Reflecting on Reconciliation
Recently Marissa Lawrence of Open Hands Consulting sat down with Martin Bell (CEO, Urban Systems Ltd), Ken Gauthier (President, Urban Matters CCC) and Danielle Levine (CEO, Kanuu) to talk about Urban Systems’ journey of reconciliation, and specifically, the investment in Kanuu as an expression of their commitment to building right relations and reconciliation for Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada.
We have come to learn that reconciliation is not a grand gesture, not a big event that you plan for years and then execute in one weekend. Instead it is day by day, it is in everyday conversations and business meetings – it calls us to share our knowledge when and where we can – it pervades and permeates all that you do. – Martin Bell
Reflecting on Reconciliation
Urban Systems Ltd. is a professional services firm that has been operating across Western Canada for the past four decades, focused broadly on community development work. As a connector and convener of diverse parties, they work closely with regional, provincial and federal governments, and business/investment bodies, as well as over 40 years engaging and working with Indigenous governments and communities.
Building partnerships rooted in honesty and trust is key to positive community outcomes for all partners involved, as Martin Bell, CEO, Urban Systems, shares. “The best thing we can do is prioritize spending time with the communities we work with. We don’t know everything and when we are in and out of communities, fine details can be missed. We find that when we are not connected, the communities won’t tell us when we’ve made a mistake, but when we are connected, they will. So, we focus on building those relationships.”
Given the diverse needs of community, rather than ask staff to attempt to expand their understanding and grow their approach in the office, Urban Systems encourages their staff to take the opportunity to learn in real situations. Communities have met this request with nothing but support and encouragement, and Martin expresses his gratitude for the generosity of so many partner communities. “We feel like a lot of grace is being afforded to us by the communities we work with as we figure this out.”
In addition, Martin notes that working as a connector of municipalities, other levels of government and Indigenous communities can be complex and often requires a flexible approach. “The issues are complicated and they no longer follow geographic boundaries, instead it is more about social issues. We care about helping those communities build shared goals – which takes time – and we stick with it to keep working it through.”
Urban Systems recognizes that there are large talent bases in Indigenous communities that can add perspective and value. In collaboration with partner communities, they prioritize growing local capacity as a crucial aspect of completing a process or product, whether it be in land development, water/treatment services, or employment plans.
Internally, Urban Systems is working to create a more inclusive work environment for Indigenous staff, partners and Board members. As Martin identifies, “We have young Indigenous professionals who come to work with Urban Systems in order to build their capacity through business experience and/or technical growth.”
In addition, Urban Systems has identified ‘Reconciliation Champions’ at each branch, many of whom are non-Indigenous. These leaders have been identified to help create a sense of shared responsibility. “We are working towards a place where Indigenous colleagues are not alone advocating for themselves/community, instead others are picking up some slack. This is helping to build conversations amongst colleagues.”
A New Chapter
Urban Matters CCC is a new social enterprise that was born out Urban Systems. CCC is an acronym for a Community Contribution Company, a new form of business incorporation model that aims to combine the strength of traditional for-profit and non-profit incorporations.
Referencing years of working on consulting contracts with all levels of governments, including Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) contracts, Ken Gauthier, President, Urban Matters CCC shares his realizations:
We [consultants] can’t always seem to address, or participate in addressing, root causes of the issues many of our communities are challenged with, and the traditional fee for the service consulting model has its limitations. It is not a bad thing, or inherently evil; the traditional engagement model just has a pretty clean start and endpoint, and the issues many communities are still struggling with aren’t always being fully captured within it. Issues that many might consider basic human rights, like access to shelter, food and water, a realistic local economy and opportunity for livelihood. How can we take human cantered design and investment in capacity building to the next level, actually leaving the community in better shape?
In addition to recognizing this challenge, and with the support of his colleagues at Urban Systems, Ken decided to do something to address it.
After a few years of piloting ideas, patterns began to emerge, highlighting where Urban Matters CCC’s strengths and capacities resonated with communities and in the broader work of Urban Systems. They have settled on leveraging improved outcomes by establishing, supporting and incubating community focused social enterprises.
“With our networks and expertise, and some patient capital to invest, we have the capacity to do that work well, especially when partnered with a social entrepreneurs or organizations with the deep community credibility in the subject matter and in the community. The idea here is to move away from ‘we know what is right and we’ll help you get there’, toward ‘you know what is best for your community and we’ll use our expertise and resources to help support you and your community in getting there’.” States Ken.
