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Shawanaga First Nation Pilots Field Guide to Research During COVID-19


Zeegwun and Ogichida McQuabbie helping their dad, Lands Manager Tobias McQuabbie, with field assessments at Shawanaga First Nation. 

Can field assessments continue during COVID-19? Absolutely!

Here are some guidelines Shawanaga First Nation has tested out for making your research a success.


When the pandemic hit, we were half way through a project with Shawanaga First Nation to develop a Master Plan for one of the Nation’s three surveyed reserve parcels. Known as “The Landing,” this gorgeous parcel of woods and rocky beach on the shores of Georgian Bay is a favourite place for many members, which creates some management challenges. The Nation is creating the Master Plan to explore current and future development opportunities, ways to protect the waterfront, and actions to improve water quality and waste management. Perhaps most importantly, the plan will also outline a code of conduct all members can agree to so everyone can enjoy this piece of paradise together.


“Our numbers are constantly growing,” says Tobias McQuabbie, Lands Manager at Shawanaga First Nation. “We need to create a space where there is equal opportunity for everyone.”


No one wanted to see this important process stalled, but with social distancing and community lockdowns in place, we had to get creative to move the project forward. Thankfully, Tobias was up for a new adventure in remote research. Welcome to the third post in our series that explores ways we can use remote tools to further our clients’ rights and interests during COVID-19.


Surprise Benefits of Pandemic Innovations

A happy surprise benefit from this pandemic-style innovation is that we've stumbled on some ways to make research processes easier, more user-friendly, and more accessible to our clients. We’d go so far as to say it can even be more fun.


“Although we had completed initial mapping with community members at a couple of community sessions and had feedback on some draft ideas, we needed to do some more detailed GIS mapping of features at the Landing,” explains Jeremy Shute, SVS project lead. Under the community lock-down, Tobias, as Lands Manager, was able to access the lands and do the site visit and ground truthing of our existing mapped data.


“I told Tobias about the Survey123 app and he downloaded it easily. Our GIS expert, Lynn, prepared the survey based on the information we need for developing the Master Plan and we went through the process with Tobias in about fifteen minutes over video chat. He took his kids’ I-pad out to the field to gather the data.”


“The system worked great for us,” Tobias says. “I brought my daughters along and they helped me catalogue the sites.” Having his children - Zeegwun, aged nine and Ogichida, aged seven -  learn more about his work, and about the land and the history of the Landing, are more unexpected benefits of work during this pandemic. “This is an opportunity we have as parents to show our kids how what they are learning in class is applicable in the real world.”  


Seeing remote data collection happening in real time

Back in the office, Lynn could see the data being uploaded in real time (because Tobias had satellite service) and was able to give him feedback over the phone to confirm that everything was going well. Satellite connection isn’t necessary during field data collection – you can upload data once there is a wifi connection.


“He called me twice during data collection,” says Lynn. “Once to ask if it was working properly, which it was – I could see his data going in in real time. He called again later to ask how close he needed to be to a feature to collect the point. The best accuracy you’re going to get with a mobile device is about five meters, so I told him he didn’t need to be really close, as existing features could possibly be seen in the imagery and corrected.”


“My kids thought it was really cool that the data would immediately upload to the cloud,” says Tobias. “Someday far in the future when they are asked about this time, I wonder what they will remember, what the legacy of this experience will be for them. I think we need to be cognisant of not overemphasizing the school curriculum when there is so much real-world experience they can be gaining.”


For us at SVS, now that we’ve tested this system out with remote instruction, we’ve confident that even when the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, we can work with communities to gather this data remotely and move their important projects forward.


Your Questions About Remote Research Answered

We've recently heard from a number of clients who were eager to get out and do field-based Indigenous Knowledge research or planning-related mapping like Shawanaga’s project, but were feeling stuck due to COVID-19 and not sure how to get out and do the work.


Based on the success at Shawanaga First Nation and elsewhere over the past few months, here are some guidelines you can try out to keep your projects moving – or even start new ones.


Q: We were hoping to collect Indigenous Knowledge (IK) through field assessments and then COVID hit. Is this still possible to do?
A: Yes, it is still possible to collect IK in the field!

With a small bit of training for community researchers on a free app (for a phone or tablet), along with safe work procedures for the research (see next week's blog), IK field assessments are still totally possible. For parts of the country where maintaining social distancing remains a high priority to protect vulnerable people, the best option is to do this work is with the help of land users already active on the land. We know that in many First Nations, people have continued to be active on the land during the pandemic - in some cases, more so than ever. There is a great opportunity for these people to collect information for a field assessment at the same time as they are out harvesting. This research might also interest other people looking for something to do to stay busy during the pandemic.


As some of the COVID-19 restrictions lift, and depending on the requirements for quarantining followed by the First Nation and the surrounding province, one or two SVS researchers with expertise in this kind of work could come and support the field assessments while following strict COVID health and safety guidelines.


