Economic Development News & Insight


The Higher ED Blog: Breaking the ice in Municipal-First Peoples relations

Michelle Madden / July 11, 2016

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The Higher ED Blog: Breaking the ice in Municipal-First Peoples relations

Canada’s Aboriginal peoples have fought for and won the right to be involved in the use and development of their traditional lands, which is formally recognized under Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution. Since the Constitution’s patriation in 1982, they have continued their fight in the courts to refine these rights, and the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that the Crown has a “duty to consult” with Aboriginal people in a meaningful way. This does not officially extend to municipalities, but may apply in some circumstances and is important in establishing and maintaining a good relationship with Aboriginal peoples.

Aboriginal relations is a difficult topic for economic developers, but a very important one. William Elliott, the General Manager of the Elliot Lake and North Shore Corporation for Business Development (ELNOS), recently submitted a research paper to the University of Waterloo’s Economic Development Program that tackles this topic and describes Elliot Lake’s experience building trust with the Anishinabek of Serpent River (‘Serpent River’).

The City of Elliot Lake, Ontario, is highly reliant on natural resources for economic development. These resources are within the territory of the Serpent River people, who are signatories to the Robinson-Huron Treaty of 1850. For many years, the City promoted uranium mining and cottage lot development with no consultation, as the Treaty was perceived as a ceding of land rights. As court cases have shifted the interpretation of Treaty rights, Serpent River leaders have become more committed to being stewards of the land. The time had come for both parties to work together.

Overcoming obstacles

The first obstacle to meaningful engagement was that some stakeholders did not understand why consultation was necessary or important. Recognizing the tensions and sensitivities involved, the City engaged respected and informed facilitators to meet with them one-on-one. The goal of the meetings was to educate and even make advocates of the stakeholders, by showing them that all parties could have their say and achieve their goals without suppressing the others. The approach successfully shifted the conversation in a positive direction.

The next obstacle was to foster understanding and respect for cultural differences related to commerce. Westerners tend to do business very formally. Agreements are written into contracts with legal obligations and penalties, meetings have a host of rules, and time is seen as a precious commodity. In First Nations culture, business is more personal. Oral communication is valued more than written, jokes are signs of acceptance and trust, and reaching consensus and equal benefit are more important than individual success or the time it takes to get there. The Anishinabek in particular welcome input from everyone at the table (not just designated representatives) and allow Elders as much time as they need to provide the historic and cultural context of a topic.

Cultural sensitivity training was given to Elliot Lake Council to prepare them for meeting with the Serpent River Council and community. The first Council to Council meeting took over three hours and addressed a single agenda item, without passing any resolutions. While this may have been frustrating from a western perspective, the band members highly appreciated the opportunity to be heard and the effort to understand their interests. The meeting ended with a commitment to hold more meetings and continue working together.

Lessons learned

This first step to building a relationship with the Serpent River people was a major milestone for Elliot Lake. Getting to a positive and respectful dialogue is challenging when the relationship has been strained for decades and beyond. William used his paper as an opportunity to reflect on the process and provide lessons for other communities attempting to build bridges with Aboriginal peoples:

William Elliot lessons learned

The fifth lesson is an important reminder that breaking the ice is only the beginning, not the end. Aboriginal people in Canada are still treated like second class citizens and the process of reconciliation will take a significant amount of time. Relations will certainly not improve until this land’s native residents are recognized and respected by those who came after them. I’ll leave the last words to William, who wrote:

By acknowledging that we are culturally different and that it is no longer ‘business as usual’, we have the opportunity to create new partnerships and opportunities, not on an adversarial win/lose basis, but on a true win/win basis where all parties feel they have been treated fairly and ethically, and where benefits accrue to all involved.


About the authors

Michelle Madden is the editor of Higher ED. She is also the Outreach Manager for the Economic Development Program and a graduate of the LED master’s program.  She has authored many Higher ED articles sharing information relevant to economic development practitioners, and has written several on behalf of students. She has published several of her own blogs on as well. Follow her on Twitter at @michelle_mad.

William Elliott has a honours degree in economics from York University, a post graduate diploma in applied research from Georgian College, an MBA from the Edinburgh Business School and a certificate in economic development from the University of Waterloo. He has worked 19 years for ELNOS, a regional economic development agency involved in both community and business development.  ELNOS serves 5 northern Ontario communities, including the Serpent River First Nation.

About the series

Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.

Established in 1988, the Local Economic Development program is the only master’s program in Canada devoted solely to local economic development. It offers a balance between theory and practice by combining coursework, a major research paper, an internship, and weekly seminars featuring guest speakers. Students are prepared for careers in local, community, or regional economic development.

The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.


One response to “The Higher ED Blog: Breaking the ice in Municipal-First Peoples relations”

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