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A Mi’gmaq Government's Grand Plan: Use Indigenous Knowledge Studies to Build Capacity


MTI community researchers at work

Image: MTI community researchers at work


“The best Indigenous Knowledge Studies that come out of communities are conducted by the communities themselves. With community involvement there is more confidence on what’s being done and how the information gathered will be used. Having community involvement is critical. Without it you don’t have the confidence of the community.” –Former Director of Indigenous Knowledge at Mi’gmawe’l Tplu’taqnn Incorporated

You hear the term capacity building so often these days that its meaning is dissolving. What does it really mean to build capacity? Does it mean creating a few summer jobs? Or genuinely building skills and expertise that will equip people to have meaningful employment over the long term? Or can it be both?


When you’re planning your Indigenous Knowledge study, it’s important to get clear on what kind of capacity your nation is looking to build – or whether that’s a goal at all. Read on for the story of one Indigenous organization’s successful journey of building internal research capacity.


MTI’s Big Vision

In 2016, Mi’gmawe’l Tplu’taqnn Incorporated (MTI) approached us for support in conducting an Indigenous Knowledge study for TransCanada’s Energy East, a massive oil pipeline project which would have crossed the entire length of their territories.


A non-profit organization whose members are the nine Mi’gmaq communities in New Brunswick, MTI needed to gather land use and occupancy data for the Energy East project corridor to understand and communicate the potential impacts on their members’ rights and interests. But this wasn’t their only goal. MTI had a much bigger vision of gathering Indigenous Knowledge data across their entire territories to better assert their jurisdiction, enhance stewardship initiatives and create leverage in the face of all future resource development. To accomplish both the short and longer term goals, MTI was clear: building internal capacity was the way to go.


In short, using the Energy East Indigenous Knowledge studies as the classroom, MTI wanted our support to learn the ins and outs of these studies to eventually do this work internally. The MTI team was clear on the benefits of having their own community members conduct this research: “In talking to our own community members, we can relate to a lot of the stories, geographically to the places they are talking about. That extra level of familiarity makes the process that much better,” says Tom Johnson, current Director of Indigenous Knowledge at Mi’gmawe’l Tplu’taqnn Incorporated. We recently interviewed Tom, along with past and present members of the MTI team, for their reflections on the journey of capacity building through Indigenous Knowledge studies.


The problem that MTI faced was the reality that comprehensive Indigenous Knowledge studies are complex. They are expensive. They are technical. They require a great deal of experience and expertise at the leadership, staff and community researcher levels. Building genuine capacity is a process that requires time and dedication. The turnaround for capacity building is not fast. It’s something that’s gradual and gentle,” commented a former MTI researcher.“It takes time to fully build capacity in communities. That in no way means people aren’t dedicated enough to do this. It means the amount of expertise we get is so specific and detailed that it takes time to develop it.”


Developing a Roadmap

We knew that training MTI staff to be experts in conducting Indigenous Knowledge studies would not happen overnight, nor was it realistic that this would happen by the end of one project. So, we worked with MTI leadership to create a road map that outlined a multi-year plan using multiple projects as a training platform to achieve MTI’s vision of being self-sufficient enough to conduct these studies internally. The idea was that with each new study, capacity would continue to grow and SVS would increasingly move out of projects until our support was no longer needed. According to Marsha Somerville, a current community researcher for MTI, the approach made sense: "It was valuable training that we got from SVS. It gave me confidence in myself to conduct interviews on my own and move the process of Indigenous Knowledge Studies forward with our communities.”


Before we started the on the ground training, we considered all the specific areas that MTI researchers and staff would need training in, and we broke this out into two categories: human capacity building and organizational/operational capacity building.


Human capacity building (for researchers in the field) consisted of training in these areas:

  • Project coordination
  • Interview scheduling
  • Audio/visual recording
  • GIS and mapping
  • Microsoft Access
  • Data management
  • Data analysis
  • Report writing

Organizational/operational capacity building consisted of training in these areas:

  • Creating information sharing agreements with proponents
  • Managing large scale Indigenous Knowledge studies
  • Developing/designing the interview methodology and interview materials
  • Purchasing equipment and licenses
  • Hiring and contracting community researchers and community liaisons
On the Ground Training

We knew that for the training to be successful, it had to be a very tangible, hands-on learning experience. Whether it was project planning and training with MTI leadership or community researchers, it was important for us to be physically present.


The first step was for our team to travel to New Brunswick and conduct a three-day training workshop in an MTI community with the hired researchers. The training consisted of a detailed overview of both Indigenous Knowledge study theory and practice.


When it was time to start the interviews, the MTI community researchers began by shadowing the SVS interviewers until they felt comfortable enough taking on more of a leading role. By the end of the interviews (we conducted approximately 100 interviews), the MTI community researchers were entirely leading the interviews on their own with SVS staff there as back-up.


