Indigenous voices hushed in planning processes

Advice on how to ‘respectfully’ engage
Wednesday, June 16, 2021
By Rebecca Melnyk

Among the estimated 634 First Nation communities across Canada, many continue to be sidelined or completely excluded from initial planning phases of new developments and renovation projects. Other instances of community engagement can be far from authentic, where Indigenous people are often approached with a blanket notion of public consultation.

As every community has their own story to tell and knowledge to share, a one-size-fits-all view can have negative impacts. A group of experts on the topic gathered recently to talk about the future of engagement and creating inclusive spaces. In May, a virtual session at the Interior Design Show’s Spring Conference brought together Indigenous advisors and designers who discussed how to meaningfully include Indigenous voices in the built environment.

“One of the biggest protocol violations is to come to a place that isn’t yours and assume that it is,” says Guy Freedman, president of First People’s Group, adding, “whether you’re Indigenous or not, we still have a duty to consult respectfully with the people whose land we’re going to build on.”

Brian Porter, principal of Two Row Architect, a firm headquartered on Six Nations of the Grand River, south of Hamilton, spoke about oral traditions. “Storytelling is a huge part of what defines our cultures,” he says.

His advice for consultants is, “if you don’t take the time to listen to the stories, you’re really short-changing yourselves; you’re really denying yourself the opportunity to understand the culture—to hear the way it was intended to be passed down, which is orally. You’re denying yourself the richness and diversity and potential that is there with each project.”

As a member of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s Indigenous Task Force, formed in 2016, Porter has been working to promote the idea, “nothing about us without us,” as a way of advancing with capital projects. “The last 200 years, as Indigenous communities, we’ve had little say in what our institutions have looked like,” he says, adding there are few capital projects constructed in communities.

“It’s very, very rare for a school to get built so it’s important to engage the community because, oftentimes, they have aspirations for that structure that might not be apparent to someone who is coming from somewhere else.”

Thinking about remote Indigenous communities, he sees schools as community centres—the funeral home, assembly hall and banquet hall.

“The way for a consultant to understand is to really budget a lot of time in the early process, to hear the community, to understand what their aspirations are for the structure,” he says. “You can’t just go in with a status quo viewpoint. The biggest risk is the structure of a project not reaching its full potential because you haven’t taken the time.”

Building time into the project

Due diligence is often neglected when it comes to involving the right people from the get-go. As Freedman says, “The storytelling has to come from the people who have the stories.” Sometimes, figuring out who needs to “be at the table” happens over longer periods of time.

When setting up early consultation strategies, Porter’s team aims to speak for only five per cent of the meeting and listen to community responses for the remaining time. Reflecting on his experiences, he says sometimes “mainstream consultants” wanting to show their empathy interrupt pauses during the conversations, not appreciating the “cadence and timing” that goes into the process. “They don’t understand those gaps are meaningful, that you have to be patient and you have to wait sometimes,” he says. “They are trained to keep things moving, and everything has to stop and start, and time is valuable, and you have to fill it up with verbiage.”

Ongoing engagement with Indigenous communities

To effectively engage with Indigenous communities, strategies must be continuous—beginning at project conception and following through to schematic design, contract and documents—void of foregone conclusions, says Porter, who “likes nothing better” than taking a group from the community to visit a construction site where they can see their initial ideas that were incorporated into a design, being executed in built form.

“There’s a responsibility,” he says. “You have to be responsive, you have to be transparent, you have to be prepared for the community to not necessarily agree with everything you’re saying, you have to demonstrate sincerity and a willingness to incorporate their ideas and wishes. There’s nothing worse than having an engagement session where there’s really no sincerity on the other side.”

Engaging on multiple platforms

Some people will be more eager to be involved than others. Either way, says Freedman, it is important that somebody is always invited, whether it’s a representative from an urban Indigenous organization or First Nations.

Social media platforms can be an inclusive and effective means of reaching out to communities to see how they’d like to be involved with a project. This could involve a multi-layered approach, such as online, through the community newsletter and a flyer. The key is creating various platforms that suit different comfort levels, being able to “read a room” and listening closely for real information that isn’t always expressed in obvious spaces.

“I’ve been involved in talking circles and sometimes the people aren’t comfortable in those forums,” says Porter. “Sometimes you can get a sense of someone who has an idea, but isn’t comfortable in that platform.”

Beyond tokenism

As new institutions rise, constructing them also means committing to an authentic representation when incorporating interiors that reflect Indigenous culture. “Circles and medicine wheels are important, but they’ve almost kind of become iconic, and they get applied fairly liberally as a way of indigenating,” says Porter. “I would encourage consultants to think more about values than representation.”

A few values are sustainability, biodiversity, stewardship of the land and planning for the seventh generation. “These are world views we’ve had for 30,000 years, so it’s nice to see mainstream architecture and design inch closer to the world view we’ve had for so long.”

Projects are becoming more interdisciplinary, he adds — with early involvement from landscape architects, arborists and civil engineers who, together, bring a more “holistic” view to a project. The mass timber movement, underway province-wide, spotlights an inherently sustainable material that also speaks to Indigenous values. “When you think about our brothers and sisters on the West Coast who, when they felled a cedar tree, used every piece of that cedar tree,” he says, calling on firms to approach resource extraction from a similar perspective and more broadly defining indigenization.

System shifts

Talking with people upon whose territory a building will rise will guide the design of a structure more deeply than just adding “Indigenous flavour,” Freedman says.

He works on three principles: symbolism, substantive and systemic. “Reconciliation is about changing the way universities operate, changing the way hospitals operate, changing the way government operates,” he says. “You can’t have systems change if you don’t have substantive changes that go along with symbolism.”

Looking at the educational system, Porter stresses that post-secondary schools and architectural programs also need to step up and do a better job at teaching traditional Indigenous values. “The way I was trained in university was very foreign from the way that I thought,” says Porter, thinking back to his time as a student when ideas about devising space were more hierarchical, compared to the Indigenous view where “everyone is on an equal footing.”

For anyone planning a project, Porter’s advice is to be unafraid and honest. “I remember at one time I was doing some work in Northern Ontario and we were going into a community consultation and I was with some suits and ties from Toronto,” he says. “They stopped at a gas station about 10 miles from the community and changed into work boots, blue jeans and red plaid shirts—trying to fit in.

“I was really offended that they chose to put on this costume, and the consultation didn’t go very well; the group could sense this was kind of staged. It’s not the way to do it.”

The best consultations, he says, are “comprehensive, well-staged, well-communicated.” This makes for a more successful and cost-effective project that ends up being a “complete representation of the community—more beautiful, less toxic.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *