Ontario Water News

Indigenous Cultural Competency and the Water Sector: Workshop Highlights

L-R: Andrew Hellebust (Rivercourt Engineering), Corrina Serda (Communications Intern at Saugeen Ojibway Nation), Victoria Serda (Strategic Advisor of Saugeen First Nation), and Frank Li (Napier-Reid Ltd.). Photo: WaterTAP

Clean water is a topical issue for many First Nations communities in Ontario, which is one of the reasons a number of water technology companies are keen to offer their solutions. However, not all businesses have the background necessary to engage and build culturally sensitive partnerships.

To address this need, WaterTAP partnered with the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres (OFIFC) to deliver a two-day workshop for water technology companies on August 22 and 23.

The OFIFC’s Jeff Ross and Mike White led Day One of the workshop. This immersive day was designed to explore the key cultural, demographic, and historic markers that have shaped basic understandings of Indigenous communities today. Ross and White also led the group through some interactive exercises to put this information into context.

On the first day, the two speakers guided participants through the serious consequences of historic trauma experienced by Indigenous peoples. They said the training builds on this history to connect key historic markers to contemporary impacts on urban Indigenous people, as well as a continuum-based approach to Indigenous cultural competency that builds practical everyday skills while strengthening ongoing culturally competent organizational practices.

At the heart of the training is the strengthening of professional relationships between urban Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations and clients— a relationship built on the concept of trust, friendship, and mutual respect.

Click here for more information on the OFIFC’s Indigenous Cultural Competency Training program and workshops.

WaterTAP’s Manager of Policy, Dr. Lesley Herstein, facilitated Day Two with guest experts including Frank Li, President and Head of Research, Napier-Reid Ltd.; Andrew Hellebust, President and Senior Engineer, Rivercourt Engineering; Victoria Serda, Strategic Advisor of Saugeen First Nation; and Corrina Serda, Communications Intern at Saugeen Ojibway Nation.

Drawing from their experiences in working together with First Nations communities on water projects, these experts offered insights to help organizations determine whether they are prepared to offer their water technology solutions to Indigenous communities.

Understanding specific needs

Frank Li opened the second day by sharing some case studies from water projects in which his company has been involved and offered some advice to companies.

“It’s important to have an open mind, show true respect, and bring practical solutions,” Li said. “From working with First Nations, our company developed a better understanding of their culture in regards to the respect of nature, especially water. We worked closely with our partners in these communities in an inclusive manner to approve environmentally friendly, less energy-intensive clean water solutions.”

“Napier-Reid has learned that First Nations communities can be among the best customers, reciprocating fairness, trust, and loyalty,” he added.

Andrew Hellebust also shared some of his experiences and lessons learned from working with First Nations communities. “My impression is that First Nations communities generally have issues with the age, performance, and maintenance of their systems,” he said. “Many of the projects are servicing populations of a few hundred to a thousand people, and so represent a niche for technologies appropriate for that scale. Due to a low density of development, the optimal solution may also be a mixture of centralized and decentralized infrastructure,” he said.

Building long-term, trusting relationships

One of the day’s main themes was the importance of strengthening trust and building long-term connections. “In order to secure a long-term relationship with the community, a company should try to build relationships with Elders and others who represent the community outside the model set up by the Canadian government,” Hellebust said. “In general, we’ve found that First Nations respond well to solutions that keep decision-making and employment within the community and make them less dependent on a larger bureaucracy.”

According to Hellebust, companies have to look beyond solving the technical issue and allow time to understand the aspirations of the community in terms of livability, economic development, and sovereignty. “What does clean drinking water and proper management of waste mean for the daily lives of Indigenous people?” he asked. “The water solution should, even in a small way, contribute to keeping members living in the community, producing food and energy locally, and respecting water as a life-giving force.”

His most decisive takeaway? “Building a trusting relationship generally precedes being invited to work with First Nations,” he said. “Due to the large number of small communities, however, one company cannot realistically expect to develop relationships before every job. So it is important to concentrate on the relationships you have and trust that they will be a good reference when communicating with other First Nations.”

Similarly, sharing their perspectives of their work with Saugeen First Nation and Saugeen Ojibway Nation, Victoria Serda and her daughter Corrina closed the day by bringing to light many important topics, such as the benefits of establishing trust.

According to Victoria Serda, collaboration is a path to solid relations: “If there is a strong partnership and a trusted relationship, both sides will be more able to successfully find funding together as a private/public partnership, and implement projects that will be expedited due to community support and comfort with the funders on the eventual success.”

Serda nuanced her personal wisdom with her professional experience: “When I was a municipal councillor, we did not follow any consensus or community engagement protocols,” she said. “I found that projects were often delayed due to concerns that could have been addressed in the planning stages if there was real consultation with the public and stakeholders, as well as further delays due to a lack of buy-in from both the staff and community members,” she said.

Corrina Serda primarily imparted advice on how to do effective, clear and visual communications, and spoke about understanding priorities with staff members, and ensuring the team members have clear timelines and tasks.

Respecting traditional approaches and responsibilities

Victoria Serda emphasized that traditional belief greatly informs the Indigenous approach to water. “In basically all Indigenous cultures in Canada, they use the term: “Water is life,” she said. “When we can see that water is a life force similar to a baby in utero in a pregnant woman, we all can understand better why it is important for everyone to keep Mother Earth healthy.”

“The leading takeaway we hoped to impart during this session is the importance of connecting at a human level with people in Indigenous communities, basing what is to be done on people’s experience and strengths, and listening to indigenous traditional ecological knowledge,” said Serda. “It is valuable both to water companies and Indigenous communities to be full partners in any project, to have mutual benefit and consensus, and the direction must come with full support from the community itself.”

Hellebust shared similar sentiments. “The discussion is more around the fact that people are part of and live within Mother Earth, not separately, and that all life starts with water,” he said. “Change starts with defining the right questions and goals.”

“Traditionally, shared leadership was important to Indigenous people, and people from different clans, ages, and perspectives were consulted to refine and give strength to an idea or project,” Serda said. “Building a trusted relationship in order to form a lasting agreement was and is important when partnering, and persistent communications both within the community and with the project team are necessary to moving along projects effectively. We need to first listen to community members, learn what is being done, discuss possibilities, then see what makes sense to the community,” she said.

“Indigenous people believe they have a sacred responsibility to care for the land, water and air,” Serda said. “And so, on the topic of water, we need to ensure that the people in the community who are active stewards are directly, meaningfully and respectfully involved in all aspects of water projects.”

WaterTAP recognizes that cultural competency requires ongoing dialogue, reflection, and remediation. As a result, WaterTAP will continue to offer training in the near future.