Beyond Conservation:
Building Relationships for Collaboration – Part 1

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A lot of time and preparation is required to establish meaningful relationships and collaboration across Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures, communities, and initiatives. Laying a strong foundation by establishing trusting relationships with the people, organizations, and communities with whom you wish to collaborate is essential to the success of your project. When relationships are built from the ground up in a spirit of reconciliation, they can flourish and grow into fruitful partnerships and projects!

An important factor of success revolves around how you come to the table as a person. Arriving with a sense of humility, a willingness to learn, and an intention to support leadership in the Indigenous nation, community, or organization, will set you on the right path. You can help ensure relationships are initiated and fostered in a good way by committing to ongoing learning about Indigenous Peoples, their cultures, and histories (see Before You Get Started) and by keeping in mind the Guiding Principles for Cross-cultural Collaboration. From there, trust will slowly grow from your personal accountability and spread to the people and community you are working with.

Beyond Conservation: A Toolkit for Respectful Collaboration with Indigenous Peoples



Practical Steps and Resources


“Nothing for us without us.”

Fundamentally, reconciliation is a process of establishing and maintaining respectful relationships. In the context of a conservation or stewardship project, this includes co-developing the project, or working collaboratively from the very beginning of a project, starting with project conception. As an outsider, you must recognize that Indigenous nations and communities have history and a long-standing set of priorities, and your job is to determine how to best support those priorities with the opportunities you bring to the table (i.e., the project idea, funding, capacity or service you have to offer).

Planning and building relationships for a project can take anywhere from a few months to a few years. These steps involve figuring out the who, what, when, where and why of a project before the work begins. Another way to think of it is that this phase of work is a time to answer the questions: Where have we been? Where are we now? What do we need now? What possibilities could working together bring? What will success look like? These questions can be answered through many conversations with (potential) project partners and recorded in a way that makes sense to everyone.

Being clear about decision making and resource management for an initiative, amongst other elements, is essential to building trusting relationships. While many of us strive to support ‘Indigenous-led’ conservation and stewardship, it is important to understand what this term does and does not mean (see Situating your initiative below). Capturing decisions about these and other elements in a Relationship Agreement (see below) will help to clarify the terms of the relationship so that it can flourish.

The following section is a high-level review of some important things to think about during your planning and relationship-building work. It is not comprehensive–it focuses on elements important to working across cultures. For a more comprehensive approach to pre-planning and planning a project or initiative, see Planning, meetings, and community engagement below.

Do your homework

Collaborations are first and foremost relationships. Collaborating may include building relationships with people, but also with the land, the waters, and the animals that live there. Collaborations work best when trust is built among all partners, including community members. And this can be best done when you understand the place, and the natural, historical, and cultural context of the people with whom you are building relationships.

Most conservation or stewardship projects are rooted in a particular geographic location. First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities traditionally and currently occupy much of Canada. They have their own long-standing governance structures within which they steward lands, waters, and ice. The inherent rights of Indigenous peoples are affirmed, recognized, and upheld by domestic and international frameworks, including Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution, treaties and modern land claim agreements, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) (see Before You Get Started for more information). As such, Indigenous peoples are rights-holders with decision-making authority. They are not merely interest groups or stakeholders.

Photo by Amanda Sheedy

Tools and resources

Photo by Erin Neave

Identify and learn about the Indigenous Peoples in the area

  • Whose Land is a web-based app that uses GIS technology to assist users in identifying Indigenous nations, territories, and communities across Canada.
  • The CCLM map can help you identify the First Nations and Inuit communities across the country. This map also allows you to see hundreds of ongoing or completed caribou-related projects, the majority of which either involve or are led by Indigenous groups.
  • The CIRNAC map shows First Nations and Inuit communities, as well as Indian reserves, Indian land, and land claims land.
  • The First Nations Profiles Interactive Map shows First Nations and Tribal Councils across Canada, and provides links to their websites when available.
  • The Native Land map shows Indigenous territories and languages around the world, with links to relevant resources.
  • Find out more about the nation, community, or organization you will be working with. This can include:
    • Reading the land claim agreement, treaty or other legally binding documents that define the relationship between the nation or community and the provincial, territorial, or federal governments.
    • Getting to know the Indigenous governments and what programs and services they currently deliver.
    • Doing internet, Facebook, YouTube, and other searches to learn recent news and events.

