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How NOT To Engage an Indigenous Community

Updated: 4 days ago

A lesson on how not to approach Indigenous community engagement.

Please note that this is my own personal experience based on my job as a Band Administrator for my First Nation. This is not a representation of all First Nation Communities across Canada. This may or may not be applicable to your situation but can be used to help guide you in the right direction when it comes to Indigenous Community Engagement.

Back when I was a Band Administrator for my First Nation, we were approached by a company to invest in a huge natural resource project. This was a multi million dollar project that was going to convert wood chips into usable chip boards using new technology from Sweden. Using the investments from surrounding communities (including Indigenous Communities) the plan was to build a manufacturing plant in a nearby town.

The partners and representatives for the project were Non-Indigenous. Their plan was to approach each surrounding First Nation for a million dollar investment for a small stake in the company.

In order for this project to proceed, the company needed the support from the Indigenous Communities in the area. After an initial meeting with Chief and Council, they were allowed to attend one of our Community meetings and to present their idea to the community who will vote on whether or not to get involved with the project.

As the Band Administrator, I was excited to hear more about the project due to it's potential. However, the community engagement meeting didn't go as planned.

Here are 8 reasons why this community engagement failed and how you can learn from these mistakes to improve your next engagement project (s).

1. Dress Accordingly

When the company executives showed up, they were dressed in suits which immediately put Chief, Council and the Community Members in defensive mode. My First Nation has had its share of bad experiences with government and business people dressed in suits and seeing this immediately put us in defensive mode.

Of course, the company executives assumed that this dress code was the default for community meetings which was not the case (for my First Nation Community). I can't speak for all Indigenous Communities in Canada but for my First Nation, seeing Non-Indigenous people dressed in fancy business attire is somewhat suspect (based on my First Nations history in past situations).

Anywhere else (off territory), this would have been acceptable meeting attire. However, for my First Nation Community this put the community members (especially our Elders) who were in attendance on edge.

Kind of a bad first impression.

dressing for community engagements
Know your audience and dress accordingly. Sometimes it is better to dress down!

2. Always Acknowledge The Community, Territory (Treaty Area) and Elders

After having their workers set up the projector and audio, the business executives presented their idea. There was no land or territory (treaty) acknowledgement nor was there any Elders greeting. On First Nations Territory it is customary to acknowledge the territory, community, elders, Chief and Council and members prior to any meeting.

Our Elders hold the highest regard in our communities so a respectful greeting is always customary at meetings. With no territory or land acknowledgement the company executives jumped into their presentation. I think we (the community) looked past this because they didn't know any better but still, it kind of set a sour note to the start of the meeting. Related: Understanding Indigenous Treaties in Ontario

3. Stay Away From Technical Jargon

Once the company executives got into their presentation, they started using technical jargon to try and "wow" us with their command of the English language. It had the opposite effect. Not only were we not impressed with their technical word smithing but we had no clue what they were talking about.

They (company reps) didn't take the time to understand that me, Chief and Council and the community members were NOT experts in this field. In addition, some of our Elders on Council (and in the audience), were not well versed in the English language (as Ojibway is their first language).

There were times during the presentation that I had to interject to ask the presenters to explain to my Chief, Council and Community Members what some of their technical jargon meant. I was trying to help them out but I think they got a little impatient trying to explain all of their technical jargon. Not good. There was very little appeal to their presentation since we had no clue what they were talking about. There was a huge communication gap. It comes down to knowing your audience. Do NOT talk over your audience. If there are any technical terms that you must present, make sure you explain it so that everyone understands it.

4. Know Some of The History and Background of the First Nations Community

The company executives went on and on about how the project would create jobs (for my First Nations community) and how much more money would be injected into the local economy. They were listing benefit after benefit about this and that but my community has heard this all before and for most of us, especially our Elders this type of language means very little.

