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Danielle Desjarlais and Kateri Lucier-Laboucan, Indigenous Design Studio at Brook McIlroy Inc.

Indigenous Planning Perspectives Task Force Report


The concepts listed below were the recurring background themes in this project.

Given the long history, the diversity of Indigenous Peoples, and today’s complex issues, this overview is cursory. We have summarized a great deal to keep the report to a manageable length. Click on one of the sections to the right to read it in more detail. The quotations in each section are from the voices we heard.


Truth as a Precondition to Reconciliation

“Truth and Reconciliation” is out there but people don’t know what it is. People must “reconcile” but they don’t know what they’re reconciling. People have to know the “Truth” part in order to reconcile."

"Listen to the stories of oppression, relocation and dispossession. We need to empathize with Indigenous Peoples and understand the impacts historical (and current) planning processes have and continue to have on them. Public truth sharing is an integral part of the process."

"Indigenous people have always had to step out of our comfort zones, since contact. Grow a thick skin and understand that the anger, disappointment, resentment is justifiable and righteous. This doesn't mean you need to bear the weight of centuries of colonial shame. It does mean you form an understanding and accept that you are part of a doctrine that has robbed many Nations of their basic human dignity."

First and foremost, confronting the truth is necessary for reconciliation. Canadians and planners need a deeper understanding of the devastating impact of colonization (and the Christian mission) on Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Indigenous Peoples are the original occupants of this land. Around 400 years ago, European settlers relied on the generosity of Indigenous people to survive and establish a permanent presence. Early treaties were negotiated and signed with the intent of sharing and creating mutual benefits. Despite those promises, policies were developed and implemented to exploit, assimilate, and eradicate Indigenous people.

Colonial legislation led to the dispossession of Indigenous lands and the imposition of a legal order aimed at limiting Indigenous rights and suppression of their cultures. The colonization of North America involved implementing settler policies and attitudes that cut off Indigenous Peoples from their traditional lands, culture, languages, spirituality, economies, systems of governance, and other important parts of their identity. That history still shapes our present. Planning has helped implement policies designed to disconnect Indigenous Peoples from their land and foster destructive assimilation. In addition, as identified at the on-site Task Force meeting, a normative whiteness is the context of much planning. This systematic whiteness dominates the cultural space with great political significance, keeping others on the margin.

The impact on Indigenous identities has been multi-generational. Across nearly every measure of social and economic well-being, there is a troubling gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

Elsewhere in this report we will address the challenges for planning to acknowledge this truth as a profession. This is not an easy realization. It was said by the Task Force that facing truth is our responsibility; we own it. “It is not the responsibility of the Indigenous Peoples to educate Canadians on reconciliation.” We should not lean on Indigenous Peoples to be sure our education happens.

See Appendix B for a contextual summary produced by several members of the Task Force.

Diverse Indigenous Peoples

"You cannot take for granted that what you learned from one nation can be repeated with another. Cultures are different, the pace is different, and the approach is totally different. There is no cookie cutter recipe for building a relationship."

"Be aware that Indigenous nations in Canada are as different as various cultures in Europe. The French and the Germans don’t want to be lumped together. They don’t want their differences ignored."

Ontario has the largest Indigenous population of any of Canada's provinces or territories. Indigenous Peoples in Ontario include status, non-status, First Nations, Métis, and Inuit. First Nations in Ontario include the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee (Six Nations) Confederacy, and the Cree, amongst others. Indigenous cultures are diverse; one cannot talk of a common culture. Each are distinct, rights-bearing communities. Each group has its own history, culture, values, symbols, and spiritual traditions. Indigenous communities and people are located in urban, rural, and remote Ontario. Vast differences between communities of the North, the Near North, and the South in economic opportunities, customs, land decisions, and capacity translate to different Indigenous perspectives.
There is a significant urban Indigenous population in Ontario. According to Statistics Canada, 85 per cent of Indigenous Ontarians are living in municipalities.[1] Forty-five municipalities in Ontario have a population that is over 15 per cent Indigenous.

Indigenous Rights, Law and Legal Traditions, and Arising Obligations

"It’s also important for municipal planners working within Indigenous Traditional Territories to be inclusive of Indigenous communities in their planning processes — First Nations are not black holes on your official plan maps. People live there. There are shared interests."

