Tapping into the power of partnerships: A reflection on recent work at the Gwich’in Tribal Council

Patrick Tomlinson

For nearly four years, I worked as the Director of Intergovernmental Relations for the Gwich’in Tribal Council (GTC), a modern treaty organization located in Inuvik, Northwest Territories. Over this period, I managed a number of projects that resulted in numerous tangible gains for the Gwich’in. Though each is unique, the projects share a key trait essential to their success: Strong partnerships with external actors.

The Memorial University project that took place this past March in St. John’s is one excellent example of such a project. Planning for the Memorial trip began about six months prior to the youth arriving on campus, a very short amount of planning time for a project of this kind. The success of the initiative is due primarily to the working partnerships developed between my team and me and the professors and administrators at Memorial, with officials from the Nunatsiavut Government, a few key contacts at the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs, and with the Canadian North Airline. Certainly, there were bumps along the way but the event went ahead largely as planned and was a great success.

What did I learn, then, from organizing the Memorial University project and from my other work that relied so heavily on partnerships with external actors?

The Art and Science of Working Effectively with External Partners

Recently, a senior official from the Government of Canada asked me what I thought were the factors most relevant to my ability to build successful partnerships between GTC and external actors. My answer was four factors:

• 40% Political leadership and the Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement

• 30% Professional demeanor

• 25% Technical and administrative capacity

• 5% Chance

The official was surprised by my answer because she assumed that I would include money on my list. To be sure, money was very important to all the work done in my department. However, as I see it, the financial resources were available but contingent on other, more important, factors.

What can be said of the factors that do make my list? I will focus on the first two:

1. Political Leadership and the Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement

The political climate I worked within was quite dynamic. Over my time at GTC, there were several changes in personnel at the executive level of the organization. The GTC Board of Directors, which is made up of eight community leaders, also went through a number of changes in personnel over the same period. With such high turnover at the leadership level, it was sometimes difficult to make commitments to external partners because I was never sure when leadership priorities, GTC policies, or strategic plans would change. As a result, projects that were more politically contentious or complex moved ahead slowly or not at all. Others, like capacity building and youth initiatives, subjects that enjoyed almost universal support, were much easier to shepherd forward.

The Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement (GCLCA), a modern treaty signed by the Gwich’in, the Government of Canada and the Government of the Northwest Territories in 1992, represents a key organizing principle of the GTC. The GCLCA is a constitutionally entrenched document that was ratified via federal statute, territorial legislation and a referendum vote by the entire Gwich’in population. As such, the document’s provisions are very difficult to change and all signatories are held to the highest standards of compliance.

The GCLCA creates an intimate and dense working relationship between the territorial and federal governments and the GTC. Together, these three are responsible for implementing all the terms of the GCLCA. From my perspective, the GCLCA created numerous opportunities to build projects, but it also created several operational tensions that could not be ignored in the course of my work:

a. Rights mode vs. business mode of engagement

A rights mode of engagement focuses on the legal privileges and duties of the parties. Primacy is paid to the ground rules of a partnership, and collaboration is delimited by the interpretation of these rules. The rights mode is properly characterized by theexpression: “The terms of the Agreement is where the conversation between the signatories stops.” On the other hand, the business mode of engagement is grounded in a less formalized and trade-based relationship. Rather than rely on legal formalities, the parties enter into administrative and service based partnerships built on perceived shared interests and, to an important degree, good will. The business mode is aptly represented by the expression: “The terms of the Agreement is where the conversation between the signatories begins.”

Tomlinson

b. Administrative vs. political authority

The GCLCA is grounded in the principle that the Gwich’in will now have meaningful decision-making authority on matters they view as priorities to their collective well-being. Quite rightly, credibility and legitimacy of decision-making are tied to the fact that the Indigenous community is now making informed choices for themselves. At GTC, authority is viewed as located at the political level, among the elected leaders of the membership. Paradoxically, there is no guarantee that senior administrative officials at GTC will be Gwich’in. By contrast, in public governments and many other organizations, many important decisions, e.g., approving financial support or defining the substantive elements of an agreement or piece of legislation, are made by senior administrators, not politicians. Successful partnerships among external actors and Aboriginal organizations must take into account these divergent authority structures, and officials from all sides must show an ability to acknowledge and accommodate the authority structure of the other side.

c. Public government: friend or foe?

Trust and respect are core elements of any productive working partnership. If there is little or no trust among a group tasked to work together, it is unlikely the partnership will succeed. If one side of a partnership does not properly respect the other, it is inevitable that working silos will replace network action. The colonial relationship between Aboriginal people and public government in Canada, characterized primarily by a long history of abuse and mistreatment, neglect, and misunderstanding, informs every contemporary interaction between their representatives. This history cannot be ignored, nor underestimated. However, officials on all sides must avoid a myopic view of their working relationship: Public governments and Aboriginal organizations can prove to be effective allies, and their ability to provide valuable support to one another must never be discounted.

