“We now have a voice. We’re starting to be heard again, whereas we were really kind of silenced. We were overwhelmed by the volume of referrals and frustrated that everything was happening around us.… Even though we’re using a consultant, we’ve got a member employed as the Lands Office Coordinator who is very knowledgeable as well.” — Chief Christine Minnabarriet, The Cook's Ferry Indian Band
When Christine Minnabarriet was elected Chief of Cook’s Ferry Indian Band in the Thompson River valley in 2018, development in her Nation’s territory had been moving at an unrelenting pace for decades. Forestry, mining, road, and pipeline construction, including the Trans Mountain Pipeline, meant that the spots where her grandfather had hunted and gathered were gone, as were the spots her father had used. The Chief herself had already moved from her own locations because of the impacts of industry. At the same time, as big business was profiting from the land, her members were largely locked out of the economic benefits and opportunities that development should have afforded them.
In the face of this stark reality, Chief Christine decided the community needed to find a better way to have its voice heard in the decisions that so profoundly affected their land and their lives. She set out to transform the systems by which her community engaged in the regulatory process, and with proponents, to negotiate accommodations and economic opportunities. In short, she set up a new lands department to take on the referrals process.
Fast forward three years through COVID, wildfires, and most recently, devastating floods from which the Nation has yet to fully recover. After these “horrendous” years, she sees the development of the Cook’s Ferry Lands Department as one major success to hold onto, especially as it was built in the face of one crisis after another! The future she sees for Cook’s Ferry is prosperous and healthy — and the Lands Office will play a key role in making that future a reality:
“When we stop having these horrendous years, when we come back down to some sort of normality, people are really going to see the successes, see where we’ve come and really start wanting to participate again and to see where they can fit in.”
THE DECISION TO OUTSOURCE
One feature of Chief Christine’s strategy was to outsource the lands department. Our team at SVS has had the immense privilege of working alongside Cook’s Ferry in overhauling the existing referral system and acting as a remote lands department for the Nation during this time of emergency, recovery, and growth.
In this chapter we sit down with Chief Christine for an in-depth interview about the Cook’s Ferry lands department development journey. In particular, she speaks of what led to the decision to outsource, the benefits of that choice, and her vision for the future.
SVS In Conversation with Chief Minnabarriett
Q: What were the problems with the referral system you used to use?
Chief Minnabarriet: When I became Chief, the way our referral system was structured was that we had an external company, a referrals agency co-owned by a group of communities, doing our referral work on a technical basis. The idea was that, with the external agency, there would be members from all the communities that would sit down and go through these referrals to identify the key areas and the ones that needed to be supported by the political lead. Particularly if it was really close to a reserve or community, or there was some other major impact that needed accommodation. But that committee never got off the ground. And so, the external company just kind of did its thing. They were short staffed, and it got to a point where I was starting to see reports for referrals eight months after the fact, and I’m thinking, well, what is this for? By then the decisions had already been made. There was no room for us to have a conversation and say, okay, this is what we want to see, this is our input. We had no political voice, no environmental input.
Q: Can you share an example of how the referrals process wasn’t serving you?
Chief Minnabarriet: Gateway286 [a piece of land granted for commercial development by BC to several First Nations near Merritt as accommodation for the construction of the Coquihalla Highway] is a prime example where we were squeezed out of that process, not knowing how to negotiate our participation. When it went through, the referral process really hindered us, and really failed us in being able to be involved in that project. And so now the project is approved and it’s a multi-year, multi-billion-dollar business or has the potential to be, and it’s within a kilometre of one of our reserves. So why were we not involved?
Now through the Lands Department, we have the expertise to say this is where you need to really push it, to fight.
Q: Can you tell us what it was like for you to deal with the referrals coming in?
Chief Minnabarriet: The variety of referrals that come in is enormous—logging, mining, spraying, everything down to someone wanting to build a dock, it’s everything.
When you’re getting a significant amount, it’s a full-time job. In this position of Chief, you’re already the mediator, the receptionist, the lawyer, the social worker—it’s just information overload.
If you’re busy with seven other things on your desk and are trying to get that initial response out to a referral, then you just don’t have time for it. And when you send a letter out, you need to stay on top of it because if you have concerns and you voice them, and then they respond, you need to be able to carry that conversation on. We didn’t see every referral that came in because they would get diverted to the referral agency. A number of referrals would also come to me, through either my own email, the band manager, or reception, so there was never a way to collect them all. There was no spot for the referrals all to go, and then go through any sort of triage process.
