Planning in a First Nation Community

The planning issues that a First Nation community deals with are much the same as those of any small municipality: residential housing, environmental protection, economic development. What is different is that planning takes place within the context of the relationship between Aboriginal People and the Crown. Each community functions as an autonomous unit within the bounds of the Indian Act, but federal legislation, guidelines and policies regulate almost every aspect of life.

Over the past 30 years, the federal government has increased its efforts to download services and promote self-government. Tribal Councils, such as the one I work for, have been created to assist with this process. We provide professional advice on technical, financial, and policy matters to First Nation communities.

Most of the communities are confined to relatively small, isolated, sometimes discontinuous parcels of land, some of which are only marginally habitable. Preserving the function of natural features is hard to do when the community needs space for housing lots or economic ventures. Because the Council itself usually acts as the developer of commercial and residential property, the administrative role of controlling growth is merged with the entrepreneurial role of an active participant. This inherent conflict can leave planning as the weak link in the development chain.

The officials I work with generally agree that thinking ahead about the efficient and proper use of their resources is a good idea. The decision-making process, however, does not usually proceed in a formal, linear fashion. Community members often resent direct surveys, since they have been studied to death in the past.

Preserving the function of natural features is hard to do when the community needs space for housing lots or economic ventures.


The community development concepts I learned at the University of Guelph’s School of Rural Planning and Development fit well with the native ethos. Local wisdom is respected and public consultation is often practised. However, the process can be time-consuming. Although immediate needs often benefit from a thorough discussion, strategic initiatives can get bogged down as participants keep revisiting previous steps rather than moving on to the next one. Individual projects sometimes proceed without being considered as part of a comprehensive approach. Seeing a building going up is more satisfying than striving for consensus on long-term goals. Also, the two-year terms for Chief and Council sometimes mean that objectives set during one mandate are not carried forward when there is a change in leadership.

The work is varied and interesting. I find myself doing everything from struggling with the complexity of projecting the size and composition of an aboriginal population, to facilitating an economic development strategy, to studying the implications of new environmental legislation on First Nation territory.

Sometimes, an issue can drag on for years. When I first arrived, one of our communities was already engaged in negotiations for the return of 100 acres that had been bought by the government a century ago for a light station. In the late 1980s, the station was fully automated. The Council sees this land as part of their territory and would like it back—but not before any environmental degradation has been remediated. The cash-strapped Coast Guard has moved slowly through the research phases of an Environmental Assessment. An agreement on clean-up is yet to be forthcoming.

During my background research of the site’s environmental concerns (hydrocarbon and heavy metal contamination of soils, flaking lead paint from buildings, asbestos debris, unknown contents of a former landfill site), I made a surprising discovery. Apparently, a lighthouse keeper in the early days had confessed on his deathbed to killing two local fishermen. It was thought that their bodies had been thrown down a nearby well. No physical evidence has ever been found, but it seems their “ghosts” have continued to “haunt” these negotiations, which still drag on.

At other times, matters can be resolved more easily. The Emergency Services department of one Council determined that improved road access for a cottage subdivision was necessary to maintain a fast fire and rescue response time. The cottagers became alarmed when the Public Works crew began clear-cutting part of a 66-foot road allowance. They were more than happy with the emergency services provided by the Council, and felt that the quiet and natural beauty of the area would be destroyed by this plan.

I visited the site and attended a meeting with the parties. It was clear that Emergency Services did not want to compromise their level of professionalism and the Cottage Association did not want to compromise the reason their members visit this community. I was invited to explain the Council’s position to the cottager’s annual general meeting. This chance to answer questions and present the issues to a larger audience proved useful. It allowed the cottagers to feel they had been consulted and helped defuse some of the misunderstanding that could have led to confrontation. The traditionally friendly relations between the cottagers and the First Nation were maintained. In the end, the amount of access required was found to be much less than originally thought, and clear-cuts were limited to the cart-width needed.

I enjoy working with Aboriginal people. Although I am obviously non-native, I share the last name of some community members and one of my colleagues likes to surprise people by introducing me as a former chief’s brother. I have met many wonderful individuals, shared delicious potluck meals made with wild game and fish, even been honoured to participate in numerous smudge ceremonies. Despite the challenges of my job, I believe that our communities are beginning to move towards self-determination and I am glad to have played a small part in helping them achieve their destiny.



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