below) here to that I took the other day when I went for a hike as a family and the first ones we seen this year and they call this a family of turtles and they're all kind of hanging out together.

- End of Presentation -

Does your organization need help with Indigenous Engagement? please contact us at: (705) 657-1126 or at

Related Article:

Achieving Meaningful Engagement with Indigenous Communities

Why is Indigenous Community Engagement Important?


Digital Indigenous Engagement Guide?

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