by Brodie Schmidt & Robert Howey
Brodie Schmidt is part of a team of CPCIL Research and Knowledge Gatherers producing content and compiling resources on themes such as inclusion, eco-social justice, partnerships, conservation, organizational sustainability, climate change and biodiversity, connection to nature, conservation financing, and ecotourism, to support effective and equitable leadership and inclusion in parks and protected areas across Canada.
There is growing recognition within the environmental field regarding the importance of genuine collaborations between Indigenous partners with both public and private organizations. Agencies are becoming more aware of how harmful shallow consultation processes can be for partners, as Gray (2016) highlights when discussing advancing reconciliation through meaningful consultation in a report to the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs. Gray notes “Many viewed Canada’s approach as largely a one-size-fits-all box-ticking exercise that fails to meaningfully address their concerns and relies too heavily on industry proponents and regulatory processes. Aboriginal groups also raised concerns with the content and implementation of existing guidance for federal officials and their own capacity to participate in consultation given their limited resources. Notably, their criticisms were not limited to the federal government. Many had equally negative or worse comments about the approaches taken by many provinces and territories in this area.”
Although this is an issue that transcends beyond the boundaries of this field, parks and protected areas are in opportune positions to lead this shift towards genuine partnership building. I sat down with one of these leaders, Rob Howey, Senior Advisor in the Office of the Executive Director of Atlantic, with Parks Canada. Rob is currently working to build novel approaches to rights implementation with Parks Canada and the Peace and Friendship Treaty nations in Atlantic Canada. Through his current lens and his experience in various parks projects like Bring Back the Boreal, we will be discussing this larger topic regarding the significance of meaningful partnerships and their role in on-the-ground reconciliation efforts.
Rob suggests that often as park leaders, “we have an idea, and then we go to the partner with the idea, rather than sitting down with the partner and collaborating on recognizing that there’s a shared value or shared issue, and partnering to solve… I think one of the reasons that the moose project was so successful in Cape Breton was because there was a shared value, and there was a shared interest. There was a shared recognition that something needs to be done about the hyper abundance of moose and the moose population’s health, which was very important to the Mi’kmaq. And so right from there, there is a lot of momentum to get a project going.”
This point that Rob highlights, regarding relationship building before a project is implemented, relates well to a term introduced by Indigenous leaders like Willie Ermine, Danika Littlechild, Reg Crowshoe, and Eli Enns: the Ethical Space. By firstly establishing a respect for the different worldviews and various ways of knowing that will be coming together in a partnership, we see a space open between these distinct partners; “the sacred space of the ethical helps us balance these moral considerations as we discuss issues that are transcultural, or trans-boundary in nature” (Ermine, 2007; pp. 195 – 196). Through firstly respecting the distinctness between worldviews, we can then begin to find shared values.
How can park leaders imbue ethical space while still working within their agencies’ mandates?
In Rob’s experience, it often boils down to your ability to build human-to-human relationships. Although relationship building seems like second nature to many, it’s a craft with no scientific means – often making it difficult to operationalize through park agencies.
As Rob explains, “Regarding the relationship piece… I think it’s just about being open to the possibility that I’ve got to learn about this person and community, I’ve got to get to know this person and community and understand what is important to them, and in recognizing, again, you’re just a human being. At the same time, as a government representative, you must also recognize and acknowledge the history of this country and the role the government played in that history with Indigenous peoples. When you are having these discussions, words and actions are important; commitments and following through on those commitments is important – that’s how you build trust. And that is true of any relationship. Recognizing that people are different and that this is another human relationship, I think is very helpful.”
As noted, relationship building is difficult to operationalize. To help make this discussion applicable to park leaders, we can look to Rob’s experiences with the Bring Back the Boreal project for some tangible examples.
A Conversation About Lessons Learned from the CBHNP Bring Back the Boreal Program
Brodie: You’ve said that building relationships can be kind of daunting for park leaders sometimes, or maybe there’s nervousness of not knowing how to go into it, could you highlight some means of building relationships?
