Community first, engineering next: How we delivered an infrastructure project with full community support at former Camp Ipperwash

By Kathleen Cieslak | June 18, 2021

The difference between community engagement and meaningful community engagement ultimately amounts to one word: respect. The impact of it, however, can generate a drastic positive difference. By definition, meaningful community engagement is the process by which an organization involves those who may be affected by a project through meticulous planning, thorough communication, and trust.

Respect is a simple concept but often overlooked as an integral ingredient to project success. It’s something that needs to happen at all levels and felt in the communities we work in. It needs to be innately personal as much as it needs to be a corporate value. Essentially, the project doesn’t always have to add value for the reason that it’s being implemented, but rather for those involved.

It’s these values—of respect and trust—that are fundamentally important and led us to our most recent experience with the Stony Point First Nation housing project, where new housing was provided for residents of the Stony Point community—a community that has faced and continues to face many hardships, stemming long before the seminal Ipperwash Crisis in the 1990s. Their stories weren’t easy to listen to, but if they had the courage to share them, we needed to have the courage to listen. I wanted to be a part of the solution, and our team wanted to be on the right side of history. Today we’re able to look back at the work we’ve done in collaboration with the community and the huge positive impact it has had for those involved – healthy homes for all Stony Point residents.

Time and trust

Relationship building is based on trust, mutual understanding, and in this case, with Indigenous reconciliation at the forefront. These are all factors that need to be established with the community from the beginning and fostered through to completion, and beyond.

Nurturing relationships with this community was of utmost importance for me and the team involved because we wanted those impacted to feel secure and that they were informing the outcomes of the project every step of the way. Fundamentally, you can’t ask someone to accept or make a change based on one conversation. It was months of careful and respectful engagement that allowed our team to resettle the Stony Point First Nation members from house to home.

Conversation and communication

A project’s success is directly tied to the knowledge and understanding of the histories, cultures, protocols, values, aspirations, and governing nations of Indigenous communities. This is accomplished primarily with effective participation and communication.

We all have a responsibility to take ownership in how we engage, and respectful engagement starts with listening—listening not just to get an answer, but listening to understand. Of course, this isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially when so many varying factors like history and diversity of thought are at play. The conversations aren’t always easy, and that’s okay. Acknowledge what you don’t know and ask questions. Be open, patient, and honest. And do your homework because preparedness and sensitivity to influencing factors are critical.

Our involvement in the Stony Point project started with an invitation into the community, followed by a survey and conversation with each community member. We sought to understand what would motivate individuals to stay or make the decision to move. We answered all questions from costs to permitting, to storage needs. We accounted for the concerns that we heard when providing guidance into the engineering project design. Community engagement came first, but it was equally as important during all stages. We had constant community meetings, where we had open discussions, presented choices where our engineering team was able to come up with unique solutions and shared our findings with everyone involved. We also had community newsletters go out every other week to keep every single person updated – consistent, and at the same time where members would come to expect their delivery. It’s important to note there will always be a level of resistance to change, but those perspectives matter just as much, as they might offer other viewpoints to consider.

A shared community vision

When local communities feel a level of ownership or involvement in a project and feel confident that it will provide long-term benefits, community members will be more willing to discuss accommodations and it’s easier to address barriers such as environmental concerns, traditional and spiritual beliefs, and land management. It calls attention to creating conditions of shared benefits and a long-term win-win partnership.

The shared vision concept is a two-part matter: one concerning our teams, and one concerning the community. First, the merge of engineering and community engagement that occurred underlined the holistic approach to the work we were a part of. We acted as a team and it produced positive results. Second, the project was defined and owned by the community – and so were the accomplishments. Their excitement meant success, and that was the biggest win we could hope for.

Every project is unique and there’s no blueprint solution. While overall complex, the simplicity of it really comes down to putting in the time, being respectful, knowing how to reconcile anxieties, being honest, and exercising sensitivity – just as you would expect if you were in a similar situation. While differences in opinion can sometimes be magnified, we can’t lose sight of the big picture. After all, we’re all in this together.