Respect & the Values-Based approach to building Aboriginal Relationships

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Bob Goulais is Vice-President, Communications & Public Affairs for Ishkonigan Inc.

Social media and the blogosphere are full of delightfully, simplistic advice on how best to reach out and develop business relationships with First Nation, Métis and Inuit people.  But like many articles on the web, not everything is real or as simple as it seems.  Without experience and proven advice, many well-meaning companies fall flat and unprepared to work with Canada’s First Peoples.

I’d like to share my vision of a New Way of Doing Business with First Peoples.  This will include understanding the values-based approach to building relationships.

A Values-Based Approach:  The “values-based approach” to building relationships means adapting your engagement approach from beyond your business goals, to listening, learning from and beginning to understand the values of your First Nations, Métis or Inuit partners.

The foremost value that needs to be understood is respect.

In the wise words of my teacher and uncle Bawdwaywidun, the first thing you need to bring to the table is Respect.  Then, the next thing you need to bring Respect.  Finally, the last thing you need to bring is Respect.

In other words, respect cannot be underestimated.

For example: you’ll need to learn very quickly why First Nations, especially those who have signed Treaties, are Rightsholders – not mere “stakeholders”.  In fact, if you even use the term “stakeholder” in the course of your discussions, you can expect your meeting to shut down fairly abruptly.  Subtleties in terminology can mean the difference between respect and disrespect.

To be respectful, you’ll need to consider First Peoples as Nations.  You may need to study what that truly means.  History, governance, languages, cultures, spiritual beliefs, land and territory, legal rights… all the components of what makes up a nation are all there.  Why they may not be necessarily “nation-states” at this point in history, First Nation, Métis and Inuit people are indeed Nations within Canada.

First Nations respect for Mother Earth is also an important value for natural resources companies to appreciate.  One of our most fundamental teachings, coming right from our Anishinaabe Creation Story, is that human-kind was given two very unique gifts that were not provided to any other living being: intellect and free-will.  We were told that with these gifts, the Creator provided us with the sacred instructions to look after Mother Earth and be “stewards of the land and the waters”.  We were asked “to speak for those things that cannot speak for themselves”. I’m providing quotations because those are very specific and profound words right from our teachings.

First Peoples cannot expect corporations to fully understand these teachings and why we have such a close, spiritual connection to the environment.  However, in order to successfully do business with First Peoples, companies will need to appreciate and make decisions based on this perspective and worldview.  You may need to integrate traditional knowledge into your project considerations.  You may also need to mitigate or accommodate any negative project impacts to the satisfaction of the Elders, the Women and community leadership.

Another few words of advice…

  • Don’t lump all First Nations into one melting pot of pan-Aboriginal disrespect.  Each Treaty is unique.  Each First Nation, Métis and Inuit community is unique.  They are very different from neighbouring communities, with unique circumstances and ways of doing business;
  • Each engagement strategy should be customized to every community.  Consultation activities should be developed with the community, for the community;
  • Make use of custom consultation processes and communications protocols;
  • Be knowledgeable and respectful of cultural practices and beliefs;
  • Most of all, respect that First Peoples have a tremendous and complex spectrum of legal rights that are constitutionally protected.

There are many other values and value-systems that First Nations hold sacred.  From the houses of the Pacific west coast, to the Great Law of the Haudenosaunee to the Seven Grandfather Teachings of the Anishinaabe – there is much to know and understand.  Don’t be afraid to listen and learn.

I’ve seen first-hand, Senior Executives wanting to demonstrate their profound experience, or an Aboriginal Relations consultant wanting to justify their fees – by speaking or responding to every thing that is being shared with them.  They make the mistake of defending their project or person-hood in the face of criticism.

But sometimes being respectful, is to simply listen and learn.

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Bob Goulais is Vice-President of Communications and Public Affairs for Ishkonigan Inc.  Ishkonigan is a firm that specializes in consultation and mediation services to Indigenous communities, all levels of government, and business.  Reach Bob Goulais at (416) 770-8567 or e-mail: info@bobgoulais.com. 

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