This is, probably, one of the most fascinating teachings I have learnt during my year of fieldwork in Northeastern British Columbia, with the Doig River First Nation (hereafter, DRFN). After 6 months of volunteering with the community (working in the forest, helping them setting up cultural camps, attending traditional tea dance events and funerals), in January 2020 the Band Council and the elders accepted my request to work with and for the community. I commenced my placement within the Land Department of the Doig River First Nation on January 27th, 2020. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, I could not work from the Reserve from March 16th to May 3rd, 2020. Nonetheless, as the whole staff worked from home, I was able to continue the work I was doing with the Land Department.
Working with a First Nation community is fascinating, though challenging. You must put your knowledge and expertise available for the needs of the community. This means that you must be flexible and adapt your own interests and research plans to the specific needs of the community at that given time. It is important to remember that you work with and for the community and that flexibility and adaptability are the keys for meaningful cooperation.
During the first weeks of work with the Land Department, a SWOT analysis was performed to understand how I could use my knowledge and expertise for the benefit of the community. At that time, the Land Department was in the process of starting to work on the Development of the Land Code, intending to better regulate the access to the Land and the use of natural resources. I noticed that there was a lack of understanding of UNDRIP (United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples), its provisions on the use of land and natural resources and what was going at the provincial level, with the implementation of Bill-41. Indeed, British Columbia was the first Canadian province that has passed a law (Bill-41), according to which any new legislation on indigenous people that will be passed must comply with the provisions established in UNDRIP. Thus, together with the former Land Manager, we performed a deep analysis on UNDRIP; noticing that throughout the Declaration, the right to give or withhold the FPIC (Free, Prior and Informed Consent) was mentioned as the fundamental right that indigenous people should enjoy when it comes to the meaningful implementation of the Declaration. The Land Department was not aware about FPIC and its meaning. This was the focus of the first presentation I gave to Chief and Council at the end of February, explaining the preliminary outcomes of our analysis and what we wanted/needed to do next. The Council gave us permission to engage with band members, by running engagement sessions.
My idea was to run several engagement sessions, considering 5 key-areas (i.e. Land & Resources; TK, Education & Language; Traditional Lifestyle; Health & Social Well-being; Economic Self-Sufficiency & Autonomous Government). This project was already ambitious in a normal situation; when COVID hit, it was clear that I needed to rethink it and to adapt my plan to the new situations. Nonetheless, I was able to perform an analysis of these key-areas using secondary data sources, underlining which values of DRFN should be implemented in the BC legal framework, according to the content of UNDRIP. My analysis resulted in a presentation to the Band Manager and the Land Department on May 15th, 2020.
As soon as the first wave of COVID calmed down, I was able to go back to the Reserve and, as the BC Government started to ease the restrictions (June 2020), I asked the permission to organise at least one engagement session with community members. Fortunately, there were no cases of COVID in Northern BC by that time, and I was allowed to host an engagement session, on the condition to have a maximum of six people per session, ensuring different time slots for elders and young people.
The final workshop took place on July 21st. Together with the former Land Manager, we decided to focus the discussion on FPIC and, on the definition of CONSENT. We asked members if they have this word in Beaver language (the indigenous language some elders still speak) and how they would like to see FPIC implemented in the legal framework when it comes to the use of their traditional land and resources. Throughout the day, we got several inputs and we spent many hours discussing the meaning of Consent in Beaver and how to properly implement it, considering DRFN values. It should not be a surprise to know that to consent to something has a broader meaning in Beaver language. This word means that someone knows what is going on, in its entirety. As it is easy to understand, this is the result of the holistic approach indigenous people use to relate to the world and its ecosystem.
I concluded my placement on August 14th, 2020. Before leaving the Reserve, I gave a final presentation to Chief and Council on the outcomes of the engagement session. During the discussion, we agreed about the fact that there is no unique, strict translation of the word Consent from Beaver to English. Besides, FPIC should be understood as a general concept that should be implemented taking into account the holistic approach of the environment the community has, its traditional knowledge and socio-cultural values.
My long fieldwork and placement have been possible thanks to the research funding allocated by the Leverhulme Trust through the Durham Arctic Programme. It would have been impossible for me to afford it without this money. I used a substantial amount of the research funding for research activities I carried out with the community and to organize the final engagement session, providing food and beverage to participants, besides paying an honorarium (according to the protocol of the community) to those elders who joined the session and shared their thoughts with me. I believe that this was a good way to engage with the community respectfully, as well as to show that my research and interest to work with them was not driven by personal interests (to get money from the community or to extract information and to make money out of them), but by a genuine desire to understand and learn from community members what the Western world may have forgotten.
I am deeply grateful to the DRFN Council and to the Land Department for the opportunity they gave me to work with them and to the elders, who accepted me to spend time in their land. I also would like to take this occasion to thank the Leverhulme Trust and the Durham Arctic Programme (directors, staff, and my supervisors) for this life-changing opportunity they have provided me. Thanks to everyone and stay tuned…the journey continues!
Click here to see Giuseppe's Durham ARCTIC Student Profile.