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Collaboration is Key With Native Communities



Collaboration is Key With Native Communities

By Kristi Eaton

There are more than just technical challenges facing those who would explore the Arctic for oil and gas.

Navigating the governance structure and deep cultural systems of Canada’s aboriginal communities can be a complex and confusing task, too, especially for oil companies looking to do business in the country.

Jennifer Young

Jennifer Young

That’s where Jennifer Young comes in.

Young, a certified management consultant and a certified aboriginal financial manager who runs Nestu’et Management Consulting, St. John’s, has built a career on helping facilitate economic development deals by working closely with aboriginal communities to develop systems that will foster understanding between the two parties.

According to Canadian government statistics, there are 1.4 million aboriginal people in the country, accounting for 4.3 percent of the population.

There are two types of aboriginal people in Canada: First Nations and Inuit, Young explained. Under the Canadian Indian Act, indigenous people of the First Nations were put into bands and moved on to reserves.

“Basically they were given small pockets of land vaguely in the area of their traditional territory, often miniscule sizes, and they were told they had to live there,” Young said.

Today, those First Nations have elected chiefs and councils and have a duty to deliver services like housing, public works, education and health.

The Inuit communities do not live on reserves but in villages and have two kinds of governmental structures: a mayor and council, and traditional Inuit elders who are looked to for informal non-legal fiduciary responsibility. There also is the provincial or territorial government, which administers the education and health services.

Not interacting or coordinating with all of the correct leaders and community members can be detrimental to any project, Young said.

For instance, there are five different aboriginal communities in Labrador, part of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

“If you want to dig a mine, you have to talk to all five of them,” Young said. “Even though, physically, the mine may be overlapping in only two direct areas. The others have responsibility to be consulted with, so it becomes really complex.”

Personal Best

When the oil industry shows an interest in aboriginal lands, all five aboriginal-level governments must be consulted – as well as the local municipal government, the territorial government and Canada’s federal government.

Many of the aboriginal governments have extremely small staffs but might get an average of 200 to 500 business proposals a year. Young’s job is to help the chiefs and councils structure the government so they can respond to all the requests.

The key, Young said, is that business and oil industry leaders need to understand the importance of creating trust and building a leader-to-leader relationship early on.

That means the CEO, COO or another major player at the company needs to make flying to the community, drinking tea and listening to stories with the community leaders a priority.

“The CEO that sits in his office in downtown Houston or wherever it is and never gets on a plane and never does anything other than expect to go up and do a ribbon cutting maybe – those are the companies that don’t get it,” she said.

But it’s also important to recognize that just sitting down and building a relationship with a chief is not always enough, either. Chiefs in some communities are only elected for two years – and then someone else takes over.

“Some companies have done tremendous damage in these communities,” she said. “They’ve gone in, talked to one person, thought they got permission and then gone out and caused a complete nightmare because they may have only spoken with the chief,” she said. “Well, that chief just got elected and he’s only in office for two years, and he’s going to get booted out in two years because he didn’t consult with the rest of his community.”

A mistake like that can have lasting repercussions for an oil and gas company, because many communities rely heavily on word of mouth from other First Nation or Inuit communities.

“The ‘moccasin telegram’ is a very strong and powerful tool,” Young said. “Everybody laughs at me when I say that, but if you do something wrong, everybody knows.”


As the oil and gas deals continue, once all the appropriate people have been consulted, both sides agree on who will be the primary contact. Companies sometimes give grants to the communities to help increase local staff size on large-scale projects.

Court cases over the years have primarily sided with the aboriginal communities, which, Young said, serves to reiterate that the indigenous peoples did not give up their rights to their resources and land even if they were put on reserves.

Because of that, there is a duty to create accommodations when those resources are used. Accommodations can come in a variety of forms, including a minimal number of jobs created or a stake in the company, she said.

Most of all, as in any business arrangement with any group, it’s important to recognize that respect is paramount when it comes to working with aboriginal communities.

Young illustrated that point by recalling a conversation she once had with a chief about business leaders hoping to create a partnership:

“If your leader doesn’t have the respect to come and talk to me as the leader of my people, we have no respect for you,” she recalls the chief saying. “That concept of ‘leader to leader’ is really important.”

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