Since the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action in 2015 and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Calls for Justice in 2019, many non-Indigenous Canadians have begun the process of coming to terms with their own relationships to colonial institutions and structural power dynamics to be able to reconcile, both personally and professionally.
Land use planning – the discipline where I have spent most of the last decade working – as a profession has been involved in the perpetuation of harmful colonial structures and inequities by-way-of the plans, policies and laws they generate and regulate through. For over a century, including in many places still today, land use planning has been complicit in the physical and narrative removal of Indigenous peoples and histories from the millennial landscapes they have occupied through the consumption of “underutilized” lands and the creation of false historical timelines that begin with the arrival of European settlers. The planning profession has also been heavily associated with the economic segregation of Indigenous and other historically marginalized groups through different regulatory schemes such as land use bylaws which can isolate and stigmatize certain types of housing, such as below market and supportive housing.
In recent years, myself and many others in the planning profession have been purposeful in developing a better understanding of the broader context and implications of our work, and to use our positions of relative privilege and influence to instead be agents of positive change. There are wonderful examples coming out of the cities of Edmonton, Saskatoon, Calgary, and where I work, the City of Lethbridge, that challenge the dominant role of land use planning and provide insight into what reconciliation through land use planning looks like.
What I present below are 5 tangible ways that the planning profession can challenge colonial, disempowering narratives to create stronger, more meaningful relationships with Indigenous peoples and Communities. And ultimately, build more welcoming and inclusive urban environments.
Use the right language: Urban planning is about people and geography, and a key ingredient in being able to engage effectively in conversations about people and the places they live is to know the appropriate language. As a planner you can familiarize yourself with the historical and contemporary experiences of the communities you serve. When engaging with Indigenous peoples and Communities it is important to listen to the language they use, and reflect it back (where appropriate). For instance, you should know the difference between Treaty 7 and Siksikaitsitapi territory, the difference between Indigenous and Aboriginal, and as well as why the rights of Indigenous peoples are such that referring to them as “stakeholders” in your next planning project is not appropriate. Tip: Ask your Indigenous partners how they would like to be referred to and do your best to use their terms (which might mean learning some Blackfoot, Cree or Michif etc.).
Reconcile history: One of the most devastating consequences of the planning profession has been the removal of Indigenous Peoples’ cultural resources and histories from landscapes. This removal happens both actively by facilitating the development of previously undeveloped lands, and narratively through the ways we describe the histories of places (which more often than not begins with the arrival of European settlers). Planners should think critically about where they work, and challenge historical timelines. Ask yourself, who or what brought early settlers to this particular place (it might very well have been to trade with Indigenous peoples who were already there). Just like language, the way history is “used” can send powerful value-laden messages. Tip: The voices of Indigenous peoples are often absent from descriptions of their own history. When you are looking to share Indigenous histories, ensure the voices of Elders and Knowledge Keepers are front and centre.
Respectful engagement: So often in the planning profession we rely on “best practices” to engage residents and stakeholders. At the same time, we like to lament the lack of community interest or meaningful participation. As with broader community engagement, engaging with Indigenous peoples requires new approaches. And guess who knows best about engaging Indigenous peoples? You guessed it, they do! With the inundation for engagement, consultation and knowledge sharing requests that Indigenous peoples, organizations and Communities get, the best way to build strong relationships is to ask your Indigenous partners how they would like to be engaged. And then deliver. Tip: Do you remember how much money you paid that engineer, historian or biologist on your last planning project for their expert opinion? Don’t forget to plan for and respectfully compensate Elders and Knowledge Keepers for the expertise they bring, at an equivalent level.
Don’t jump to a solution: I can’t tell you how many times I have been in a meeting with well-intentioned non-Indigenous peoples who just want to “solve” the issues faced by Indigenous peoples. As a non-Indigenous person myself who has been working in this field for a decade I can tell you that no matter how well-meaning you may be, if you develop a solution to a problem that you have never personally experienced, in isolation, the results are going to be problematic and unsustainable. The old adage of the journey is just as important as the destination definitely applies here. Planners should spend much more time listening, reflecting and validating the knowledge shared with them, and facilitating the development of solutions that are generated by (and for) Indigenous peoples and Communities. Tip: Spend time getting to know the Indigenous peoples and Communities you work with, and preferably without the shadow of an “ask” hanging over you. Visit Elders, attend cultural events, learn about different Indigenous community serving organizations, and importantly, get to know your history.
Hire / Appoint Indigenous: By far one of the best things that planners and planning departments can do is to ensure there is space for Indigenous peoples to lead planning initiatives. While the number of Indigenous land use planners in Canada is low, planning departments can work with planning schools (and related disciplines) to create internship, co-op and other mentorship opportunities for young Indigenous planners to gain practical experience. And, when departments do post positions, they can work with local agencies to promote them within the Indigenous community (for example Indigenous employment agencies or Indigenous alumni associations). Further, when your planning department is using a community advisory body or committee to provide advice, ensure Indigenous peoples are represented, and respected. Respectful participation means that you are appointing more than one Indigenous person, particularly when the subject matter is highly relevant and where other community voices may dominate or have limited experience working with Indigenous peoples. For example, an economic recovery task force dominated by business and industry voices could benefit from the perspectives of Indigenous entrepreneurs and employment agencies who can shed light on the unique barriers faced by Indigenous small businesses and job seekers. Tip: Think about how to reflect a range of Indigenous experiences on your committee, by promoting diverse voices based on gender, age, Indigenous community and ability.
Perry Stein is the first-ever Indigenous Relations Advisor for the City of Lethbridge, where he integrates community planning and reconciliation to bring Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples together. In 2020, Perry was inducted into the Alumni Honour Society.