You see, my First Nation has had multi national corporations set up plants here before and to this day, the community is still trying to clean up the mess (that was left behind years ago). The lands and waterways have been polluted to the point of no return.

The earth and soil have been so scorched and polluted that they may never be the same. The smell may never go away (completely). The land on which my First Nations resides has been injured badly (from multi national corporations) and the scars from those companies remain today.

The clean up will (and has) cost millions and the corporation responsible have left the community, leaving my First Nation with the bill.

You can understand my communities reluctance to entertain any idea of investing or partnering with another multi national company. Fool me once... If the company knew a bit about my First Nations history with multi national corporations they may have approached their presentation a little differently. Related: Indigenous Awareness Training - What You Need To Know: Residential Schools and The Truth and Reconciliation 94 Calls To Action

5. Know Some of the Priorities and Values of The First Nations Community

What the company executives and representatives failed to understand was the difference in our value systems. Monetary benefits seemed to be all the company executives were interested in but as an Indigenous Community, it doesn't hold the same value. Economic development and business isn't as high of a priority in my First Nation community.

Important, yes but critical, no.

Priorities such as Infrastructure, environment, housing, clean drinking water, social, culture, tradition, education and community well-being take precedent.

As the meeting went on, it was evident that the company executives and representatives didn't understand my First Nations priorities and goals. It became very evident that they were there for the wrong reasons.

They were there for them, not us.

Big business was (and to this day) NOT a priority for my First Nation. Community well-being will always come first. Related: Indigenous Awareness Training: How Do First Nations Work? The Basics of Community

6. Come As a Friend or Valued Guest First

At the time, the big priority was finding water so the community can have clean drinking water. Our wells all went dry and we were trying to find solutions. I'll be very honest here, we NEEDED to find water and soon. That was the priority. Perhaps if the company asked our leaders if there was something they could have assisted with, it may have sparked a mutual and respectful friendship. Even a small gesture would have went a long way to show genuine interest in the communities well-being. The final outcome (from the meeting) may have been more positive for the company.

From what I understood, the company needed the approval of all the surrounding Indigenous Communities in order for this project to get the licensing from the province. Given the importance, I would have assumed the presentation would have been well researched including basic history, protocols and the values that we as Indigenous People hold in high regard.

Unfortunately, this was not the case. Related: Indigenous Community Engagement Methods

7. Be Authentic

While the intentions for the company seemed important (to them), it wasn't to the community. To us, their intentions did not align with community values, traditions, culture or the best interest of our Nation.

It may have been a different outcome if the company took the time to understand my First Nations priorities and way of life.

I can't speak for all First Nations Communities in Canada but for my First Nation, community well-being will always come first. Community well-being goes beyond money, economic development or material possessions. It's about coming together as a community. When a community member passes away, we shut down all offices for the funeral. When hunting seasons starts there are special harvest days so the community can all share the hunt. We close community offices for these occasions. For someone coming from outside the community, this can be a hard concept to grasp. It can be hard to understand that we can shut our offices down for a marriage or a hunt. These are values my Fist Nation holds in high regard. To be authentic is to show genuine interest in the well-being of our community. Even the smallest (authentic) gesture in the well-being of a First Nations Community will go a long way in establishing trust.

For my First Nation, trust is everything and hard to earn. Based on my First Nations history with government and big business, trust has been severely damaged so earning trust will take work.

The company approached this meeting like any other meeting (off territory) that they were used too. They were under the assumption that my First Nation was no different than the surrounding towns and municipalities and treated as such. I can't blame the company nor it's representatives because they simply didn't understand that First Nations Communities are NOT like other towns or municipalities. Related: Indigenous Engagement Guide

8. Be Respectful of Each First Nations Beliefs, Traditions, Customs and Way of Life

First Nations Communities have their own traditions, leadership structure, community structure, history, culture, language and way of life that are quite different than Non-Indigenous Communities (and other First Nations Communities). Like anything, it is more important to understand the "who" and not so much on the "why". This is vital when you are thinking about Indigenous Community Engagement. Respecting who we are as proud Indigenous People is much more important than "why" you are there. If you can understand this aspect to your engagement process, you will be in a much better position.