So, when I started to see referrals on my desk, I thought, I’m not a forester, I’m not in any kind of industry, I don’t quite understand where the lines of having a say exist. Also, the laws had changed over time, so bringing in concepts such as UNDRIP and incorporating that into the letters we needed to formulate about our position on development, I didn’t have that background. I asked for help, and the idea from Council was that we would sit down every two weeks and go through all the referrals and triage them. But to do that with the whole of Council is very time consuming, and we would never get through everything. And we all have differing levels of education and understanding. For example, for the longest time, I was looking at mining referrals and it was talking about diamond drilling, and I was really like, where are the diamonds? It took a considerable amount of time before I learned they were drilling for other things using a diamond drill.
Photo: "construction of the gas pipeline" by npcaonline is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Q: What made you start thinking about finding external expertise?
Chief Minnabarriet: We are not experts on everything. We shouldn’t be making those decisions. We need to be reliant on other people that have that expertise. And even our referral agency offers more of a cultural take on things. They hold the information from interviews about where trails are, Indigenous Knowledge. It’s more of a verification step than tying reviews to the environmental effects. So, I looked at trying to even just respond to a couple of the referrals, and it took me probably three days to craft a letter because you don’t know what to say, where to say it, or where to flat out say no. And we’re in a system with referrals where the approvals process is happening, so you’re not really ahead of it, you’re just playing a game and talking, ticking a box, and a lot of the referrals weren’t coming with funding. And if anything was funded, it went to the referrals agency, not to the Band. We thought, how do we shape this to do it in house?
Q: Tell us about how you came to the idea of outsourcing your lands department.
Chief Minnabarriet: We knew we didn’t want to duplicate the service the referral agency was providing. We wanted to build the best system and make it exactly what we needed. And the question was, how do we move it forward and how do we build capacity within our own community?
Then our Band Manager introduced us to SVS. We got initial seed funding, which I think is a really good way of testing, doing a pilot to see if it’s going to work. So, with that, we worked with SVS to build our current system. I think that the way it’s structured right now is actually even more comprehensive and workable than what we could have had in house, or even if we had hired one individual or even two, because their expertise would be also limiting. What we’ve set up right now on a contract basis, it’s not one person full time on a file. It’s very specific expertise we draw on in each circumstance, it’s not asking someone to be a jack of all trades. Having a full team of technical experts to draw on when needed helps with the stability of the structure because it’s efficient and it’s hitting all those marks that you need to hit to have a sound product.
When you have that expertise behind you, you have a strong argument and it’s harder for the government or proponent to say no to funding it.
Q: What other benefits have you seen from having an external team to draw on?
Chief Minnabarriet: You always have somebody with their eye to those other opportunities coming in because of their talent and their expertise. We always get emails or hints of these funding programs, and we wonder if we qualify for any of them. But when you bring in all these other experts, they see all the possibilities and the movements on the ground outside of my small world that is the band. They bring the creativity to stitch it together and create an opportunity. There are referrals where SVS sees the opportunity through their experiences with other First Nations that we would never be aware of. Bringing those relationships to Cook’s Ferry and seeing opportunities for the companies and economic arms that we have, bringing that creative way of stitching it all together to build and strengthen the foundation of the whole office.
And that helps stabilize the funding of the Lands Department, because unfortunately for First Nations communities, it takes a lot of creativity to be able to justify a dollar. Through the Lands Department, there’s a strong argument to do that through accommodation or through consultation.
Q: What is the biggest difference you’ve seen from how it was when you started?
Chief Minnabarriet: With the system we’ve built so far, we thought, okay, we’ll see where it goes for a year. And we’ve had one heck of a year. Given everything we’ve been through in the past year, whether it be COVID or the fires, floods, even the residential school finds, we would have been in the same spot we were when I first started this position where we weren’t making any moves, and the referral agency would still be ticking their box and sending an initial letter, and we wouldn’t have a clue what’s coming in. Now we have an understanding of the volume of referrals now that they’re coming to a consolidated spot, and we’re staying on top of it all. We have a strong team now behind us. They can provide us all the detail because the background work is getting done and so when it comes to opportunities, we have our arguments prepared. We’re not stumbling through. And I think we are starting to see a circumstance where the investment in having the Lands Department is starting to pay for itself.