"When the Europeans arrived, Indigenous people had been governing over their lands with planning, architecture, and environmental design tenets that had been established for millennia."

As this topic is vast, we provide only an overview here based on the feedback received as well as desktop research. We envision this to be an area for future growth in understanding.

Indigenous Peoples have their own rights, law, and legal traditions. Their traditional ways of decision making were the first laws of this land, managing all aspects of life such as food, protection, education, and medicine. The traditional Clan System of the Anishinaabe was highlighted as an example of how leadership is shared and decisions are made.

The presence of Indigenous Peoples before Europeans arrived in North America separates them from all other minority groups in Canadian society. This fact mandates their special legal, and now constitutional, status recognized by the Supreme Court.[2] Inherent rights flow from this, including the right to self-determination. Thus, treaties between Indigenous Nations and the Crown and/or Canada are constitutionally protected documents and legally binding. Treaties were the instruments through which Indigenous lands were shared with/ceded to[3] the Crown in return for specific rights, compensation, and/or other concessions. Treaty rights flow from specific treaties. That said, for Indigenous people in Canada, rights do not come from a treaty (although they can be reaffirmed by treaty), but rather they come from the Creator.

It is important to note that there are unceded non-treaty lands (e.g. Algonquins of Ontario) to which inherent and Constitutional rights still apply.

Canadian Aboriginal law is the body of Canadian law that concerns a variety of issues related to Indigenous Peoples in Canada. The maintenance and protection of Aboriginal (and Treaty Rights) is important to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. “We are all treaty peoples,” as one person put it. A professional planner, especially, should be aware of the status of treaty negotiations, any specific claims, their obligations to consult and accommodate vis-à-vis any project related to land use, as well as the relevant Indigenous views and understandings of that land.

We note the concerns from the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) in this area. At the time of this report, AMO is asking the Province of Ontario to clarify the responsibilities of municipalities to discharge the Crown responsibility of Duty to Consult (and the corresponding Duty to Accommodate, where appropriate) and provide a workable framework.

Traditional Knowledge and Relationship with Land and the Natural Environment

"Indigenous people do not move. They have a responsibility to stay, even when the land is polluted or sick. Indigenous people have a responsibility to heal the land and water and stay connected with their territory (even if the land was polluted by others)."

"Seven generational thinking: would your ancestors seven generations in the past approve of this decision? Coming face to face with those seven generations in the future, would they approve of your decision as well? If yes, then you know you’ve made a good decision."

"People are people at the end of the day. As Indigenous people, we were clouded in a number of ways. How do we interact now? Where do we go from here?"

Indigenous Peoples feel and live a responsibility to land and water. There is a land-culture-spirit interconnection. Land is not meant to be “used” but rather taken care of as the giver of all life. The Seven Generations Principle reflects such responsibility. The close relationship between Indigenous Peoples and land and water means these matters will always be paramount in their priorities and concerns. An Indigenous community’s connection to a Traditional Territory may differ from common understandings of property ownership, borders, and the boundaries set out in treaties.

Natural law permeates the worldviews of Indigenous Peoples. This is the understanding that the natural world, now commonly referred to as the “environment,” is not separate but rather is interconnected and of the whole and is, thereby, owed respect, obligation, and responsibility. Natural law governs the relationship of one thing to another and reflects understanding that there are relationships and families in everything.

Bob Joseph, founder and president of Indigenous Corporate Training Inc, stated: “The root of the difference between the Indigenous people’s vs Western[4] worldviews is that they generally subscribe to opposite approaches to knowledge, connectedness and science. Indigenous cultures focus on a holistic understanding of the whole that emerged from the millennium of their existence and experiences. Traditional Western worldviews tend to be more concerned with science and concentrates on compartmentalized knowledge and then focuses on understanding the bigger, related picture.”[5]

Indigenous Peoples need to be seen in a contemporary context. Their traditional connections with land have evolved and today are more complex. Many individuals in Indigenous communities are “re-learning” their Indigenous ways. There is a revitalization of Indigenous languages and traditions. Indigenous cultures are dynamic, living, and evolving. In addition, many First Nations are looking for economic opportunities, just like those in wider society.

Indigenous Planning 

"We are constantly asking Indigenous communities to give energy to colonial processes. To me, unless you are working to give the land back, any work that is being done is the continuation of colonization."