Rob: I have a story from a couple of years ago that could apply here:
We worked very closely with the Unama’ki Institute of Natural Resources (UINR) and Kwilmu’kw Maw-klusuaqn (KMK) to co-develop moose management plans and the Bring Back the Boreal Project in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Following the project’s conclusion, we knew that we wanted to continue working together, just as we had done prior to the project as well. I set up a meeting at a coffee shop to talk about funding and what we might like to do next. So, we sat down, and I asked, “what do you guys want to work on next year, what’s important for your organization right now?” Being very open, I knew how much funding we might have to work with, but I also didn’t want to say, “well we’ve got this, so let’s do X-Y-Z”. I want to hear what they want to work on, what’s important to them and if there is an opportunity to work together on it. […] And maybe there’s not an obvious project right away, but maybe two years down the road you’re like, “oh yeah, there’s this thing we both have an interest in, and we can work together on this”, and that’s when those coffees you were going for every few months and chatting really made it worth it. Rather than, “oh no, we’ve got an issue and now we have to figure out how to solve it”.
In this scenario, even though there was a well-established working relationship, it was important to approach things under the premise that we are still learning about our shared values and priorities, especially because they can change. So, whether it is a well-established relationship, or a relatively new one, the approach remains the same: be open, learn, grow, don’t assume too much, and find common values.
And I think another key piece getting a little bit beyond the coffee chat, is about the self-determination piece. Recognizing that our funding structures often are very prescriptive on how the money shall be spent, and what exactly needs to be done, and you must write a 10-page report on all the activities after it’s been done to show that the money was spent this way… That can be patronizing; for the government to support Indigenous initiatives, but only in this way, or by meeting these prescribed targets. […] If you want to spend it in a different way, or the way you see fit to achieve the results, that’s self-determination. In another way, sometimes there is a budget already decided or, “here’s how much is available” – but was the Indigenous community or organization consulted on how much funding would be needed?
The Self-Determination Piece
Brodie: The self-determination piece is significant, and from my understanding is still a fairly novel approach in this line of work. I mean it’s not a crazy concept, I guess what I struggle with there is just that rights are assumed, but on paper they’re often contested. Could you speak a bit more to your experiences with self-determination?
Rob: Yeah, that’s one key that my predecessor Derek Quann said to me and that he always put in presentations related to the Bring Back the Boreal Project. When you go into these discussions there’s no questions about whether their rights exist or not. The rights exist and it is assumed so.
So, I think being less prescriptive on how things are done, that’s another key piece; In general, regarding relationship building, being open to the process… You both recognize you want to get to a certain end point, so being open to how you get there. I would also add that truly incorporating, interweaving, Indigenous knowledge and worldviews, and how you do that, is very important as well. Because ultimately, what are we really talking about? We’re talking about doing things in a way that makes sense for the national park, if possible, but at the end of the day if the Mi’kmaq want to do X, Y, and Z, they can.
One of the key components of the Bring Back the Boreal Project was that it was co-developed and co-managed between the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia and Parks Canada. I was a co-manager of the project operations with a colleague from UINR. So, we jointly made decisions all the time, including when to initiate or end operations. We needed to decide together if the weather was not ideal to support harvesting operations that day, when harvest crews would be active, site logistics and safety. Everything was discussed. In selecting Mi’kmaw harvesters, it was up to the Mi’kmaq to decide – their rights are assumed, and they determined who should carry that aspect of the project out. It was really important to let folks on the ground – from the project managers, to harvesters, and parks operations folks, to work together closely and have decision making power in real time, rather than to be told how things should go or waiting for approvals. It empowered people to make decisions and develop trust in each other and from senior leadership as well.
Shifting a Societal Thought
Brodie: How do you manage the contentions from other stakeholders or local interest groups with these kinds of projects?
Rob: It’s tough, but I don’t think that contention could have been avoided for this case, because the only way to avoid that would have been not to do the project. I think this is about shifting a societal thought, an idea about how we view our protected areas. I have this conversation all the time about how not all protected areas are the same and nor should they be! […] How humans interact with our landscapes, our traditional view of how parks are, are that they are exclusionary. They exclude humans, and they are preserving something in situ for all time. Well, that’s fine to keep out intentionally harmful interests, but with climate change, you know, that’s not a reality anymore.