Ultimately, the creativity we’ve seen is in being able to get that funding through accommodation and consultation. It helps sustain the department but also gives us some breathing room to be able to have that focus on not just the one referral, but a view of everything that’s on the table so that you can tie them all together for that cumulative effects issue.
Q: Can you give us a specific example of how the Lands Department has helped further your goals?
Chief Minnabarriet: Our main focus has been the Highway 8 reconstruction after the floods. If there are millions of dollars, billions of dollars going to the repair of this highway route, there is no reason our community needs to stay in economic poverty. So that’s where the focus has been, and it’s been wildly successful in the relationships we’ve been able to develop through that. Because it’s such a catastrophe, we need to respond quickly, efficiently, and knowledgeably to government on their consultation process. We would have been failing without the Lands Department. We’ve been offered capacity funding as communities since December. Cook’s Ferry is the only one who’s taken it. And we’re responding within their timelines. So, we’re further ahead. The others are going, “we don’t have the capacity,” and a large portion of that is, “yeah, we hear you’re giving us capacity dollars, but we have to create a proposal. We don’t know what to put.” Well, we’ve got a team behind us that says, we’re going to do this. Just in that one instance, our Lands Department is able to respond and get that capacity support to continue, not only with the emergency work, but with the day-to-day referral business.
Through the capacity funding SVS helped us secure, I’ve been able to get SVS experts at the table so that they can hear now firsthand what the technical issues are so that they can respond. I’m not stumbling through going, okay, well, they think this is what they meant, and I can actually step away from those tables now if I need to and not just be there. The intent is also for them to be the conduit to relay that messaging from that table to whoever needs it in our staff or Council so it’s clear and concise and we can make decisions.
Q: Are there other files the Lands Department has been effective on?
Chief Minnabarriet: Yes, mining. This is partly why I’ve appreciated the Lands Department so much while I’ve been so focused on the Highway 8 recovery. The territory’s getting hit hard right now with mining exploration. Even though it’s an exploration stage and you can look at the map and every single square inch of the territory is allocated to somebody to go and do mining activities. Council wants absolutely no more mines in the territory. But how do you stop that? You can’t. So how do you incorporate yourself into the conversation and have a say?
The Lands Department has been successful in going out and having those conversations, saying, hey, we want a seat at the table. We want an MOU; we want an agreement. We couldn’t achieve that prior to having the Lands Department because we didn’t know how to have those conversations without the aggravation of either being a showstopper or not knowing how it fits with our goals.
Q: What are your plans to build internal capacity?
Chief Minnabarriet: There’s a belief out there that we need to lean on our internal people in our body of membership. But if you don’t have that capacity, you have to outsource in order to even build those steppingstones to get to that point where you can do it in house. And if you pair with the right outsourced consultant, they will help you build that system to build those steppingstones for those people we hire to come in and take over. And it’s not even about taking over. It’s about incorporating and becoming a part of the wheelhouse. Even though we’re using a consultant, we’ve got a member employed within the office as Lands Coordinator who is very knowledgeable as well. I see her moving more into the referrals work as this current emergency ends.
Q: Do you have any final words to share that might help another Nation who is considering outsourcing as part of their lands department development strategy?
Chief Minnabarriet: There are a few successes that I’m hanging on to through all these challenges, and the Lands Department I think is one of them just because it’s given us a voice and it’s been able to put us on the map of government and even for our communities. The success is in relationship building. It’s not all about one person being the expert. You can’t rely on that in that industry, in the referral business. You need a response that’s fulsome. So, the Lands Department has been something I’ve been really hanging on to and I hope that it continues and grows into a sustainable, successful office for this group, and we’ll see where it goes. But so far so good. That was a long-winded way of saying it’s functional and I like it, and I don’t want it to go away!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Read more about the Lands and Consultation Department Support Services that SVS offers here.
Get the FREE eBook here:
Get more posts like this directly to your inbox! Sign up for our bi-weekly funding, news and information digest:
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.
- Impact Benefit Agreement Negotiation Support
- Technical Reviews and Regulatory Process Support
- Community and Economic Development Planning
- Indigenous Knowledge and Land Use Studies
- Environmental Monitoring
- Guardians Program Development
- Climate Change Readiness
- GIS and Mapping
- And so much more: www.sharedvaluesolutions.com