"Most First Nations want to do this themselves. They don’t want an outsider coming in and planning for them." 

"Indigenous decision-making process, yes. The term “planning” doesn’t convey the process which is undertaken in a community. The decision-making process is one of consensus building."

"Planning in Ontario needs to learn from Indigenous peoples’ approaches and tools for defining their futures… At the same time, planners in Ontario need to learn to advocate for this Indigenous-defined future by influencing the external political and planning environment through professional planning and political alliances."

Indigenous people have been doing their own planning for millennia. With their worldviews intact, Indigenous communities, prior to colonization and in the present day, were and are able to develop in a self-determined fashion or at least make choices. Traditional planning persists within Indigenous communities and territories. Many First Nations have their own land use plans for those lands, and in the north, the Far North Act[6] means many communities are preparing plans that apply generally to their Traditional Territory.

Indigenous Peoples offer a living repository of resources, stories, and experience of planning. Indigenous communities look alike to the outsider only because planners impose uniform conventions on them. Planning is as varied as the communities themselves.

We heard that Indigenous community members who fulfil planner roles in their own communities have a level of intimacy, compassion, and identity with the plans that is not the same for individuals who cut off work at 4:30 and go home. Indigenous community members may be in formal or informal planning roles, and if employed, the titles vary: project managers, coordinators, lands managers, lands governance directors. They are organized, meet regularly, and have well-established networks. They are not connected for the most part to OPPI. Indeed, Indigenous Peoples are under-represented in the planning community, and there is a belief that if they choose to become involved, it must be about empowering and respecting their ways.

The usual focus is how professional planners can engage Indigenous Peoples and communities in their plans whether they are municipal plans, energy projects, or other planning matters. In fact, of course, Indigenous Peoples in communities and territories have their own plans. We heard that there are opportunities for professional planners to help Indigenous communities and territories reach goals they wish to pursue — especially since Indigenous groups trying to work with the wider system are often frustrated with delay, bureaucracy, and “hoops to jump.” Despite efforts, Indigenous communities often have to go back to the beginning to start over or risk having no funding at the end of a process or funding only for a distortion of their original plan. Given conditions such as substandard living conditions (boil water advisories and inadequate housing in many Ontario communities, for example), this dysfunctionality is of huge concern.

Regarding urban Indigenous populations, there is a wide diversity of Indigenous cultures and people in Ontario’s towns and cities from the province and across the country. Organizations such as Friendship Centres and Indigenous service providers create and sustain connections among Indigenous Peoples in the urban context and facilitate their relationships with the wider community.

Planners' Engagement with Indigenous Communities

"The first point is the truth in the area that you’re working: what are the ways Indigenous Peoples have been excluded where the planner is located?" 

"The word that stood out to me was “stakeholder” in reference to Indigenous Peoples. That is like a box that needs to be checked during project management. It’s derogatory to Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Peoples hold the rights to the land that we are planning."

"Duty to Consult: consider the term. Being told you have to consult. Do you even care about what this relationship is supposed to be? Almost like two different languages being spoken."

"Indigenous Peoples don’t need to be guided into a process; they already have a process. Integrate into that."

If there is a continuum, one end is solely informing Indigenous Peoples and communities, then next is consultation, then accommodation, and towards the other end of the continuum is real engagement and deeper co-creation of plans.

In this latter approach, time, space, and dialogue are needed to allow shared perspectives and goals to emerge. Some planners are working towards this type of engagement — asking how Indigenous Peoples wish to be engaged, building a relationship, having regular contact, discussing mutual concerns to help identify projects and programs. Practice in this way allows the “Truth” and stories to be shared, and thus, knowledge and skills are exchanged.

In urban settings, engagement processes need to be developed in collaboration with Indigenous partner organizations.

In early 2018, OPPI conducted a survey related to this topic among its members and received 194 replies. Tight timelines were noted most frequently as a barrier to meaningful engagement and partnership. OPPI learned that many planners engage Indigenous communities only in so far as legislation dictates, some do not engage at all but would like to, and others try to engage but are unsuccessful as they don’t have well-established relationships. Some cited a lack of support from their municipality, government department or company (even efforts to keep planners away from engaging Indigenous communities for fear of process, claims, and monetary repercussions). As well, we learned that often planners simply don’t know who to contact to get started. In urban areas, where the majority of Indigenous people reside, engagement is frustrated by not having an apparent representative institution or governance structure.