As we know, the conservation conundrum is about weaving a mosaic of different protections across the landscape and understanding that there are areas that require different kinds of protections. It’s not just about protecting a few parks and then we’re done. It’s about more than that. It’s about understanding how we interact with our landscape, and how we as humans interact with nature in a sustainable way. That’s to say we’re part of it, rather than separate from it […]. The reason I bring that up is that I think as a society we need to understand how we interact with our landscape and how we create sustainable practices. So, part of that is a challenge to communicate because I think people still have that old worldview about “this is what a park is, and this is what a park should be”. I think that’s a challenge.
I think a large aspect of this shift in conservation culture is about encouraging vulnerable conversations, creating a safe and brave space, acknowledging folks’ concerns, and showing people that our concepts of nature, the environment, and protection (including how and why parks have been established under exclusionary premises over time) have shifted. We, as park leaders, continue to shift and learn as well; and on the note of park leaders’ experience here, I think its also important to highlight the importance of patience. As much as we would like to push these things forward quickly, meaningful change often takes time, and we need to be patient while moving through this process.
Can we Operationalize a Paradigm Shift?
Brodie: This discussion of shifting a societal thought is a very large topic to tackle. Are there any lessons learned from your experience on how park leaders can work towards this?
Rob: I think the biggest thing that was learned from my perspective, […] [is the importance of] communication with our staff. As we know, our staff are the ambassadors in the community, and so we need to make sure that we educate and support our staff to understand, even if it doesn’t affect their work directly, we really need to focus on supporting our staff to understand what this means, what it doesn’t mean, how they can answer questions, how do we equip people to be able to answer the questions that they need to answer? that they have for themselves too.
For example, there were times where I was at the grocery store and somebody bumps into me and says, “hey, what’s going on with that project?”; I’d be golfing, and there would be strangers asking me to tell them about “that moose thing”. But that happens all over, whether you’re driving a plow truck, at the front gate, an interpreter, or cleaning privies, people know you work at the park and they come up to you. Whether they are in the community, like I said, while you’re buying groceries, or whether you’re in uniform in the park.
Through this example, Rob highlights the importance of supporting all staff in understanding what these projects mean, and what they don’t mean.
I think ’that’s my biggest lesson learned, it goes back to the stakeholder questions. ’You’re not going to convince everybody instantly, and you ’can’t worry about convincing everybody. But it is about making your best efforts to try and meet people where they are at and bring folks along.[…] It is really about the privilege of who does and does not have access to space that is supposed to be accessible to all.
To Wrap Up…
My hope of sharing this conversation between Rob and I is to elevate this brightspot case study of parks and protected leaders addressing the underlying values at play within their systems, in novel ways. What began as a conversation about building meaningful partnerships, quickly elevated to a much larger conversation around the way our systems and society think about what belongs in a park and how it ought to be managed.
Trying to approach complex topics, like [re]Conciliation in Parks and Protected Areas, can seem daunting for an individual leader at a local level. By allowing yourself to frame event-level issues within the greater context of these overarching values, however, leaders are given a unique opportunity to implement and operationalize projects that both a) address locally-based issues and b) speak to the overarching systemic issues becoming more and more apparent in the protected and conserved arena. As said by Rob, “the on-the-ground work leads to success at a large scale”.
Parting Words from Rob
I feel like sometimes people are hesitant to do this stuff because they’re nervous that they don’t know how to do it, but I feel like it all comes from that mindset of thinking you have to know what you are doing, to be in control, or to have all the answers; go in with an open heart and open mind and open hands, and listen – truly walk a path together. People sometimes think – we can’t do this, or what if we do this, and we don’t often consider: what if we don’t? What could be lost?
Ermine, W. (2007). The Ethical Space of Engagement. Indigenous Law Journal 6(1): pp. 193 – 203. Link Here.
Gray, B. (2016). Building Relationships and Advancing Reconciliation through Meaningful Consultation. Report to the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs. Link Here.
Kelloway, B. (2018). What you need to know about the Cape Breton moose harvest. The Signal. Link Here.
Unama’ki Institute of Natural Resources Moose Management Resource Page.