Developing a “home-grown” mental health system in a remote First Nation and building a 30-kilometre bus rapid transit (BRT) line through a major metropolitan area seem like as disparate a pair of projects as you’ll find, but our presenters for the IAP2 April Webinar faced some remarkably similar situations.

Pikangikum is land-and-lake-locked, about 400 km NE of Winnipeg

Jeff Cook of Beringia Community Planning won the IAP2 Canada Project of the Year award – as well as the Core Values Award for Indigenous Engagement – for “Working it out Together”, a bold initiative by the Pikangikum First Nation of far northwestern Ontario to take local control of the health system.



A 2012 article in Maclean’s Magazine caught Jeff’s attention, so he had an idea of what Pikangikum was up against when he was hired to oversee a process for turning that community and individual lives around.


It was an exercise in planning around crisis and01 trauma, and involved creating a process and plan that were both community owned and community driven. Top-down approaches had not worked, and the key, Jeff found, was in respecting and integrating Indigenous culture. The Anishinaabe culture had pretty much been lost historically, so this was a matter of re-discovering that culture and re-claiming it.

There was still an ember of self-respect, in the fact that Pikangikum is one of the very few Indigenous communities where there is near complete fluency in the Ojibway language. This has maintained, despite the emotional and psychological trauma brought on by generations of colonization.

pikangikum-3Jeff turned to a strengths-based approach, recognizing the accomplishments, assets, strengths, beauty and honor of the people in the community. This was not easy: in the first couple of meetings, there were lots of empty faces and quiet microphones before anyone started to come up with positive things to say about themselves or their community.

The Pikangikum people had to get used to a different culture: the culture of consultation. It was the first time ever that they – the citizens of the First nation – had been consulted. Gradually, they shared their preferences as to who should be involved, what the process was about and how they wanted to be involved. The symbol for the approach was provided by a young local woman in the form of a dream-catcher.

It took time to pull the opinions out of people – particularly from the women, as it’s the local culture to ask permission of the elders, who are men, for the women to give their opinions.

They used a wide range of consultation tools: staff surveys, Facebook, brainstorming sessions, postcards, story-telling, an exercise in ranking community health needs; it was a huge undertaking, and there is no quick-fix.

One thing Jeff learned was that “deep engagement” can heal and bring people together – which, at the end of the day, was exactly what Pikangikum needed. There was a cycle of colonization and trauma, and self-determination is central to breaking that cycle. For the P2 practitioner, humility, respect and persistence are the most essential tools you can have.

The similarity with Dana Lucero’s project was in the fact that the Powell-Division Transit and Development project runs through some of the most ethnically and culturally diverse neighbourhoods you’ll find. This received the IAP2 USA Project of the Year Core Values Award.

Powell-Division, by the way, does not refer to a particular division called Powell: it refers to an east-west strip bounded by Powell Boulevard and Division Avenue, where the communities are Latino, Russian, Somali, Tongan, Chinese, Vietnamese, Bhutanese, among others. Complicating matters is a history of perceived neglect by top institutions, a lack of public investment and a deep distrust and skepticism of government.


That skepticism coloured the way Dana and her crew had to approach this project. The team was made up of Metro, TriMet (the transit authority), the cities of Portland and Gresham, Multnomah County and the Oregon Department of Transportation. Not only did the residents feel neglected by officialdom, they were also concerned about gentrification and community stability. While a BRT line would seem like a benefit in an area that has very high transit usage and a lot of passups by full buses, it could also be seen as the kind of transit improvement that could make the area more attractive for higher-end development which would lead to displacement of the locals.

One of the principal goals of this P2 project was to let people know they were being listened-to. Dana and her crew knew it would be important to relate to people in the way they relate to the world, and that meant going to them – not expecting them to come to evening meetings. It had to be clear from the start how their input would be a part of decision-making and what kind of results they could expect.

They took it to the streets, with a variety of approaches. At bus stops, they posed a single question in five languages:

What would make your bus ride better?


Along with the bus-stop engagement, they took part in community events, held working groups on important issues, created an interactive map and expanded reach within communities of colour. Probably most important, they practised “equity”, putting members of the community on the same level as the agencies as decision-makers. They created a 22-member steering committee on which half of the members were from the community.


Dana’s team found it wasn’t a matter of creating opportunities: they had to create relationships.

Through those relationships, the project developed according to the input from the community, rather than through a top-down bureaucratic approach.

As the process moved forward, values started to change. Advocacy groups that were prone to using tactics meant to halt the process, shock people or villainize the agencies found themselves at the table – to everyone’s surprise. Making transit improvements a catalyst for reducing disparities became a priority. The agencies made a commitment to prevent market-driven involuntary displacement of residents (a/k/a “gentrification”) and to distribute equally the benefits and burdens of change.

The exercise also built capacity for community members to engage in other civic processes, and for agencies to be more accessible.

An unexpected benefit was seen recently, when the Powell-Division Transit and Development Project had to change its route. But while in the past, this might have been met with cynicism, the agencies were able to show that this was a decision taken by the people affected. The final design plan is expected to be unveiled this fall.

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