National Indigenous History Month provides people across the country with the opportunity to learn about, understand, and celebrate Indigenous histories, diversity, cultures, and people. Engineers Canada is focused on improving Indigenous access to engineering, and improving engineering outcomes in Indigenous communities by building a better understanding of the long-rooted history in these communities living sustainably within their natural environments.
A mutually respectful relationship between the profession and the Indigenous public is important to the future of engineering in Canada. As a first step towards this future, Engineers Canada recently published a Guideline for engineers and engineering firms on Indigenous consultation and engagement—A guide intended to promote meaningful engagement between engineers and Indigenous communities when it comes to engineering work. The guideline was produced by Engineers Canada’s Canadian Engineering Qualifications Board.
In honour of Indigenous History Month, we caught up with Urban Systems Ltd., the consulting firm that supported the development of the guideline, to shed light on historical challenges of effective engagement, strategies to improve engagement practices, and real-life experience with engineering clients who support and empower Indigenous communities through their work. Urban Systems brought together a multi-disciplinary team to reflect and share their insights.
About Urban Systems
The heart of Urban Systems’ work is serving communities. They work alongside municipalities, governments, Indigenous Communities, agencies, and private sector clients to enhance projects and initiatives in the communities’ best interests. Backed by a team with diverse expertise, perspective, and knowledge, their work on the guideline was Indigenous-led and supported by engineers, planners, engagement experts, and curriculum development specialists.
In the Indigenous consultation and engagement guideline, section 4.2 outlines key considerations for pre-engagement learning, one of which is history. Gayle Frank, Urban Systems’ Indigenous Community Consultant, describes pre-engagement learning as, “taking initiative prior to engaging with the community to learn about them”. This provides an opportunity to understand what experiences the community has had that may affect their response to a project.
Throughout Canada’s History, consultation and engagement processes have often failed to protect the Indigenous public. In order to take steps towards improvement, it’s imperative to understand where things have broken down when it’s come to historical engagement between engineers and Indigenous communities. The Urban Systems team shared three examples of historical issues with engagement processes:
- A lack of importance placed on engagement efforts, and as a result, not allocating enough resources and time for these activities to take place.
- An assumption that the same solutions can work for multiple communities. This pan-indigenizes communities when they all have different wants, needs, and processes.
- Presuming that growth and engineered solutions are always needed and desired by the community. It is important to question what the benefit will be for the community, and if the proposed development agenda is in their best interest.
The team suggests, as a first step, “reviewing their website and social media platforms which can give insight into what is currently happening within the community.” Section 4.3 of the guideline also discusses other sources for pre-engagement learning, such as federal, provincial, and territorial databases.
Seeking to understand a community with pre-engagement learning considerations in mind shows respect, reduces the burden of engagement on the community, increases the ability to build trust, and improves the possibility of community involvement in the project, as noted in the guideline. The insights collected during pre-engagement learning can be used to create a more effective engagement plan.
Building trust and establishing relationships
In addition to acquiring knowledge about a community, trust is foundational to successful engagement on projects. One of the five key principles of respectful engagement outlined in the guideline is building trust before projects. “Prior to beginning a project, relationship building can take place outside of the formal engagement process,” says the team. “This can lead to already existing relationships with the community when conversations about the project begin to take place.”
To make steps towards building trust and establishing relationships with Indigenous communities, Urban Systems suggests the following:
- Listening to the community and letting them guide the conversation. Being present in these conversations.
- Understanding that historical actions have led us to a point where there is no implicit trust between the community and the engineers. It takes humility and setting aside the person of a “professional who has all the answers” to open space for learning and trust to develop.
- Focus on building a genuine relationship with the community and the people who are part of it, one that is not dependant on project work.
When looking to build and strengthen relationships, Urban Systems also emphasizes that Indigenous practitioners, particularly community members, should be included in the project early on whenever possible. During and immediately after implementation of the project, it is important to “purposefully reflect on what has or has not worked well. This should guide engagement processes in the future,” Danilo Caron, an Indigenous Project Engineer at Uban Systems adds.
Section 5.1 of the guideline details other key activities to help build trust over time.
Reflections and lessons learned from previous engagements with Indigenous communities
For centuries, Indigenous knowledge and wisdom have shaped our world. Engineering offers many opportunities for Indigenous Peoples to contribute their distinctive views, traditional knowledge, and sustainable practices.
“There are numerous times in our work where we are both privileged to learn from a community while we are at the same time humbled by the responsibility to make decisions in light of how much we have yet to learn,” the team shared.
The team described an example from a recent creek rehabilitation project where an elder shared how the creeks near their community have changed since they were a child. “They continually visited the same cultural bathing areas over the decades and have seen the water levels become shallower with the continued deposit of sediment from upstream developments and roadways,” Mackenzie Walker, Urban Systems’ Project Leader, says.
“He knows the creeks very well, and over a time and scale that we could never collect data for in our study, but yet, we are tasked with creating a plan to improve them. We have so much to learn that scientific methods, with limited data, cannot solve,” added Walker.