Photo by Ezra Soiferman

Assess interest and readiness for collaboration

Once you know with whom you might like to build a collaborative relationship, it is time to determine whether 1.) they are interested in your project idea, 2.) it aligns with their own priorities, and 3.) they have the capacity to collaborate on a project. (Note: you should determine these three points in conversation with potential partners.) You should be prepared to adapt the project you are proposing to their priorities, to build the required capacity through the project (see Sharing capacity and resources below), or to shelve your plans and wait to see if the organization might be ready in the future. In some cases, potential partners may wish for a project to proceed without their involvement. In this case, you need to set up a reporting strategy or some other way of ensuring the community is kept aware of progress and decisions.

Photo by Ezra Soiferman

Take a trauma-informed approach

Colonialism has inflicted past and ongoing trauma on many First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities and individuals. It is important to recognize this and approach collaboration with sensitivity and the tools and knowledge to address the effects of trauma, should they arise.

Photo by Melanie Mullin

Identify stakeholders in the area

While you want to focus your energies on establishing relationships with rights-holders (i.e. Inuit, First Nations, or Métis), it will also be helpful to understand who the stakeholders are in the area (e.g. industries, organizations, non-profits, etc.). Understanding the local context of the geographical area you are interested in is foundational to building strong relationships. Who (Indigenous and Crown governments) governs the area? Who will be affected by actions taken there? What is the history here? How have relationships unfolded in the past and to what effect?

Tips for building trusting relationships

This entire toolkit could be seen as a guide to building trusting relationships, so the following suggestions should be taken as just a sampling of things to do. You may wish to refer to Principles for Cross-Cultural Collaboration as well as to other sections of the toolkit.

  • N.B. Many of these suggestions are very capacity-intensive and thus should be pursued intentionally and with the resources to appropriately equip or compensate community members and leaders for their time (see Sharing Capacity and Resources below).

Photo by Ben Duffield

Leave your notions of time at the door and consciously slow down.

  • One of the greatest sources of conflict between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is time. Time is a cultural construct, and non-Indigenous people must learn to work in a different timeframe than they are used to.
  • Assume, from the get-go, that people do not trust you. Only time and getting to know each other will build trust.

Seek out and follow protocol about whom to engage and how.

  • Approach the leadership of the nation/community/organization if you are not sure who to contact. You will likely be referred to an administrative person who can redirect your request.
  • Inquire about local protocol, communication preferences (e.g. in person, email, phone, social media), potential contacts and liaisons, and other preferences (document any guidance for your organization to follow).
  • Facilitate an inclusive and accessible approach where desired and appropriate (e.g. ask whether it would be appropriate to involve a broad cross-section of the community, including Elders and youth and paying attention to gender diversity, or whether it is preferable to work though certain groups/departments/leaders).

Be sensitive to tensions within a community and between communities or nations.

  • Some First Nations have multiple governance systems and it may be appropriate to engage with all of them (and there may be implications for engaging with all or only some forms of leadership such as traditional governance and band councils, for First Nations).
  • Don’t assume that neighbouring communities should attend the same meetings or that they will work together, even if they fall under the same governing body.

Identify potential stakeholders who may have an interest in, or be affected by, your collaboration or project.

  • Identify other stakeholders working in the region on similar topics or projects, including government departments, university researchers, and ENGOs.
  • Ask the community’s governing body or appropriate department about any past collaborations with outside agencies to identify contacts, to learn about existing good relationships to build upon, or past conflicts that you may wish to avoid.

Determine whether other projects related to your work have been undertaken in the community.

  • Has the community been involved in similar projects and were these good or bad experiences?
  • Remember that you carry the burden of all the other projects the community has ever engaged in.

Identify a shared vision of success for your collaboration.

  • Ask (potential) partners what a successful collaboration looks like: What elements need to be in place? What is the desired process and outcomes? How will we know if we’re meeting our goals?
    • Ask frequently for feedback on how things are going. 
    • Do you hold consistent and realizable expectations for the logistics of a potential collaboration (e.g., meeting frequency, meeting style and format, location, reporting requirements)?

