One recent challenge of my last job was to find ways to communicate complex ideas to several small First Nations communities. While the legal obligations for governments and business to consult with First Nations people are increasing, in many ways it is significantly more complicated than other kinds of community relations activity because culture and tradition plays such an important role.
I have to say that at times, it felt more like translation than communication, because I wanted to move away from the established practice of simply providing one-way information from the Association’s leadership and staff to the membership both on and off-reserve.
The first difficulty was getting information from community members. Without trust, that kind of information is difficult to get. An unless you’re from the community yourself, or know someone who trusts you, it can take a long time to establish credibility.
The second challenge was that none of the typical tools of the trade are really required or useful on reserves. Few members had access to computers, many had literacy issues and most were attending meetings because they were being paid to be there. Real engagement wasn’t happening.
While I did introduce some modern tools, especially for younger people who had e-mail accounts and were interested in Treaty, my main strategy was to ask others to lead and to begin building capacity through events that offered something more than a simple update.
Here are a few of the initiatives I undertook to begin establishing two-way communications and engagement:
- Built a communications plan with input from negotiators
- Brought in educators, leaders and mentors from other communities to speak on the issues.
- Asked for help designing the program and included an entertainment component that would be relevant for all members.
- Added a newsletter, wrote the articles, then asked community members who were interested to help write it
- Visited community leaders and asked them how the community operated
Once I had established trust with a few of the members, I asked them to tell me whose opinions mattered most. From there, I learned what the community really expected from us, and was able to bring their concerns back up to the leadership.
In terms of the second challenge, face-to-face communications were extremely important. It became clear that each community needed its own ‘treaty ambassador’ — someone who understood the issues and had established credibility with the majority of members. This can be very challenging, because often communities are divided along family lines, so sometimes it was best to have more than one person involved in information delivery. One thing certainly became clear: authority figures are not always who you think they are.
Finally, take the time to listen and be respectful. Resist the urge to tell people what to do, because it always backfires. It’s tough for most managers to do, given the value our society places on tough leadership. But if you need to build community support among First Nations people, it won’t work any other way.