Successful Aboriginal Consultation requires partnership

partnersThere are many corporations that are looking for the right formula for successful consultation with First Nation, Métis and Inuit people in Canada.  You may have a critical project in First Nation’s traditional territory that requires work with local communities.  Legal counsel, government officials and your own Aboriginal Affairs advisors assure you that there are Treaty and/or Aboriginal Rights implications in your project.  There is a very compelling case that you will need to work with First Nations in order to move your project along.

As I’ve stated earlier, the best approach to developing an Aboriginal Engagement strategy is to use a respectful approach.  It’s part of something I call the values-based approach to building relationships with First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities.

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.

Among the most essential parts of the values-based approach is to evolve from treating First Peoples as mere “stakeholders” in your project to respecting them as Nations and as “rights-holders” in their traditional territory.  This means taking real steps to recognize our people as true partners.

In my experience, companies are eager to develop an Aboriginal consultation strategy for whatever project may be in the works.  They’ll spend plenty of time on the process and work planning – filling in all the details of the who, how and when of consultation.  But so often they’ll often overlook one of the most important parts of successful consultation: substance.

In today’s day and age, First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities are quite sophisticated.  Gone are the days of exchanging blankets, beads and trinkets.  Today, First Nations are being lead by well-educated leaders, experienced legal counsel and shrewd business advisors.  They are going to expect capacity funding for engagement activities.  They will be seeking impact benefit agreements, accommodation agreements, revenue sharing arrangements and even equity in your natural resource project.  They’ll also want to see a tangible and measurable basket of social benefits, including jobs, skills training programs and contracts for their Aboriginal businesses.

Companies that are not prepared to consider these types of economic benefits, or think that a smoke-and-mirrors consultation process is sufficient to satisfy First Peoples, usually have to go back to the drawing board.

You may want to consider formalizing a role for your partner in project decision-making.  I’d recommend negotiating a protocol that includes provisions for information sharing, communications and liaison, defining their role within project management and within environmental assessment oversight, etc.

I’m not saying to offer up full control, or provide a veto to your entire project.  But as with any investor, joint venture partner or shareholder, you shouldn’t expect to go very far without the support or consent of your partners.

The rational for bringing First Peoples into natural resource projects such as developing of the new vaporizer pen as partners is both complex and quite simplistic.

The reason is simple.  You are seeking to most efficient and effective means of moving your project forward.  You need to avoid any delays in project development and approvals that can lead to any significant cost overruns.

It’s the business case that can be quite complex.  There isn’t one set of formulae and variables in determining the cost of relationships building, engagement, negotiation, partnership and benefits vs. the cost of delays and other intangibles.

I encourage companies to invest in studying that business case.  I assure you, this is part of the new way of doing business with Aboriginal people.  There is a cost of doing business with First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.  The question of Aboriginal consultation is no longer just a mere formality or work flow process on your project Gantt chart.  It is now a critical business decision.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen billion dollar legacy projects being mothballed because First Nations haven’t been brought to the table.  Legal actions are leading to million dollar delays in project development.  Threats of direct action from unhappy and unwilling grassroots people can take your project out of favour with your investors, shareholders, the media and the public.  These are all today’s realities.

The sooner you are prepared for these realities and consider adapting to this new way of doing business with Aboriginal People, the better your interactions will be with Canada’s First Peoples.

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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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