Ensure that project outcomes benefit the community.

  • Plan for the project to tangibly benefit the Indigenous nation or organizations involved, not only by building capacity, but also via the conservation, social, and cultural outcomes.
  • At the outset, speak with Indigenous project members about what benefits they could see arising from the project.

Act with honour and integrity.

  • Represent yourself and your organization with integrity (i.e. act in alignment with your values) and accountability (i.e. do what you say you will do)
    • Be aware that the institution or organization you are representing may not have a good reputation in the community, and be prepared to be held accountable for your institution’s past wrongs.

Have a clear purpose and intention for collaboration.

Key questions to help you clarify your purpose and intention:

  • What are some of the potential benefits and opportunities of the partnership for each partner and how would these be maximized?
  • What are some of the potential challenges and risks of the partnership for each partner and how would these be minimized?
  • How would including multiple perspectives and worldviews improve or advance your project?
  • What benefits would you bring to your partnership (e.g. funds, skill sharing, capacity building, training, grant writing, administrative support, etc.)? 
  • How would you uplift Indigenous leadership and Indigenous Knowledge and perspectives in your partnership?
  • What constraints, challenges, or blind spots might impact this potential partnership and how would they be overcome?
  • How might partnering with another organization change the values that underlie your work?

Build equity and reconciliation into your partnership

Building equitable partnerships means acknowledging and redressing disparities in opportunity and representation–a key step on the path to reconciliation. In an equitable partnership, all partners have an opportunity to participate, contribute, and benefit, regardless of the power differences between them. Achieving this balance might mean recognizing that different partners will contribute in different ways, such as by sharing: funding, community knowledge, networks, personnel, and political/social power. Make your intention and actions transparent: be sure to document in a partnership agreement how you will build equity and reconciliation (see the Developing a partnership or relationship agreement below).

Tools and Resources

Photo by Ryan Dickie

Develop a partnership or relationship agreement

Once you have established relationships with partners and agreed to what your collaborative project is about, it is important to formally decide on how you will work together. This can take the shape of a terms of reference, a memorandum of understanding (MOU), a research protocol, or a relationship agreement. This is especially important in Indigenous and non-Indigenous partnerships, where we are trying to change power dynamics from the way things have been done historically (see Working Respectfully: Agreements and protocols for working with Indigenous Knowledge Systems for more information and considerations.)

Photo by Torngat Secretariat

Recognize and address power imbalances and dynamics

Power dynamics are inherent to partnerships (even if you do not perceive these dynamics because you hold more power). Careful consideration needs to be given to how partners can address power imbalances and build equity in the partnership. See Before you get started for more information.

Photo by Kristin Clark

Address economic inequity

Colonialism has resulted in major economic disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. While your project is unlikely to address this systemic problem, you can certainly recognize it.

  • Offer to pay people fairly for their time, services, and knowledge. Conservation through Reconciliation Partnership offers guidance for honoraria for various roles fulfilled by Indigenous community members.
  • Hire as many local people as possible for the project’s tasks. Train them, if needed (see Sharing capacity and resources below), and provide them with references for future jobs.
  • Consider having a local organization manage the project funds.
    • Ensure that the Indigenous organization is named as the lead or co-lead in funding agreements if possible.

Photo by Amanda Sheedy

Strengthen Indigenous governance

Most Indigenous nations in Canada have some official governance mechanism under which they fall (treaty, band council, land claim agreement or other; see Understanding the rights of Indigenous Peoples for more information). Most communities aspire to or are actively working towards self-determination or self-government. In addition to its conservation and stewardship goals, your project can also strengthen the governance of the nation, organization, or community. The form this takes might look very different from one place to the next, and could range from funding a new position at the band council or land claim organization to incorporating support for  Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas or Indigenous Guardian programs into your project. As a starting point, ask how your project can strengthen governance.

Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs) are lands, waters, and ice where Indigenous leadership is a defining attribute in the decisions and actions that protect and conserve them. Establishing IPCAs ensures Indigenous jurisdiction over their traditional territories. IPCAs are currently not enshrined in law, but efforts are being made to this end.

