Smoking, it seems, may be good for you after all. This was my conclusion at the end of a two-day meeting in the wilds of Northern Alberta.
Readers of this newsletter must by now be used to our adventures and the musings they inspire, but the first week of 2008 was certainly a first. We were asked by an oil and gas company to help develop a more productive relationship with a First Nation community that has both reserve and traditional lands in the same area as the company has bought exploration leases.
As with many of these projects the challenge is not just minimising the impacts on the environment but also maximising potential benefits for communities that currently have few economic opportunities and are some of the poorest in North America.
It was not a simple assignment. In addition to differences of emphasis about how the development should progress and the distribution of benefit to the various parties, there was in the background the whole fraught history of the white man's coming to this extraordinary part of the world.
Plunging into this sort of complexity is always rather daunting so it is essential to have a method for analysing the situation that lays out all its dimensions. Dialogue by Design uses the TRACK situation analysis process. TRACK is mnemonic standing for There Rules an Able Careful King, each word a reminder of the five dimensions that need to be considered.
There: the first dimension to consider is that of background, history and context. In the case of my First Nation community, the history is particularly important as stories of how the indigenous people of North America have been treated in the past continue to resonate very strongly in the present. The more I learned, the more I realised that progress in the situation would have to be on their terms: the Chief and his Council would have to be convinced that the proposed development could benefit the community in a way that would not threaten the integrity of their community or culture.
Rules: this dimension is about how people behave and their expectations of others' behaviour, and it was clear that part of the problem was a clash of cultures between the company and the community. This is not to say that the behaviour of one side or the other was good or bad: in fact, both sides had been treating each other with enormous courtesy and there was none of the stereotypical business/community tension that might be expected. But their respective understandings of how to advance the situation were very different. The company executives wanted to sit down and hammer out an agreement based on legal principles and formal documents. The Chief and Council wanted demonstrations of a good relationship, which involved chatting, story telling and jokes in addition to contracts for their local businesses that would ensure some of the revenues would be passed on to the community. In their eyes agreement is about the quality of relationship as much as it is about words and numbers. This meant an informal and circular approach to making progress.
Able: this dimension is about possibilities and capacities - what people are actually able to do in the situation, the resources they can bring, and what will be required of them; very often it is about the hard practicalities. In this remote community it was about jobs and cash and how the community could build its capacity as a supplier to the new enterprise so that the benefits would not just be easily squandered royalties, but the possibility of new businesses, new skills, new opportunities. These all needed to be explored.
Careful: this dimension concerns beliefs and values - what people consider is really important, and how proposals fare when seen in the light of moral, political and religious beliefs. I had expected to encounter the First Nation community's reverence for the land and their deep sense of stewardship of a pristine environment, and I knew that this development could only go ahead if they were sure that everything possible would be done to safeguard the environment. This issue was not, for them, an abstract valuing of the environment, but something they live and breathe. Less expected was how deeply Christian they are, mixing more traditional spirituality with Christian values. Facilitation and flexibility are blood-sisters, of course, but I still found it somewhat disconcerting to be asked to lead a prayer at the end of our working session.
King: this final dimension is in some ways always the most critical in any situation. It is about people's deep sense of identity: of who they are, and whether what they are being asked to do fits with their sense of who they are. It was particularly potent in this situation: First Nation communities have a very strong sense of identity partly, as I have already mentioned, as a result of their history, and partly to resist the many challenges of the modern world. So we talked much about them and the aspirations of their community and how the new development needs to fit into it.
Two days was never going to be enough to iron out all the issues, but it was enough to lay the foundations for the work still to do, and I am confident that the right decisions will be made if the development does go ahead.
Why did I come away with a new respect for tobacco? Our final session concluded with the Chief of the First Nation community presenting me with a gift of tobacco and asking me to lead the closing prayer, a huge and humbling honour. While traditionally it should be loose tobacco in a special pouch, there was none to be found and so it was just an ordinary cigarette. As a reformed smoker my first reaction was to drop it like a hot brick and I felt an immediate sympathy for the 'high ground' of the corporation, which had never offered tobacco as a gift. But the solemnity and obvious pleasure it gave the Chief to make this very public offering also illustrated to me how apparently very small cultural differences can create a chasm if we cannot understand their importance to each other. I still have my cigarette and will not be smoking it any time soon.
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A look under the surface of a public consultation: Part 5/5 - Publication
By Remco van der Stoep
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A two-year project testing ways to cut emissions at the community level.
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