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How Indigenous and northern communities shape my professional philosophy as a planner

August 09, 2019

By Lesley Cabott

Engaging the communities we work with and aligning ourselves with their perspectives

Planning is difficult. We have problems today that can’t be solved by using the same tried and true methods we have always relied on. Tackling these challenges means understanding the communities we work with—after all, planning is all about people and making sure they have safe, exciting, and vibrant places to live.

When I reflect on my career as a planner, I am struck by how formative my early experiences with Indigenous and northern communities have been. Lifelong relationships like these are central to my professional philosophy and something I recommend future planners foster while building their own careers. 

Growing up in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, my childhood and adolescence gave me many opportunities to explore remote and out-of-the-way places. My father was a general contractor and worked on large infrastructure projects such as schools, hospitals, and bridges. He brought me with him on trips and we would traverse up the coast of British Columbia and into the Yukon.

Haida Gwaii—a group of islands off Canada’s west coast—was a common summer destination for me and somewhere my family continues to spend their time. The connection my family made with members of the Haida community was my first real exposure to Indigenous communities. In retrospect, connections like these allowed me to be more open to much of the work I do today.

The Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway connects Canada from coast to coast to coast.

When I accepted my first job as a development coordinator in Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories (Canada’s only community on the Arctic Ocean connected by road), my interest in small communities became my career. This was also around the time when oil and gas exploration in the Beaufort Sea was really expanding. Tuktoyaktuk saw tons of interesting people come and go and I found endless opportunities to learn about what makes northern and remote communities tick. As a single mother with a son in kindergarten, the community was incredibly welcoming. Inuit people love children. If my son was ever done with school before I finished work, our neighbors always welcomed him into their homes. Ever since my introduction to working in the north, I have kept coming back.

Planning is all about people and making sure they have safe, exciting, and vibrant places to live.

When you are a planner in the northernmost regions of Canada, you need to understand the unique governance structures of Indigenous peoples. There are more than 25 self-governing Indigenous communities throughout Canada—11 of them are in the Yukon alone. These communities are nations that negotiated agreements with the government and now have autonomy over things such as land and resource management. Right now, I am working with the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyak Dun as one of their representatives in their consultations with the government. They have negotiated a planning process with the government for a road crossing part of their traditional territories and some of the most pristine land in the Yukon. It has been a huge honor for me and something I take very seriously. There are so many perspectives to consider in this capacity and consulting with the community Elders is essential to the process.

Lesley Cabott learning about the Beaver River Watershed (Yukon) from Steve Buyck, a member of the Na-Cho Nyak Dun First Nation.

Small communities are my expertise. Over the past several months, I have been working with the Crown-Indigenous Relations Ministry in their efforts to conceptualize a model small community. This helps the government understand small community needs and create policy as they negotiate with the 25-plus Indigenous self-governments in Canada. These communities are often in remote locations with limited access to shared facilities. Managing core infrastructure—such as schools, daycares, energy facilities, water systems, and nursing stations—is just a part of their responsibilities. This often means struggling with wanting to do everything at once. When your population is only a couple hundred people, capacity and financing options are real roadblocks to community development. Add this to the tendency for young people to leave for work and the need for a human-centered approach in sustainable planning becomes clear.

The communities I work with have so much promise and potential. Perhaps the strongest assets are the people. The social capacity created though being so connected and genuinely vested in what is going on is powerful. Wanting to do everything becomes a massive strength—especially when you have the right partnerships. Another characteristic of small communities, particularly in the north, is their capacity to adapt. They are relentlessly committed to improving their livelihoods. Outside fixes don’t always work for several reasons. It could simply be for technological reasons—a building envelope system in BC’s lower mainland won’t cut it in an Arctic climate. Understanding the unique social and environmental characteristics of remote communities is critical if we are going to plan places where people thrive.

A means of northern transportation when there are no roads or rails.

One environmental characteristic the people in the north are particularly vulnerable to is climate change. Knowing how to engage with Indigenous communities in conversations about climate change is critical for successful planning. Our first concerns as design professionals might not always be the same as our clients. On the design side of things, road grades and how to deal with flood damage is a common question. While these things also concern Indigenous communities, there are other factors worth considering such as: “How are we going to get out to the hunting camps this year?”

During a project in Hall Beach, Nunavut, I was struck by the incredibly flat nature of the landscape. And yet, the ice and shoreline are changing. This creates real problems when it comes to navigation.

In a community meeting, one of the concerns raised was how polar bears were coming much closer now. One lady expressed how they come right to her door! You can imagine why this is a real problem. If we are going to grapple with the challenges of climate change in meaningful ways for Indigenous communities, it means understanding the challenges they face. As community planners, we must find ways to engage with the communities we work with and align ourselves with their ways of thinking.

Lesley reuniting with her friend, Freddie Junior, when she went back to visit Tuktoyaktuk.

In all areas of my work—including Indigenous and northern community planning, small community conceptualization, climate change adaptation, and more—relationships are central to my approach. As I said earlier, planning is about people. Knowing the people we work with is the first step toward being a successful planner.

  • Lesley Cabott

    With three decades of experience planning and designing in northern Canada, Lesley has led engagement and planning processes, asset-management plans, and sustainability initiatives.

    Contact Lesley
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