Guardian Programs provide a framework in which Indigenous peoples can care for their traditional lands, waters, and ice as they have since time immemorial. The program supports training and employment for Indigenous people to exercise their rights and responsibilities to protect, monitor, and restore ecosystems, and to ensure ongoing and profound connections between the land and Indigenous cultures.

Photo by Melanie Mullin

Situate your initiative: ‘Indigenous-led’, ‘Co-led’ or ‘Indigenous-involved’?

Given the growing prevalence of Indigenous-led initiatives in stewardship and conservation, and the work across many sectors to support it, it is becoming increasingly important to distinguish what Indigenous-led conservation and stewardship is and is not. It is important to be clear about the promises being made to Indigenous governments, organizations or communities, especially by non-Indigenous governments or organizations. For example, to claim to support Indigenous-led initiatives but to retain power and control over decision making and resources will only serve to entrench mistrust and back-pedal on reconciliation efforts.

A moos standing out in a wintery field

Photo by Ryan Dickie

Clarify decision-making

Unless decision-making has been discussed and a process agreed to, you are virtually guaranteed to repeat the mistakes of the past, namely with outsiders making decisions on Indigenous people’s behalf. While shared decision-making on all issues is ideal, it is not always possible. It is important to clarify what types of decisions will be made by whom, and how these decisions will be made. Many Indigenous communities use consensus-based decision-making, which is quite different from the “majority-rules” style decision-making of Western cultures. Decision-making agreements should be captured in your relationship agreement (see Develop a partnership or relationship agreement above).

Tips for building equity and reconciliation into partnerships

Respect Indigenous self-determination.

  • Ensure that you seek approval from the right body for your project. In some cases, this might be the local or regional Indigenous government , band council, land claim organization, etc.
  • Such respect extends to regions where Indigenous peoples have historic ties to lands where they retain treaty-guaranteed resource rights, to lands that were never formally ceded to provincial, territorial, or federal governments, or to territories to which they migrated, whether voluntarily or by force.
  • Recognize that Indigenous governments have stresses and expectations of accountability and transparency, just like any other government.

Learn Indigenous governance systems and decision-making processes.

  • Find out how decisions are reached within a nation or organization, the roles various people play, and who should be involved in decision-making.
  • Ask your partners how their nation or organization formalizes agreements. This might involve ceremony or other protocols, and/or the signing of a document.

Be aware that power inequalities favour colonial traditions, knowledge, and practices.

  • Assess your own power and make plans to address power differences in your partnership agreement.
  • Shift your thinking away from “integrating” Indigenous Knowledge and towards “Two-eyed Seeing” (or other) approach (see Working Respectfully with Indigenous People and their Knowledge Systems for more information).
  • Shift your thinking away from “consulting” the local Indigenous community, government, or organization to establishing a relationship or partnership with them.

Establish pathways for project results to feed into local and regional decision-making (aka knowledge mobilization).

  • Build knowledge mobilization into the project plan, including the development of communications materials, presentations at meetings, etc.
  • Assess decision-making venues that would benefit from project-generated information and share it with the right people.
  • Seek to strengthen long-term capacity for policy engagement.
  • For initiatives aimed at influencing decision-making beyond the community level, early engagement of representatives from regional, national, and international institutions may facilitate the uptake of community-based observations.

Sharing capacity and resources

To avoid placing additional burden and strain on First Nations, Métis, and Inuit governments, organizations, and communities, it is critical for potential collaborators to offer to share or build capacity (funds, personnel, etc.). Ideally, capacity-building is reciprocal;  consider how it might be seen as an exchange between partners. Asking questions during project development about how the project will leave lasting capacity, strength, and learning is a good place to start.

Collaborating, and even considering whether or not to collaborate, requires community capacity (e.g. people’s time and financial resources). The leadership and staff of many Indigenous governments, organizations, and communities are often already spread very thin dealing with multiple files with limited resources. Some report consultation or engagement fatigue, which comes as the result of being approached frequently (often about the same topic) by external actors requesting advice, reviews, relationship building, etc.

Partners can be sensitive to capacity limits by doing their homework properly (see previous sections), being understanding about delays in responses, and sharing or building capacity by proposing projects that will benefit both Indigenous and non-Indigenous partners.

