Enabling Watershed Organizations to Collaborate: A Model from Quebec

What’s your local watershed organization?! For me, living in Ontario where Saugechewigewonk (the Trent River) flows into Kenhtè:ke (the Bay of Quinte), there are two: the Lower Trent and Quinte Conservation Authorities. Wherever you live, chances are there’s at least one local nonprofit watershed group, whether it’s grassroots-organized or government-mandated. 

Now for a harder question: Is there a group in your province or territory that brings together all the watershed organizations? Where I live, Conservation Ontario represents Ontario’s 36 Conservation Authorities (see the table below for the diversity of groups across the country).


Organizational Bodies Representing Local Watershed Organizations Across Canada

In Quebec, the Regroupement des organismes de bassins versants du Québec (ROBVQ) develops and coordinates programs and services for its 40 watershed organizations. Members benefit immensely from this support, especially from the expertise of Sébastien Cottinet, Engagement and Public Policy Coordinator. I spoke with Sébastien last fall about the ROBVQ’s unique model, which uses a decentralized approach to support four current communities of practice (CoPs) for members, including: Engagement, Collaboration & Communication; Technical Expertise & Analysis; Land Use Planning & Regulation; and Administration & Management. Each CoP has a defined structure, but what happens within is fluid, allowing for resiliency. (all links in paragraph in French)

The ‘Agoras’: A Yearly Cycle


“It's like water – we leave everyone room for freedom. At some point it flows, it goes one way, and then everyone follows…The ROBVQ is there to ensure that once the flow starts, we can place beacons along the way to guide its course.”

~Sébastien Cottinet, speaking about the decentralized structure of the ROBVQ, and the way staff guide it (translated from French)

Photo credits ROBVQ (including header and photo above)

In order to structure work for the CoPs, the ROBVQ organizes a cycle of yearly convenings. In the fall, this cycle starts and ends with the Grande Agora (2022, 2023, both in French), an in-person round table based on a model from Ancient Greece where participants gather to exchange ideas and form new opinions. This event is followed by three virtual meetings: a ‘Recap Agora’ in the new year to summarize what happened in the fall; a ‘Launch Agora’ in the spring to propose new ideas; and a ‘Prep Agora’ in late summer to plan the Grande Agora.


What started the Agoras? The impetus for the Agoras came from recognizing there was too much structure at the Annual General Meeting for the watershed organizations and their partners (the Rendez-vous des OBVs, in French). There just wasn’t enough time to jaser (chat) within the time allotted for topical presentations and technical workshops; additionally, the CoPs were acting independently with no chance to interact. 

How do the Agoras work? The ROBVQ provides the space and time for the Agoras, but the participants decide on the topics. At the Grande Agora, they use in person time to explore, reflect, and practise facilitation tools during informal café-rencontre style meetings. Additionally, chantiers (project teams, see below) from each CoP exchange and test ideas. There’s a healthy element of peer-to-peer accountability because people commit to specific work throughout the yearly cycle.

What’s a chantier? The literal translation is a construction site, but in this context it means “a project team in a CoP with a beginning and an end, where people complete a workflow by producing a new tool, reference, process, or approach”. The chantiers are where the work happens; they are motivating team incubators centered on improving best practices through experimentation and peer validation.

For example, every watershed organization in Quebec is responsible for implementing a regional water management plan (plan directeur de l’eau, in French). In the Engagement, Collaboration & Communication CoP, participants from the chantier on communications collaboratively created a spreadsheet analyzing all the engagement tools they use to work with stakeholders on water management plans. They listed the pros and cons for each tool, pooling their knowledge together. Even though it took significant time to create, they saved time in the long term by producing an indispensable resource.


How the ROBVQ Guides the Flow: providing tools to empower & enable

Sébastien provides resources that participants can adopt throughout the cycle of the Agoras (e.g. check out this presentation in French), including:

  1. Tools to set goals realistically
  2. A structure to learn from failures, following a cycle of planning, implementing, evaluating and improving
  3. Tips and tricks to identify expertise and assign team roles
  4. Ways to practice empathy, flag discomfort, and address misunderstanding in groups
  5. A collective lexicon so participants use terms in the same way
  6. Summary documents to remind people of the purpose and structure of CoPs

Finally, this model (
chantiers nested in CoPs that convene at the Agoras) helps to unite people. Young voices can seize leadership opportunities, while retirees who want to pass on their knowledge can participate too. Also, did I mention how FUN the Grande Agora is? People leave it utterly spent, having poured energy into planning and participation. What’s more, participants are also free to shop around and try out new CoPs in person, making it exciting and innovative!

Are you feeling ROBVQ-curious?! If you want to learn more, reach out to Sébastien!

Rebekah Kipp
About Rebekah Kipp
Network Communications Lead, Our Living Waters: mother, freshwater champion, beachcomber, and origami enthusiast
Enabling Watershed Organizations to Collaborate: A Model from Quebec
Enabling Watershed Organizations to Collaborate: A Model from Quebec
Imagine a Canada where all waters are in good health: