Building relationships with Indigenous peoples and social license to operate

Shannon Monk's picture
Shannon Monk, CEO, Sakatay Global
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Gaining the social license to operate is imperative to the overall success of gas and LNG projects. Across Turtle Island, also known as North America, we have seen what happens when Indigenous peoples do not feel they have been adequately consulted or have not consented to projects that will take place on or affect their traditional lands and territories. 

The cost of not consulting Indigenous groups on projects that will affect their communities can be major. Time delays and legal challenges, should communities want to pursue litigation, can be very costly, unanticipated, added expenses. Other issues that can arise include negative media coverage, which could result in a lack of public support and shareholder confidence for the project, and a retraction of government support for the project. There is also the risk that the project will be cancelled completely, should affected Indigenous communities not be consulted on the manner.

Gaining the social license to operate has the potential to minimise some of these potential conflicts as it means you have support from the community for your project and is a key factor in risk management. It is important to remember that there is no one size fits all formula to follow when gaining the social license to operate; Indigenous communities are diverse and often have competing views about resource development happening in their territories. Building relationships and cultivating meaningful, authentic partnerships is part of gaining the social license to operate in Indigenous territories.

To do this, organisations need to learn about the historical and contemporary realities of Indigenous communities across Turtle Island. In the Canadian context, we have been denied the opportunity to learn the truth about Indigenous peoples and so there exists a lot of stereotypes and unanswered questions. There are many books, films, blogs, and podcasts that highlight Indigenous worldviews and dispel some of the myths that exist. There are also online cultural competency courses like the Indigenous Circle Approach to Cultural Confidence, developed by Sakatay Global, that explore topics like Indigenous history and context, language, culture, and how to build meaningful relationships and move forward in partnership.

There is a lot of learning and unlearning, that needs to be done for us to better understand each other and our different perspectives before coming to a place where organisations can consult and engage with Indigenous communities. It is difficult to fully engage with communities if there isn’t an understanding of the history and culture and lived experiences of the people.

Meaningful engagement is key to building relationships with communities. Organisations must engage early, long before a project requires support from the community, and engage often in a way that is authentic and not something they are doing to ‘check a box’, as communities will know that the effort is disingenuous. It is important to engage with various members of the community including Chief and Council, Elders and Knowledge Keepers, and youth to gather different perspectives and provide opportunities for community members to voice their concerns.

To engage effectively, there needs to be an honest and open exchange of information using communication strategies that are inclusive of Indigenous communities – this could involve asking members of the community how they’d like information to be shared with them and presenting it in that way, it could also involve having an interpreter available for community members who may need translation or having documents translated into Local Indigenous languages. It is also important to incorporate Indigenous protocols, such as gift-giving, into your meetings and session where appropriate. 

A key message to share is the importance of being authentic and genuine with respect to relationship building and gaining the social license to operate. The journey to date has been difficult, and many of our nations and people are distrustful of experiencing further hurt.  There are no simple solutions, it will take time and resources. Approaching this complicated story means coming together with good hearts and minds and intentions. Gaining the social license to operate not only makes good business sense but more importantly, it has the possibility to build bridges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island.

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Image courtesy of Sakatay Global