Trust, communication and clarity on objectives: What makes a successful Indigenous partnership

Editor’s Note: This is the second article of a two-part series on progressive Indigenous partnerships. Part 2 focuses on how to measure, calibrate and govern. Part 1 in the series looked at foundational components.


Quality Indigenous partnerships are instrumental to the success of projects and strategies throughout Canada. As one of the fastest growing labour forces in the country, Indigenous peoples are becoming industry drivers in several business capacities including management, production, commercial enterprise and more.

Indigenous journalist and communications professional Stephanie Joe sat down with Bennett Jones partners Sharon Singh (commercial and regulatory law), Ashley White (corporate law) and Luke Morrison (corporate law) as well as Fluor Canada Ltd.'s Mark Brown (Vice President & General Manager) and Lori Janson (Director, Project Communications & External Affairs) to understand how their client’s Indigenous partnership strategies are working to create an equitable relationship for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous partners. What followed was a thorough discussion of client relations and Indigenous partnerships.

Bennett Jones is one of Canada’s premier business law firms and home to 500 lawyers and business advisors. Bennett Jones has been intimately involved in virtually every major energy development project in Canada in the past 20 years, representing project proponents, investors and other stakeholders. We provide complete ESG-related advice to clients that helps them seize ESG opportunities, minimize compliance gaps, and mitigate risks.

 

Fluor has provided engineering, procurement, fabrication, construction, and project management services to Canada’s energy industry for 72 years. Its 43,000 employees globally (and 3,000+ across Canada) deliver comprehensive services — from conceptual design through to commissioning and maintenance — for all types and sizes of facilities. Fluor applies its broad expertise, extensive experience, and proven technology to benefit Canada’s energy transition in areas such as liquefied natural gas, carbon capture, hydrogen, renewable fuels, small modular reactors, and minerals mining. Fluor is committed to positively contributing to Canada’s energy tomorrow by focusing on safe and sustainable solutions today. This commitment includes focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion to ensure opportunities represent the diversity of Canada’s population and support reconciliation, partnerships, and benefit-sharing with Indigenous peoples.


PART TWO: How do we measure, calibrate and govern as we go along?

Q: How do you measure success?

Fluor (F): What we thought success was a couple of years ago continues to evolve and it turns out it was not where we needed to be. We need to continue to learn and demonstrate that we haven’t stopped learning.

At the same time, it’s about building relationships in the community. When you get to a point where you can pick up the phone or have a coffee with a Chief and vice versa, it’s about keeping that two-way communication open, and everyone has an equal seat at the table. To me, those are the things that measure success.

Bennett Jones (BJ): Measuring success requires an assessment of whether the outcomes of the partnership are meeting each party’s objectives. These objectives could be whether the partnership is commercially viable and provides predictable revenue streams to support community investment and develop capacity, including in project governance. 

There are some factors that can be measured: percentage of Indigenous ownership, numbers of Indigenous employees, Indigenous representation on the board of directors, contracts with Indigenous businesses, support for Indigenous community organizations, among other things. However, it is also important to note that measuring success is not just a quantitative assessment, or a Western worldview of prosperity. 

The legacy of the partnership needs to be considered beyond the life of the projects in order for relationships and trust to be sustained.

Broadly speaking, a key indicator that should be measured is whether the partnership is contributing to reconciliation between Indigenous communities and non-Indigenous Canada.  This must be a priority if our country is to make a high standard of living available to all and preserve its reputation as a responsible global citizen and its track record as a superior place to invest.

Q: How do you keep two-way communication open to build trust?

BJ: In our experience, you must have transparency and access to relevant and timely information. Relevant information is understated but critical to facilitate timely discussions and informed decision-making. This assists in meeting important requirements such as meeting project schedules. Understanding what information is needed by each party, in what format, and when, is often overlooked but also critical to help build the foundation of trust. If it’s a new relationship, parties should engage in understanding each other’s governance processes and expectations. This assists in developing an effective and constructive communication and engagement process with well-defined KPIs.

There are processes and systems that we use to help clients create multiple lines of communication to resolve technical, governance or relationship issues.

F: When we work on permitting, we have requirements to engage with First Nations early on. It could be setting up a meeting, going through a slide deck and talking about where we’re at in the permitting process. We have the First Nations review our documents and give them an opportunity to provide feedback before it goes to the regulatory authorities. Overall, it’s a combination of regular communications and sincere engagement with First Nations groups.

Q: What are the opportunities that come from being good at partnerships and building trust in Indigenous communities?

F: Relationships don’t begin with automatic trust; it needs to be earned. When it comes to Indigenous partnerships, things may start off slowly because of more than 100 years of history behind these relationships. You have to approach those relationships from a perspective of gaining and maintaining trust.

Avoid tokenism. When a company holds up the number of how many Indigenous people have been hired as a badge, that’s a sure-fire way to erode trust. That isn’t evidence of having built a relationship.

BJ:  It is more about being good partners than being good at partnerships. Even if a partnership fails, the venture may meet the objectives of all parties, which fundamentally look to increase prosperity, in a manner that is defined by each party. There are also opportunities to leverage connections, different perspectives and worldviews, capacity and capital that’s built through these partnerships. We identify these opportunities and then implement them in a myriad of situations, from mutual benefit agreements to equity ownership ventures. In an era where the importance of ESG is being more widely understood, the risk of not being a good partner will only impact the long-term sustainability of the company. 

The opportunities that arise from industry-Indigenous partnerships include being able to respond quickly to funding opportunities, requests for proposals or investment opportunities.  We expect that the exponential growth and momentum of new partnerships will intensify as both Indigenous and non-Indigenous clients alike increasingly look to leverage such relationships.

Q: Who needs to be knowledgeable about what makes a good partnership?

F: Anyone and everyone throughout an organization, but also the community we engage with — family members, vendors, contractors, consultants and clients. One of the things we learned through our Progressive Indigenous Relations plan through the Canada Council for Aboriginal Business was that we actually had to sit down and make commitments, come up with vision statements, and we had to understand that this is not just something we publish and put on our website. Anything worthwhile takes a lot of effort, time and commitment.

BJ: It’s everybody. This is one area where it’s both a top-down and bottom-up approach. You need to also have the diversity of experience, knowledge and views around the table to push each other forward.

As advisers, we can add value to such partnerships by helping to outline for the parties what range of options are available to address a particular issue or set of concerns. As these partnerships become more prevalent, we are seeing market trends emerge for key deal points and on that basis are able to present solutions and roadmaps in order to expedite negotiations.  We look at it from taking the big picture objectives to finding pathways to implement them, so the words are not hollow.


Fluor Canada 

Mark Brown, Vice President & General Manager 

Lori Janson, Director, Project Communications & External Affairs 

Bennett Jones 

Ashley White, Partner, Calgary

 

Luke Morrison, Partner, Calgary 

Sharon Singh, Partner, Vancouver 

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