Tools and Resources

Photo by Ezra Soiferman

Include capacity-building in partnerships

Capacity comes in many forms: financial, human, skills, infrastructure, and more. For example, hiring and training land users on how to conduct research and collect and record data has the dual effect of involving community members and building positive relationships, while also infusing money into a local economy. Creating a new position at the lands department and training someone to fill it can indeed have an impact that lasts well beyond your project.

Photo by Ben Duffield

Collaborate with capacity-building organizations

There are many organizations that provide Indigenous communities with support, training, and/or funding. Including these organizations in your collaboration can increase the ability of Indigenous nations and organizations’ ability to participate in or lead a project.

Some examples of organizations that can help build capacity are:

  • Conservation through Reconciliation Partnership (CRP) is an Indigenous-led network that brings together a diverse range of partners to advance Indigenous-led conservation and Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs) across Canada.
  • The Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources educates, conducts research, and builds skills to assist Indigenous communities in taking action to solve the environmental problems affecting their lands and waters.
  • ECO Canada BEAHR Training helps First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities across Canada to develop local environmental champions and foster job creation in the green economy.
  • IISAAK OLAM Foundation shares knowledge and builds capacity for Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs).

Photo by Ryan Wilkes

Fundraising for success

To advance the plans that emerge from conversations with partners, you may need to do some fundraising. If this is the case, it will be important to develop funding applications with partners and to ensure that the proposals address their priorities, capacity building needs, and other considerations identified in this section.

  • Indigenous Conservation and Stewardship Funding in Canada is a spreadsheet that provides a list of more than 100 funding opportunities related to conservation and stewardship across the country, as well as a number of supporting resources for those applying for grants.

  • The video Grant Writing Considerations: Insight for Indigenous and Community-based Organizations in Canada guides you through applying for grants that support stewardship and conservation work across Turtle Island. It was designed with Indigenous individuals, communities, and nations in mind, but can also be used if you are hoping to partner with Indigenous people or explore grant-writing more generally. The video accompanies and explains the above Indigenous Conservation and Stewardship Funding in Canada spreadsheet.

Tips for a capacity-aware approach to collaboration

Learn about your Indigenous partners’ situation.

  • Learn about the nations or communities with whom you seek to partner and the history that is relevant to your project.
  • Seek out and read existing reports and summaries on previous community consultations, if available, so you don’t duplicate efforts.
  • Inform yourself of current events that may be affecting local communities (natural disasters, such as floods; boil-water advisories; deaths or accidents; health outbreaks; local elections; resource development pressures; etc.).
  • Attend community meetings and social events.

Remove barriers and create accessibility.

  • Consider whether offering transportation, childcare, or other accessibility supports will encourage community engagement.
  • Assess whether the timing of your engagement is appropriate (e.g. are there seasonal activities, such as hunting or fishing, underway, which would leave fewer people in the communities to participate).

Appropriately compensate people for their time and expertise.

  • Bring resources to the table. 
  • Consider transferring funds to the organization from the onset of a collaboration to support engagement and staff time.
  • As per local expectations, provide honoraria for Knowledge Keepers, Elders, and others for their contributions. 
  • Consider jointly applying for funding to support your collaboration and offer to lead the grant writing.

Be respectful, understanding, and adaptable.

  • Take into account what is or may be happening for the community, organization, or individual/s, and act accordingly.
  • Focus on making any and all engagements positive for the nation/community, regardless of outcome (e.g. some communities and organizations will not want or have the capacity for a partnership). 
  • Ask if there is something you could do differently next time.

Build your team’s capacity for collaboration with Indigenous governments, organizations, or communities.

  • Ensure your organization has the internal capacity to collaborate well (i.e. do you have sufficient funds, time, expertise, personnel, and the mandate to be a good collaborator?).
  • Invest in training for leaders and staff that will support internal capacity (see Before You Get Started: Committing to ongoing (un)learning for a list of training opportunities).
  • Building effective, respectful, and long-term relationships requires a strong time investment from partnering organizations (i.e. you must ensure there is an internal mandate and the corresponding capacity).

Consider project funding or sponsorship.

  • It is not uncommon for a community to be opposed to work that has been sponsored by a particular organization because of the organization’s past history, political stance, etc. 
  • It is very much to everyone’s benefit to make sure that all of this information is well understood in advance.