“Especially with the hands-on training, you learn more that way,” says Marsha.“At first, we were shadowing SVS and then from there we used those skills and SVS would shadow us. It was so comfortable. By the time you know something might not go right, SVS was there to help you take it back, correct where it didn’t go right and move forward. And there were no silly questions! It didn’t feel like a test that’s for sure. It was all a great learning process. And now MTI is able to do IK Studies in house and we are moving forward at lightning speed. We’ve been busy!”


Putting the Pieces Together

Learning how to conduct the interviews is one thing but learning proper data management is equally important. We took the time to teach and reinforce this skill at the end of each interview.  


According to the former Director of Indigenous Knowledge at Mi’gmawe’l Tplu’taqnn Incorporated, this learning was key:“The biggest piece that I learned through SVS was the importance of data management. The importance of keeping track of the data, making sure we have back up files, the importance of knowing how to manage that data so that it’s not lost in the ether. The amount of data is phenomenal and has to be managed well.”


Now that the interviews were complete, it was time to analyze the data and write the report. This time, two MTI community researchers travelled to Guelph to learn this process. This immersion into our consulting world gave the researchers the opportunity to sit side by side with SVS staff and work through the data together. This approach to learning turned out to be a key to the whole process.


An unexpected outcome for one community researcher was that he never left! He is now an SVSer and conducts Indigenous Knowledge Studies for clients from coast to coast to coast: “I learned the technique and the methodology behind what we do at SVS. And I evolved from there and realized what I was collecting was history and knowledge and what a gift that is. Not everyone can hear and receive these things. It helps me become a part of that history and to keep things moving forward.”

Ongoing Support

Although the Energy East Project was cancelled, it was just the beginning for MTI. They have since formalized an Indigenous Knowledge department and have continued to conduct Indigenous Knowledge studies on their own.


“The team we have now are all young, Native, university graduates with science degrees,” says Tom, the current director.“So, they have the technical knowledge and the ability to write reports. And also, the ability to access other reports like environmental impact assessments. So, I do have a well-educated group. And we are doing more training on our own, especially in relation to GIS. So, the team has it covered in a lot of different ways.”


At times, MTI has called on us for support. Sometimes, they just needed more hands. Sometimes, they were looking for us to help someone develop a specific skill (how to prepare the maps for a report, for example). And, the reality is that there will always be staff turnover where new people may need to be trained up. That’s what we’re here for. Knowing that we have a continued relationship and that we are still here to help can give communities the confidence and momentum to keep building and growing with their Indigenous Knowledge study capacity, even when there are hiccups. We love providing that support for this important work.


The Real Value

So, to answer our question from the beginning: is building community capacity through Indigenous KnowledgeStudies possible? You bet it is. Not only can this kind of research provide community members employment opportunities while they are participating in the research project itself, but these individuals become more employable as they have gained valuable skills that can extend into other employment opportunities with their nation or beyond.


"JOBS! If you think about the unemployment rates in our community, they are quite high. When you have an Indigenous Knowledge Study lead by a group like MTI, you give MTI the ability to justify creating jobs and income for their community members. – Former Director of Indigenous Knowledge at Mi’gmawe’l Tplu’taqnn Incorporated


The purpose of building capacity through Indigenous Knowledge Studies is not just about learning how to build a study itself, but about genuine overall capacity building of citizens. Marsha is enthusiastic about the future:“As for capacity building, the doors are opening and it’s nice to see that. Through our Indigenous Knowledge Studies, we are opening doors for community members for employment because of these studies.”


Blog Series: Indigenous Knowledge Matters

Welcome to our blog series that explores ways Indigenous nations have used Indigenous Knowledge Studies (also called Traditional Knowledge or Land Use and Occupancy Studies) to assert jurisdiction, leverage influence in regulatory processes and Impact Benefit Agreement (IBA) negotiations, further stewardship and cultural revitalization efforts, and to build capacity.

This series is a celebration of the extraordinary nations and visionary leaders we have had the privilege of working with on Indigenous Knowledge studies from coast, to coast, to coast - with some resources and ideas for you to use in your own journeys. We hope you join us for the rest of the ride.  And please get in touch if there’s a topic you’d like us to explore.


Stay tuned for the next posts in this series:

Talent Search: How to Find the Right Community Researchers


Looking for help with an Indigenous Knowledge study?

If you know you need help with any aspect of your study, or are trying to figure out how to get started, do give us a shout. We’d be happy to discuss your options and help you weigh the pros and cons of your approach. We’re a team of social researchers who love to talk about this stuff, so don’t hesitate to get in touch.


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About Us: Shared Value Solutions

We are an Canadian B Corp, and we assist Indigenous communities with support throughout regulatory processes surrounding major development projects like mines, hydroelectric facilities, transmission lines, highway expansions, oil and gas pipelines, natural resource transport applications and nuclear power. 


We have deep context and experience behind the recommendations we provide, having worked for our clients on almost every major project in Canada over the last 10 years. For us, it’s all about building long-term relationships with our clients. We want to get to know you and what you want to do so we can help you move your plans forward. 


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