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Empathy: The essential ingredient for effective engagement

Without empathy, the consultation process is simply going through the motions

By Teneya Gwin

We all heard it as a child: What do you want to be when you grow up? I’m pretty sure a Public and Aboriginal Engagement Consultant never crossed my mind. A mailman? Sure. Ballet dancer? You bet. A personal trainer even crossed my mind, but engaging people in conversations about their and their children’s future – one of my favorite topics – never seemed to come up.  So after graduating with a diploma in Environmental Sciences, heading toward a career in engagement made sense.

There’s no shortage of businesses and governments looking to work with Aboriginal communities, but often they’re missing a crucial ingredient that makes Aboriginal and stakeholder engagement effective. You have to have a clear understanding of what shapes that group’s perspective. As an Aboriginal person, this made consulting with Aboriginal communities a natural fit, but it’s a concept that applies across the board with public and stakeholder consultation. You have to take the time to delve into the community and genuinely understand why they approach things the way they do. Otherwise, you’re just going through the motions.

When it comes to Aboriginal consultation, it’s difficult for people outside that community to really grasp their concerns. The recent history  of Canada’s Indigenous people isn’t taught in schools, so for many Canadians, the recent revelations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are the first details they’ve heard about the policies of the Canadian Government that stretch back over the last 150 years. But it’s still difficult for the average person to identify with the circumstances surrounding the Residential School Program because they don’t have a personal connection to it. Without genuinely identifying with this painful part of our history, you can’t truly understand the hurt and distrust that Aboriginal communities hold. If you don’t understand it, you can’t respond to it.

I am not a residential school survivor, but I’ve grown up with the impacts. My mother and stepfather experienced residential schools first hand, and that gives me a very personal connection to the root cause of much of the distrust that consultation is intended to address. I grew up with stories from my family members about being taken by nuns, loaded with the other children into an airplane, and taken to a school far away to isolate them from their community. The idea was to take the children far away so they couldn’t run back to their homes and families. They remember when they were in elementary, one of their friends passed away due to abuse early in the school year, but no one notified the child’s family. They didn’t know their child was gone until the end of the school year when the students were shipped back. The child’s parents joined the other families gathering eagerly around the plane to welcome their son home, but he never walked off the plane. Unmarked graves with similar heart-wrenching stories surround residential school properties.

For the children that returned, the residential schools forever damaged their relationship with their families and community. For years they faced punishment for speaking their language, uniforms replaced their traditional dress, their hair was cut, and they endured abuse for practicing or speaking of their traditions and culture. This practice only fully ended about 20 years ago. This means, for my clients, they are trying to connect with a community that has for generations been subjected to this physical, mental, and sexual abuse as part of government policy. Multiple generations grew up without a nurturing family, and therefore have no knowledge of how to raise their own. It’s a vicious cycle of pain and distrust that we are only now starting to work out of.

This is the cycle I was born into, and without realizing it, it prepared me for my career where I now work with my team to create tools and methods for Aboriginal communities to be part of the projects around them. Many communities are limited with capacity and resources to reply to all consultation requests that are occurring in their traditional territory. We have developed great working relationships with most communities in Alberta, which allows us to pick up the phone and inform the First Nation or Métis community of the project and work with them in the most efficient way to build community empowerment, educate on the current projects, bring community members together, and possibly find economic benefits. You can’t build those relationships, however, without making the effort to understand, empathize, and identify with their situation.

My experience connects to a highly emotional and controversial circumstance, but in reality, most public consultation involves a certain degree of emotion and controversy. It’s up to us as public engagement practitioners to put ourselves in the shoes of the communities we consult with. Only then can we help our clients and the communities meet at a place that benefits them both.

Now, more than ever, social license is essential for the success of projects ranging from industrial and resource development to government and municipal plans. You can’t obtain social license by just going through the motions and meeting regulatory requirements for consultation. It comes from genuine interactions with affected communities. I have a personal connection to my career and know my passion and commitment to Aboriginal communities creates opportunities for those communities and our clients to move forward together. That should be the goal of every engagement or consultation project.

You have to take the time to delve into the community and genuinely understand why they approach things the way they do.

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