Meet a Member: Jeff Cook, principal & president, Beringia Community Planning

Jeff Cook is a two-time IAP2 Canada Core Values Award winner for Indigenous Engagement. In 2015, he received the award for “Working It Out Together” – a partnership with the Pikangikum First Nation in northwestern Ontario under the leadership of Pikangikum Health Authority. This three-year project set up a planning framework for addressing complex mental and physical health issues in the community, using a community-driven, “home-made” approach based on local Anishinaabe values. The Comprehensive Community Health Plan was also named Project of the Year.

In 2016, Jeff was part of a group that received the Indigenous Engagement award for SCARP, the School for Community and Resource Planning; a partnership of the University of British Columbia and the Musqueam Indian Band, traditional owners of the University Endowment Lands. SCARP is a Master’s Degree program in which candidates spend practicum time on First Nations and Reserves, helping residents develop their own community plans.

What got you into P2 in the first place? I finished an undergraduate degree in human geography and political studies at Queens 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 First Nation, running their Economic Development Office.

As an Economic Development Officer I got to watch the Land Claim 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 were 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 governments 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 Nation 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.

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