POSITION: Board member / Aboriginal Relations Liaison / Senior Aboriginal Relations Advisor, TransAlta
How long have you been in P2, and where have you worked?
I have practiced P2 for more than 20 years – the first instances took place while working as Business Development Manager for a rehabilitation agency offering services to adults with mental and developmental handicaps. The inclusion of our clients’ voice was not common practice at the time. As Senior Aboriginal Relations Advisor at TransAlta, I’m not only in charge of relationship-building and negotiations with Treaty 6 and 7 First Nations in Alberta, but any other Aboriginal group that might be near our present assets in Ontario, New Brunswick, Quebec, BC, etc. Since the company went through re-structuring a year and a half ago, I’ve also been in charge of stakeholder relations, which is a more generalized position, but still connected with P2.
What turned you on to P2 in the first place?
In few words – the lack of participation opportunities given to Indigenous groups by companies running projects in their traditional territories. Around 20 years ago I was working in Mexico for a huge communications company, doing some green-field operations – basically, starting from “zero”.
The head office was in Quebec – the project itself was in central Mexico, and part of my job was to take different executives to Mexico to sign papers and approve things. The hotel we stayed in cost $600.00 a night. While that was going on, I found out through the project template that the aboriginal people working on the project – many of them with college educations — were making five to six dollars a day. In other words, for these people to spend a night in the hotel where we were staying, these people would have to work 100 days and not spend a cent of that money! I realized there was something intrinsically wrong with what we were doing.
It was a fairly common practice among foreign companies, that instead of paying a person’s salary all in cash, they would give coupons to buy food. And they could only spend it on food because “if you don’t, they’d drink it”. So we managed to get that practice changed, and then we started developing housing projects and other initiatives to make the jobs they were doing more valuable.
It was through that, that I realized nobody was talking to the Aboriginal people about what they wanted and what they were hoping to get out of the project. Was it just a job, or was there something else?
As we moved forward in that direction, the profile of the company went up, and so did the importance of being an aboriginal person working for that company.
One day, I was chatting w/a friend about how badly I felt about the situation in Mexico, and his comment was, “let me take you to Africa”. So I went to some projects in West Africa and I got to see how much worse things were for aboriginal people in that part of the world. So for the next 6+ years I did sustainable development work with people in Africa, in Southeast Asia and in Latin America.
Then one day, I realized I was not 35 anymore and had a family with young kids who were wondering who this stranger was who was showing up once a month. That’s when I decided to settle down in Calgary and work with disadvantaged groups locally.
Have you had a “Golden Learning Moment”?
To understand the values of any given group, one must immerse oneself in their culture. This strategy assists in identifying those individuals that best represent the common voice of the communities they are a part of.
There is a nugget that always keeps on popping up … as one of my best friends in africa would say … education is the answer … can’t educate oneself unless you listen … so making sure the message is transferred in both directions … including the voice of the people you’re working among will always give you the best results in the end.
What “big wins” have you had?
Any approval to run an educational project in Vietnam is a big win. Including your apparent enemy in the early conversation, usually turns the discussion in the right direction.
Some of the bigger successes are being able to get through to governments — like the Communist govt in Vietnam, convincing them that it would be OK for a company from a Christian country, with Christian values, to build a school. I was working for Samaritan’s Purse, the organization headed by Franklin Graham, working with orphanages and programs that grabbed kids from the streets and trained them to get jobs in hotels or the tourism industry in general.
So in our conversation with the Vietnamese government, we had to spell out how the government would benefit from what we were doing. They knew it was important to have schools in the northern mountain areas; we were able to demonstrate how, when it came time for us to leave, all the programs would be in place to be run locally.
In Canada, one project that left an impression on me is one that didn’t get built according to the original idea. TransAlta planned to build a high-voltage power-line through a reserve. That idea is way more intricate than asking “how much do you want in compensation?”. You can’t just work with one person or group on a First Nation: you have to also work with elders and those with traditional knowledge, who will tell you things and raise issues you might not have been aware of. Some of the documents the government gives you may be out of date. Migration routes, for example, may have changed since the documents were written seven years ago. You have to adapt the plans to fit the environmental needs of those who live on that land.
In the case of this high-voltage line, the First Nation we were consulting with wanted us to run the power line right through their schoolyard. I couldn’t understand why they wanted that, but it turned out that if it was running through the school yard the government would have to pay them a higher grant. We had to convince them that if they wanted to fund the school there were other ways to do it than doing something to jeopardize their children. In the end, the govt didn’t build the line through there so it didn’t affect the First Nation.
Through that, the people in the community learned a lesson they could apply in future development plans.
In every community, there’s always people who do things without considering how their actions will affect others in the community, so I make sure I deal with others in the community and that I bring in people whose views aren’t necessarily the same as those of the leadership.
We tend to hear about First Nations that oppose development; but we hardly ever hear about the FNs that try to manipulate the system to make money for the community .
Here’s an off-the-wall question: you’re a trained opera singer. Has that ever factored into your P2 work?
When I worked with Samaritan’s Purse, I was supposed to be on-call, because you never know when there might be a natural disaster and you have to rush away/ So because I was traveling so much, I had to give up my operatic career for that time: I couldn’t book many concerts in advance. The positive side was that in many cases I was able to use my singing as a means to establish good relationships with other people and to fund-raise for the projects that needed money.
If you had anything to say to someone just getting into the P2 business …
Public Participation is not a business – it’s a set of ethics essential to the true success of any project or activity. Listen, listen, listen…