Approach your potential partnership or engagement like you would a valued and respected friend.

Here is my short list of must have's when it comes to a positive Indigenous Community Engagement and Awareness (please keep in mind this is my personal view as a former band manager).

  1. Have a basic understanding of the First Nation and the history, especially in the area of what you are asking about. Be mindful of sensitive areas.

  2. Have a basic understanding of what is important to the First Nation. What is the priority? Perhaps there is something you may be able to help with which will show that you are genuinely there for the right reasons;

  3. Always come in friendship first and be authentic;

  4. Stay away from technical terms when meeting with the Chief, Council and Community Members;

  5. Never talk down to anyone;

  6. Always acknowledge the community, territory, lands and people (especially the community Elders) when starting a presentation or meeting;

  7. Take the time to understand how to approach an Indigenous Community and it's leaders;

  8. Learn the protocols for that community. If in doubt, call the band office and ask to speak to a community outreach or advisor. If this doesn't work, state your intentions and reception will direct your call to the right person or department.

  9. Dress accordingly. Every community will have a different dress protocol but usually, casual dress is acceptable. Ask the community outreach or advisor for proper dress protocol.

  10. DO NOT attempt any humour that Indigenous People may find offensive; Don't try any humour without establishing rapport first.

  11. Understand that most First Nations Communities operate on their own timeline. A First Nations Community may shut down for the day for a funeral. If it is close to hunting season, a First Nations Community may shut down for the week for harvest. Remember....these are the values and priorities that First Nations communities hold in high regard. You have to respect those values. It's not that First Nations Communities don't respect your timeline because they do. The well-being and values of the community will always come first and everything else second.

  12. Take the time to nurture a positive relationship with the First Nation or organization. All good things take time. Patience and understanding are key to starting a positive relationship with First Nations Communities. See point 11.

  13. Show that you and your company are there for the right reasons. Go to the pow wows (and community events) and be an active participant. Bring some food if it is a potluck. Donate to giveaways. This will go a long way in showing the community that you and your company (or organization) are there for the right reasons.

First Nations meeting and community engagement
CIPS Community Engagement Session. Making sure everyone is a part of the engagement process and that their input is valued.
community engagement meeting
Indigenous Community Engagement Expert, Kerry Ann Charles (of CIPS) doing what she loves, providing value and keeping her audience engaged.
Community engagement presentation
Indigenous Community Engagement Expert Kerry Ann Charles (CIPS)
workshop meeting and engagement session
CIPS Manager of Energy and Infrastructure, Shayne Hill providing an energy session for one of CIPS energy workshops

Here are a few articles that will help you:

Understanding and respecting the customs, traditions, beliefs and way of life of Indigenous Peoples of Canada will always be the foundation for successful Indigenous Engagements. The more you know and understand about the rich and proud heritage of Indigenous People in Canada the more receptive your message will be.

For the past 3 years I've been working with a team of Indigenous Engagement and Awareness Experts at Cambium Indigenous Professional Services (CIPS). This is a 100% Indigenous company that has over 30 years of Indigenous Engagement and Awareness experience.

From meetings, presentations, workshops to master of ceremonies, CIPS has worked with Indigenous Communities and Organizations for the best possible outcomes. Their team of Indigenous Awareness and Engagement Experts know their stuff! If you are not sure what to do next or how to approach your engagement, give us a call. We will advise and provide you with the information you need to move forward.

If you or your organization is interested in working with Indigenous Communities (or organizations) and not sure where to start or how to begin, give CIPS a call at 705-657-1126. Email at: You can also contact CIPS here. They will be more than happy to help! Chi Miigwetch

Blake Bissaillion

CIPS Digital Marking Advisor


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