2. Professional Demeanor

Commonly, we hear that it is not what you know, but who you know that is most important for professional success. An expression that more accurately describes my work experience at GTC would be: “It’s not who you know, but how people know you” that matters.

Professional demeanor refers to the collection of character traits, personal attitudes, and behavioural patterns (or habits) that each of us exhibit in our professional lives. Quite literally, it’s the version of our personality that “turns on” at work, or in social settings that are relevant to our work. A crucial fact of working in the NWT is that every social setting is relevant to one’s job.

As a non-Aboriginal, non-Northerner, and newcomer to the town of Inuvik who right away found himself granted with a significant amount of responsibility and authority, I very quickly realized that professional demeanor was a core competency that would factor into all of my work.

Why? Because when it comes to professional demeanor, we all share something in common: Everyone has a comfort zone, and when pushed outside of our comfort zone our ability to maintain our composure decreases, sometimes dramatically. For example, even though most of us know that open-mindedness is a core professional skill, like politeness, or assertiveness, we often fail to execute these traits when triggered by a challenging personality or situation.

I witnessed many instances when professional demeanor became strained among officials working together on behalf of different organizations. Common triggers included incongruent personality types (“a” vs. “b” personalities, introverts vs. extroverts, differing conflict management styles, etc.); gender interactions (men working with women, men working with men, women working with women); cultural factors (differences in deeply held personal but collectively re-enforced values, spiritual beliefs or social habits); class-based inequalities (the use of different vocabulary or non-linguistic signifiers, wide margins of physiological and emotional health related to economic well-being and stability, etc.); and, finally, humanistic factors totally unrelated to work (having a good day/bad day, stressful time of year, elevated stress levels due to family strife, etc.).

When working with representatives of other organizations, I tried to exhibit a professional demeanor that was based in active listening, empathy, inquisitiveness, and a commitment to only creating expectations that I felt confidently that I could meet, if not surpass. I also paid close attention to the priorities, mandates, stresses and incentive structures of the working cultures of my external partners. Whenever I approached a potential partner with a request, I made sure to frame my remarks in terms that I genuinely felt would complement their own priorities and interests. And because I knew that my staff were deeply devoted to and supportive of our projects, and that I had taken the time to consult with leadership, including community Elders on the methods and goals of these projects, I felt more confident and free to modify my asks when it occurred to me that by doing so I would be increasing the chances of getting the support of an external partner.

For these reasons, the Department of Intergovernmental Relations at GTC was able to successfully design, organize and manage a number of multi-stakeholder projects and agreements in a very short amount of time, including the Memorial University project. I would like to close the article by mentioning several others.

4. GTC National Conference on Indigenous Self-Government

External Partners: Town of Inuvik; Treaty Implementation Branch, Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada; Executive Office, Government of the Northwest Territories; Nisga’a Lisims Government, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the Grand Council of the Crees, Yukon College, and First Air.

Project Description: The GTC hosted a three-day conference on the topic of Aboriginal self-government that was attended by over a dozen Aboriginal leaders from across Canada. Nearly 200 Gwich’in and local residents attended the event, including youth representatives from all four Gwich’in Settlement Area communities and from outside the Territory.

5. Gwich’in Internship Pilot Project

External Partners: Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) – Federal Minister’s Office, Treaty Implementation Branch; Government of the Northwest Territories – Premier’s Office, Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Intergovernmental Relations.

Project Description: The GTC, the GNWT and the Government of Canada have agreed to set-up an internship project for Gwich’in that will guarantee meaningful job opportunities of one year at each organization. Successful applicants will have professional experiences tailored to their interests and academic backgrounds, and they will have multi-year training programs that include mentor support.

6. Certificate in Gwich’in Studies

External partners: Beaufort Delta Education Council, Moose Kerr School, Chief Julius School, Two Row Times, GNWT – Department of Education, Culture and Employment, AANDC, Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute.

Project Description: Following direction given by Gwich’in Elders and youth, the GTC convened a committee to study ways to increase the representation of Gwich’in culture and history in the local public school system. Six high school courses were developed, including teacher’s guides and study resources, and several schools have begun offering the courses to students in the Gwich’in Settlement Area. The courses will give students credits they can use to attain their high school diplomas and count towards a special certificate in Gwich’in studies. ◉


Patrick Tomlinson is the former Director of Intergovernmental Affairs for the Gwich’in Tribal Council (2011-2015), and is currently pursuing a Master of Public Administration at the JFK School of Government at Harvard University.