Urban Matters CCC is working with Indigenous leaders like Danielle Levine to support initiatives like Kanuu (The Kanuu Indigenous Innovation Society), an Indigenous-led social enterprise. As an incubator for Kanuu, Ken identifies that the specifics of Urban Matters’ role are:
Shape the original concept of an Indigenous-led social enterprise working towards economic reconciliation further;
Find and partner with an Indigenous leader, like Danielle;
Put some preliminary financing in place to secure her leadership; and
Help her get the initiative on its feet. Ken notes that the relationship is reciprocal.
“I want to be clear, we can do this work sustainably – this isn’t charity. We find the funding, and help Kanuu to do the same, lifting Danielle up, and then getting out of the way. We will continue to work with Indigenous leaders to help elevate their work that is addressing the gaps.”
For Danielle, CEO for Kanuu, reconciliation cannot exist when Indigenous communities are experiencing extreme poverty, especially when there isn’t access to equitable opportunity for economic prosperity. She likens economic opportunity via entrepreneurship, to reconciliation. “Something beautiful comes from entrepreneurship – you have to have hope, resilience and vision – reconciliation is all about these things. It is about brighter futures.”
Danielle acknowledges that the work that Kanuu does is ‘a specialty within a specialty, working with and understanding Indigenous entrepreneurs’. Kanuu cannot only focus on entrepreneurial development, but instead must acknowledge and work within the historical and present-day impacts and barriers that many Indigenous peoples face. She calls this work, ‘economic social work’, because every student that comes through the program has their own story of resistance and resilience.
The curriculum is infused with understanding of lived experience. For example, how trauma prevents participation and how to mediate that gap. Danielle acknowledges that coaching for entrepreneurs is imperative for their success.
“Danielle uniquely understands that if you [a participant] are at the workshop fresh out of the domestic violence situation, or hungry and impoverished, you won’t want to talk about your business model canvas.” Ken notes. Danielle uses Kanuu to communicate where communities are really at, as well as where and how the individual comes to the table.
In addition, she offers this curriculum in community-based learning environments within Indigenous communities, which mitigates the complication of needing to leave one’s own community to seek formal education, or attain prosperity. She also identifies and takes stock of the strengths and assets that the individual and community already have. Whether it be art or knowledge of history, or the land, she insists that these be recognized as a foundation to build from.
Kanuu highlights the issue of Indigenous poverty and brings forth a solution of culturally-aware entrepreneurial education opportunities to Indigenous communities, using the programming to close the gap. Ken reflects and shares that, Kanuu, by nature, could be defined as ‘economic-reconciliation’, but notes that Danielle most likely wouldn’t use this language, and would instead understand it as a solution to a community-identified need.
Continuing the Journey Forward
At Urban Systems, they recognize the potential of Kanuu as a culturally-aware avenue to engage with a community, to share education and skills, to help to build capacity, and, most importantly, to assist the community in building up their own individual and shared capacity. “Kanuu shows us incredible impact in Indigenous communities, affecting the cultural, social and economic well-being.” Martin acknowledges.
Ultimately, as Kanuu becomes more independent and establishes itself, the role of Urban Matters CCC will evolve and change. As Ken points out, “Our ambition post-incubation is to always have a strong and prosperous relationship in perpetuity, and we are actively developing some scenarios of what that will look like.”
Urban Systems and Urban Matters CCC hold vast potential with four-hundred plus professionals focused on community development and four decades of experience working with Indigenous peoples and communities, thousands of municipalities, hundreds of First Nations and now Metis Settlements, all Provinces and the Federal Government. They have found their respective role in reconciliation, and just as Urban Systems and Urban Matters CCC have invested in Kanuu, there is great potential to continue to support and elevate Indigenous leaders who have identified service gaps in Indigenous communities across Canada.
We wish to be full participants in reconciliation. We know that we will not attain perfection in our process, but we are actively involved in doing this to the best of our ability. We will not shy away because we fear being imperfect, instead we provide encouragement and be active participants and be active stewards. – Martin Bell
June 21, 2017 is National Aboriginal Day, and there are numerous activities happening throughout the country to honour, recognize and celebrate Canada’s Aboriginal communities. To find one near you, click HERE.
About the author: Marissa Lawrence is the owner of Open Hands Consulting, and has spent the several years supporting clients through dialogic communication, sincere and meaningful community engagement practices and human centred design. Most recently, Marissa worked as the Director of Strategic Initiatives for Reconciliation Canada, managing, directing and delivering Reconciliation Dialogue Workshops, Reconciliation Leadership Learning Experiences and National Reconciliation Gatherings, to name a few.