Jeff Cook of Beringia Community Planning and the Pikangikum (First Nation) Health Authority were co-recipients of the IAP2 Canada Core Values Award for Indigenous Engagement at the 2015 North American Conference in Portland. Their project, “Working It Out Together”, was a three-year effort to set up a planning framework to address complex mental and physical health issues in the community in Northwestern Ontario. They used a community-driven, “home-made” approach based on local Anishinaabe values. The Comprehensive Community Health Plan was also named Project of the Year.
What got you into P2 in the first place? I finished an undergraduate degree in human geography and political studies at Queen’s with a focus on Latin American studies. I was interested in working in Guatemala on land rights. But close to graduation, I was reluctant about pursuing work in Central America and I started thinking about where I could go in my home country to pursue land-rights issues. The closest context I could think of was the Yukon’s Comprehensive Land Claim process. So I had this notion that I would go up north and find a job with land claims – just find a way of supporting Yukon First Nations and indigenous issues.
A good friend of mine and I were looking for adventure, and we decided to travel to Canada’s frontier. Another friend gave us his 1976 Toyota Corolla as a joke and wished us luck in making the journey. He said, “it should get you there.” We had no money (a couple of credit cards) so we just hit the highway and took 7 days to get up there. We worked a couple of seasons in Whitehorse to make money for university and as I was finishing my degree I applied for a job while living in Dawson City, Yukon. A job opportunity came open with the Tr’ondek Hewchin (pron. TRON-dek hWITCHin) – Han people of the River – as Community Economic Development Officer. I spent 3 years with that First Nation, running their Economic Development Office.
As an Economic Development Officer I got to watch the Land Claims process advance. I didn’t actually do any negotiating, but through that position, I fell in love with participatory community planning, and that became my context for P2. It was when the Nation hired a consultant to complete their economic development strategy, that I was struck by the lack of process: an outsider was coming in and creating a plan for the Nation; I felt the planner should be creating a plan with the Nation.
This was the whole colonial model (of planning and development) that Nations were trying to break away from, and this experience energized me to say, No – community planning has to be done way differently if Nations are to restore community self-governance under the land claim.
I ended up moving to Whitehorse after three years, getting invitations from First Nations individuals and communities to assist with their various planning needs. I built this network of relationships and in 1994, decided in launch Cook and Associates, later incorporating as Beringia Community Planning in 1998 to focus in Indigenous Community Planning. In 2002, I completed my Master’s Degree in Community and Regional Planning at UBC to increase my own understanding and capacity as a community planner to support Aboriginal communities in respectful ways.
What are some challenges you’ve faced, working with First Nations? One of the biggest challenges is understanding the cultural complexity, and working in a different world view and how to relate to Indigenous societies. I quickly learned how western planning and development systems, in my mind, were dysfunctional in their own ways – in the way they imposed authority, structure and processes on Nations. I really related to the Indigenous paradigm and ways of being and knowing and connections to the land and the interconnectivity of all things.
The other challenge is working within the Indian Act system and all government levels. You’re working with oppressed societies that have been marginalized, and see community planning and public engagement as a means to support Nations to re-write their own history. It is an opportunity for First Nations to revitalize and rediscover their cultural systems and identity – an internal reconciliation, if you will — as part of the Nation’s rebuilding process. It’s very exciting to be part, in a very small way, of this grassroots community-based movement.
And I probably have just as much fun and pleasure teaching the non-Indigenous world – mayors and councils, politicians and bureaucrats – what they don’t know about implications of Indigenous history. A lot of people are just naïve and unaware of how Indigenous values, knowledge and decision-making systems.
Community planning is just one mechanism for supporting First Nations’ needs in mobilizing themselves to rise up against the western systems and authority structures.
But you’re an outsider, yourself: how were you received by the Nations? I felt that I was being tested, observed carefully for my tone, language, process – given the historical mistrust, as an outsider and because I was non-Indigenous. That’s only about ten percent of the people I’ve worked with…in general, you have to earn the trust and respect.
I think, by going in with humility and soft leadership – a quiet approach, active listening – I quickly found that once members felt there was some kind of alignment in terms of historical understanding, they were so wanting to open up and tell their story in a safe way. That’s part of the history of the trauma and victimization under the Indian Act, Residential schooling and Reserve system, but once trust was established, members quickly wanted to share and decide a better future together. Some oppressed communities felt community-based planning was a way to let out a lot of emotion, feeling and needs – as a way to lead them to a positive future. It inspired great conversation – hard conversations, but good ones that process decisions based on their values and ways of being and knowing.
Your award for the Pikangikum project was certainly a high point: what other “big wins” have you had? Definitely another health project, in the Liard region in the Yukon: The Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society, or LAWS, took the lead on a 3-year health and wellness strategy, tackling addiction on behalf of the Liard First Nation. It was a big process, like Pikangikum, and not a dissimilar situation.
I completed a comprehensive community planning (CCP) process for the Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwa’mis Nation on Gilford Island. That was a turning point for getting in on the CCP movement: this young Chief came in and said, “No more with the government response. We need to resolve our water, energy and housing issues.” The community had no drinking water, unreliable electricity, and heavy black mould in their houses: people were getting sick. So the Chief said, “Enough’s enough” They wanted to take control back from the government to make life better for the people through community-based planning and public engagement.
Indigenous planning in Canada has a history going back to the 1980s being led by external consultants – taking over from the “Indian Agent”. It’s been a case “we know what you need: give us the money and we’ll do the plan for you.” However, I’ve seen in the past ten years that this is slowly changing, especially in western Canada: we’re changing the way planning is taught, and we hope the next generation of planners doesn’t repeat that history.
A lot of planning companies still follow the colonial paradigm. I feel there’s an ethical, moral and legal obligation to help Nations that need support: help those that ask for support, and let the ones that want to go it alone, do so. We need to figure out what the supporting roles are in a Nation’s rebuilding process and to make sure that community planners are being invited under a Nations own terms.
Are you seeing results from the work you’ve done? There are small, but definite signs of progress. I’m going back to LAWS in November. They’re doing a violence-against-women project, developing a curriculum where young girls will develop skills, tools and language to respond to domestic violence. That vision was one of the hundreds of seeds that grew out of that health plan. Other projects are getting traction and attention as people realize the importance of helping First Nations increase their health and well-being.
On Pikangikum, it’s too early to tell, but you can see the healing that’s resulted from 3 years of coming together in a community-based process. The PFN was able to purchase a cabin infrastructure on Stormer Lake, which had been owned by the Mennonite community. They turned it over to the Nation and it’s being converted to a healing centre based on local values and customs.
If you had anything to say to someone just getting into the P2 business, what would it be? Learn how to practice humility and respect. Having the privilege of being invited into these First Nations communities and places is quite an honour. It’s really inspiring to be with and witness people who are rising up and regaining their identity and strength. The stories of hope are phenomenal and I find it super-inspiring. We have to let go of our own western biases and the way we might do things – just let go of your assumptions and just be open to understanding the world from a different perspective and understanding.
I’d like to thank the Pikangikum First Nation and community members, and the hundreds of people I’ve had the opportunity to work with and learn from over the years – Chiefs, Elders, Adults, Youth and Women – who are inspiring their own communities and families to rise up and strengthen community self-governance. I witness great strength and courage working with Nations across Canada.