A Gift of Learning about Working with Indigenous Partners

In early April, the Community-Based Water Monitoring Collaborative and other freshwater community members interested in First Nations principles of ownership, control, access and possession (OCAP) had the privilege of spending an afternoon with Aaron Jones from Ketegaunseebee (Garden River First Nation) Lands & Resources Department and Dr. Elaine Ho-Tassone from Algoma University. Aaron and Elaine shared their experiences monitoring watersheds across cultural and disciplinary perspectives, as well as each of their understandings on ethical data. We gratefully received their gift of knowledge and, with their permission, we share three lessons as a gift to you. 

The Gift of Time

“My time is my community’s time, so time invested should equal community benefit.”

I think this quote sums up Aaron’s message succinctly and eloquently. As an employee AND a member of Ketegaunseebee, he has a unique voice that we need to hear.

Understand that when we ask First Nations staff to collaborate, we are asking the entire community to give us a resource. And what’s more, this ask is significant because First Nations receive constant requests, while simultaneously working with limited budget and staff capacity. Consequently, when we make these requests, we must accompany them with a true desire and commitment to reciprocate, including fair compensation and benefit to the community.


We need to think carefully about what we are asking and evaluate how we can streamline our request.

One simple example Aaron offered was to seek the form of documentation that creates the least administrative burden on a community. Funders often request documentation of support from First Nations in a grant proposal. Aaron explained that Band Council Resolutions require voting and paperwork sent to Indigenous Services Canada, co-opting precious leadership resources from the community. Alternatively, we can try asking funders to accept a simple letter of support instead. If we aren’t sure how our requests are burdening people, we can ask them!

Also, seek out a community champion! We can avoid bombarding the whole community by finding somebody who is passionate and already involved in the kind of work we hope to partner on. Create a solid relationship with this person to begin.

Data: more than numbers

Our Living Waters Network members greatly value accessible water data. This impact measure has been a clear priority for a number of years, so it is important to recognize that data encompass more than number values.

Data are also relational.

Data include stories, which can be time, place or people dependent. Some data are highly sensitive and can’t be shared, while some data can be. We may feel anxiety hearing this, and immediately want to know if there is a written data protocol we can follow. Some First Nations have established protocols, but often there is no document. Rather, the onus is on us to create solid trust through relationships, then ask and listen to when, how, and with whom data can be shared. Handling data in ways that align with First Nation principles of OCAP also means taking responsibility to share data with community members in ways that are meaningful to them. 

New to managing data in partnership with First Nations? Check out this list of data collection and management tools Indigenous groups are using, then ask your partner how your data processes need to adapt to make your tools more compatible.

Whose ethics apply?

Elaine, a water protector who clearly positions herself as non-Indigenous in this work, shared a data example that went far beyond samples and spreadsheets. Recently, Elaine partnered with youth from Music for the Spirit & Indigenous Visual Arts - an after school program at Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation - to co-create Grand Expressions, a project that collected youth art and writing as a medium to express their relationships with water and to communicate these messages to managers.

For this project, Elaine interacted with minors and her ethics committee required written parental permission to proceed. Yet, the parents had different requirements for consent, based on their own cultural ethics and experiences with Western written contracts. The parents wanted to sit down with Elaine, get to know her and build trust before offering permission to share their child’s art. In response, Elaine needed to work with her ethics committee to persuade them to adopt a different approval process, and in so doing she validated a different code of ethics.

I will end these reflections with some last words of advice from Elaine:

“Don’t forget the importance of context. Question your worldview. Throw out your assumptions.”

I hope you have received this learning as a gift! Please feel free to contact Elaine Ho-Tassone if you have questions or comments for her. You can also always reach Our Living Waters at [email protected].

Rebekah Kipp
About Rebekah Kipp
Network Communications Lead, Our Living Waters: mother, freshwater champion, beachcomber, and origami enthusiast
A Gift of Learning about Working with Indigenous Partners
A Gift of Learning about Working with Indigenous Partners
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