Q: How can we make sure the information we gather is useful for us in the Regulatory Process?
A: By gathering quality data! If the information is going to be used as part of a regulatory process it needs to be of high quality. 

High quality information can be gathered by following these three parameters: 

  • Ask the right questions to meet your objectives 
  • Record the information in a consistent way following research best practices
  • Make sure mapped points are as accurate as possible 

You can also ensure quality by training all community researchers to record the information in a consistent and accurate way on a smart phone or tablet. Have experienced researchers go over the use of the tools and discuss best practices in research. We can help do this training through video chat or teleconference. Guidebooks and checklists can also help people consistent with the data they are collecting. 


Q: How do we set up this work? What are the steps?
A: Here are the steps we follow when we set up this kind of field research: 
  1. Draft a data collection toolkit to meet your community’s needs. A toolkit is everything that is needed for the research. It would include selecting the geographic scope, base maps, survey questions, permission forms, research checklists, and a health and safety plan.
  2. Load the survey to an online application. SVS typically recommends Survey123, an ArcGIS product, because of its user friendliness, but there are many others that could be used
  3. Select the people from the community who would collect the information. We often call this role the Community Researcher.
  4. Train the Community Researchers on the approach and how to use Survey123 (or another app) on a phone or tablet.
  5. Make sure the researchers have access to the Internet to load the survey on to their phone. Internet access is not needed while collecting information in the field (when out in the bush, for example). It is stored on the phone or tablet and is then uploaded when the device is back online later.
  6. Upload the data it's collected to be stored on the cloud to later add it into the report.
Q: How secure is the data?
A: There are very secure options for the data collection and storage. 

For example, the tool we most often use at SVS, ArcGISSM Online (and its associated applications like Survey123) is a secure, reliable geographic information system (GIS). These tools are adaptable, available on demand, managed by Esri, and accessed by clients running on a wide range of platforms from cell phones to tablets to laptops. They offer security benefits that are closely aligned with the principles of OCAP®. 

Here’s how ArcGIS online meets OCAP: 

Ownership– You retain the intellectual property rights for data you create or collect. Each organization has its own separate database, providing isolation of stored features.

Control– Your content is only accessible by users and groups that you explicitly share the content with. By default, items are private and only available to the person adding content. The data owner controls when and what to delete. Deleted information is not left in a recycle bin; once the owner deletes it, it’s gone.

Access- Each data record is stamped with the ID of the owning subscription to safeguard that organization data is accessible only by the organization’s users.

Possession- First Nations are best able to assert ownership, control and obtain access to their own collective information if the information is in their possession, or in the possession of a trusted organization. This is possible by either having their own account, or having their data stored by Shared Value Solutions.

This is an example of the level of data security possible in collecting information using a common tool (ArcGIS). If your community is looking at using something besides Survey123/ArcGIS, it would be important to investigate the data security features offered by that system and ensuring your community’s comfort level.


Q: What can we do to keep people safe while they are conducting field assessments?
A: Prepare a project-specific Health and Safety Plan before going out in the field.

These plans should line up with any community guidelines that you have associated with COVID-19. If you don’t have any guidelines in place yet in your community, we can provide a template. SVS has been staying up to date on important Public Health notices and have created our own internal Safe Working Procedures related to COVID-19 informed by sector-specific guidelines.

Here are some examples of things that you may want in your Health and Safety Plan:

  • A training plan for field researchers on COVID-19 and associated controls, such as the proper use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
  • Daily tailgate meetings which could include temperature checks for fever, as well as a review of hazards and mitigation measures
  • Individual work or smaller teams to limit person-to-person contact
  • Equipping teams with COVID-19 PPE kits that could consist of a thermometer, hand sanitizer, face masks, and disinfectant wipes for tools and surfaces
  • Public health guidance on respiratory hygiene, appropriate use of PPE, handwashing and hand antiseptic use, social distancing, when to isolate, monitoring for symptoms, reporting of illness, environmental cleaning and sanitizing, and use of shared materials
Do you have a particular "stuck" we can help with?

If you are struggling with a particular barrier or "stuck" we haven't addressed above, please contact us and we can help you think through your options. We are all learning together during these unprecedented times!


Remote Work Blog Series:

Protecting Rights and Interests During COVID-19 

During the pandemic, pretty much everything about how we live and work has been turned on its head. Social distancing, isolation and community shut downs to protect the most vulnerable - including the Elders whose wisdom usual guides decision-making - mean that business as usual is impossible. However, regulatory processes for development projects such as mines and power projects are marching on in the name of economic recovery. Many of us have been left wondering how to continue our research in the age of social distancing – and if indeed it is possible at all. The larger question we have set out to answer in this blog series: How can we best address the needs of our clients using remote tools?


Read other posts in this series:

Remote Research Adventures with the Algonquins of Ontario

Acho Dene Koe First Nation Benefits from Remote Lands Department During Pandemic

Environmental Sampling During COVID-19 (coming next week)


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About Us: Shared Value Solutions

We are a 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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