Indigenous Communities

Fielding uncomfortable questions in Aboriginal relations

Candid reflections from Bob Joseph on 20 years of indigenous corporate training

This is the third part in a series on building working effectively with Aboriginal peoples. For part 1, click here. For part 2, click here.

Bob Joseph has encountered some more than difficult questions over the 20 years that he’s led training workshops with companies on how to consult effectively with Aboriginal communities. Anything that hits the news comes up in his workshops — including controversial issues like pipelines.

When something controversial comes up in one of your workshops how do you handle it?
Obviously I don’t speak for all Aboriginal peoples and I don’t speak for companies and I don’t speak for government. What I tell people in the workshop is that I’m not going to try and convince you of what’s right and what’s not right here, but I’m going to give you a number of different perspectives.

It’s been many years since it’s happened but I’ve encountered very difficult sessions in the early days.

At one session people were swearing at me with some of the worst possible stuff you could hear. And running out of breath and doing it again.

In a workshop a few years ago I was asked, “Bob how is it that this group of people we’ve conquered can have any rights other than the rights we give them? Because, after all, we’ve conquered them.”

And they’d be quite passionate about it.

At one point in the presentation now, you’ll actually hear me ask: So how many of you have heard of Aboriginal peoples being conquered? I’d love to hear what your impressions are.

The goal is to create a safe environment to foster healthy, informative discussions.

What kind of personal growth have you gone through so you can field situations like that?
I do a lot of philosophical reading that helps me deal with this stuff. It can get pretty intense, though it hasn’t for years now. Little things like, ‘whoever sets themself up as the administrator of truth or justice is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.’

Albert Einstein actually taught me to be really neutral to what everybody is saying in the conversation in a really pragmatic and practical way and not to be judgmental. And certainly not taking positions on that because sometimes people are right and sometimes people are wrong and things change. That’s something that’s guided me.

Nelson Mandela said that if you speak to a person in your voice, they listen. But if you speak to a person in their voice, then it goes to their heart. Learning those little nuggets along the way has really helped me. It doesn’t hurt to have a bit of conflict resolution training in there too.

How do you balance your own opinions with being neutral in workshops?
One of the reasons I do it is because when we look at Aboriginal peoples — Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples — one of the things we realize is that they’re infinitely diverse people. They’re so diverse that it would be hard to take a position.

You can ask me, “Bob, how do Aboriginal people feel about development?” And if I say, “they’re totally environmentalists and they hate it,” I would probably be right in some of the cases but a lot of communities would be upset with me for saying that: “Why’d you tell them that? We’re not against development.” And there would also be the communities in the middle who say they aren’t against development, but it can’t be at all costs.

You have over 600 different bands, so you have the potential for over 600 points of view. As soon as I take a position, I beget the laughter of the gods.

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