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Community engagement critical for First Nations project work

Patricia Williams
Community engagement critical for First Nations project work

Meaningful community engagement is a critical element when working on First Nations projects, says architect Eladia Smoke, a member of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s (RAIC) indigenous task force.

Smoke, who is Anishinabe and the first female First Nations architect in Manitoba and Ontario, told a seminar at IIDEXCanada there are a number of tools that can be utilized.

But at the end of the day, she said, it is important to put in place a community engagement process “that has actionable results.”

The University of Manitoba-educated architect founded Smoke Architecture Inc. in 2014. She has been a master lecturer at Laurentian University’s McEwen School of Architecture since 2016.

Smoke, a specialist in indigenous consulting, said an effective engagement process is “key” in terms of achieving a favourable project outcome down the road.

They have the ability, if you bring them online, to mobilize the community, to really get behind this and make it a success,

— Eladia Smoke

RAIC Indigenous Task Force


One of the first items that needs to be ascertained, she said, is who actually has the decision-making authority within the particular community.

“It’s very easy to step on people’s toes,” she said.

Consultants “who come into the community cold” often aren’t familiar with the local leadership structure. Sometimes, the leadership consists of members of the community at large.

“Often times, the leadership structure seems informal to us (outside consultants) but from inside the community, such structures are perfectly clear,” she said. “Everybody knows who has the say over what.”

Smoke, a LEED-accredited professional whose career has included stints at Architecture49 and Prairie Architects Inc., told seminar attendees that elders are widely acknowledged as a key resource to be tapped.

“They really know their communities,” she said. “They have the ability, if you bring them online, to mobilize the community, to really get behind this and make it a success.

“I have seen this happen time and time again.”

Smoke’s home community is Obishikokaang /Lac Seul First Nation, near Kenora, Ont.

She said it is also “tremendously important” to engage indigenous women in the community engagement process.

“Note who shows up at the first meetings,” she said. “If it is all men, ask them where the women are.

“When you do see a woman at a meeting, go up to her, shake her hand, tell her you are glad she came and that you really want to hear what she has to say.”

Smoke has found in her experience that such an approach can in fact prompt more women to provide input.

“You also need to get a feel for the rhythm of the community that you are working in, and when is a good time to hold meetings,” she added.

In many instances, indigenous projects have been on the books for a number of years and decisions already made in the community on what needs to be done.

“So you want to ask questions that are still up in the air,” she added.

While questionnaires are regarded by some consultants “as a complete waste of time and paper,” that is not always the case, Smoke said, noting the 100-per-cent response she received on one of her projects.

“There are tons of community engagement tools out there, so go out and research them.”

Once the community engagement process has been completed and a final report issued summarizing results, Smoke said it is important to make sure that essentials get protected and future action mandated.

“I tend to write this down in a document and get the whole project leadership of the community to sign it,” she said. “Once you establish that these are things that a project cannot lose, it helps prioritize things like budget decisions.”

Part of the Buildings Show, IIDEXCanada is presented by the Interior Designers of Canada and Architecture Canada/RAIC.

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