Insufficient Capacity in Indigenous Communities

"There is very little support for the consultation. Often the Indigenous community is small and has limited liaison people. These people have an endless stream of paperwork — a request for a quarry, plans for a Tim Hortons franchise, farming permits, rezoning, etc. These communities need financial support to hire extra administration people."

For Indigenous communities, we heard often of the burden of insufficient capacity and time. Administration staff are inundated with requests for consultation. Responding to the 2018 survey, one OPPI member observed that Indigenous communities may receive 150 to 200 notices per month. Certain projects may require technical knowledge or further consultation within the community. Then there are the communities’ own decision-making processes. Communities do not have the administrative and technical staff to prioritize and handle all requests in a timely manner. In this context, planners report that, despite outreach, there is sometimes no response from an Indigenous community.

We note that there are governance and jurisdictional differences between communities who are signatories to the Framework Agreement on First Nation Land Management and those who are not. Those who are signatories have the ability to make their own decisions regarding land management (e.g. a quarry, a Tim Hortons, etc.). Those who are not signatories still require the approval of the federal government. Significant administrative challenges exist in both situations. Capacity, time, and money are all huge challenges.

The Importance of Building and Maintaining Relationships and Respect

"We don’t need to “create” a relationship — we already have one with Indigenous people. It is strained and broken. We need to revive and build this relationship."

"Through relationship, comes the understanding of process." 

"In Indigenous communications, they may give you a story or may talk about a situation and expect you to do the work of making the connection to the questions you asked. Some may express their ongoing, historic frustration with not having their voice heard. it's important to hear this as context. Don't take it personally. But take it seriously."

"Put away the stereotypes and listen to what Indigenous people have to say. Some of our most intelligent people have had their education on the land and in the streets. Listen to them.… Just because someone hasn't had the opportunity to complete high school/college/university doesn't mean they lack knowledge. Understand that there are many roads to acquiring knowledge. Institutional (college/university/etc.) learning is just one road."

Given strained relationships resulting from dispossession from Traditional Territories and the livelihood it provided, broken treaties, agreements, and the legacy of the Sixties Scoop and residential schools, it is not surprising Indigenous communities distrust certain professionals and institutions. In this context, the planner’s own mindset is key and a demonstration of an openness to learning and to developing cultural knowledge and fostering an environment where people feel respected for their identity, culture, and community. We heard often of the value of taking the time to listen. Much practical advice was acquired through the project regarding how to reach out and build knowledge, understanding, and relationships.

We underline here the absolute importance of relationship, trust, and consent. It is the starting place. Getting to know one another — not simply because a project requires it — is a crucial foundation. We learned of helpful activities: the early initiation of relationships without issues on the table, municipal and community leaders sitting down annually to share their respective priorities, the value of attending Indigenous cultural events as a person and not as a professional, and many other ideas.

Planning as a Colonial Tool: A Challenge to the Profession

The big machines are churning out plans. The same plan, pretty much. Big firms traffic in trust. Planning hasn't evolved that quickly or that much. It’s set out on a track: x of this, x of that..."

"Truth is acknowledging that the profession itself needs to change its mindset. This is not just about bringing in Indigenous people and making them planners. It’s a path we should be walking together."

"Land use — we need to term it differently. It’s not there for our use. It should be “land relationship planning.” Building a relationship with the land around us. Take into consideration what the land is telling us. Everything that is alive is our brothers and sisters."

"OPPI must embrace the teaching to live in a place as if you will live there forever. Never do anything to the land that would prohibit you from living there tomorrow. There is no wasteland."

As a Western-based practice, the legacy of professional planning has sustained the colonial mindset and intentions. Planners are often associated (“obsessed,” said one Advisory Committee member) with land “use,” private property, growth, and the rapid speed of development. While we heard that the intent of all planning is to help communities be better off in all the indicators of wellness, the clear message is that the planning profession has failed Indigenous Peoples and communities to date and has a long way to go. For progress to be made, the planning profession must face its own truth — that there is a colonial legacy and bias in the practice.

Despite this hard truth, there is optimism. Among those who work in this area, there is a strong conviction that the planning profession can and needs to learn from Indigenous Peoples. This is especially so as we face global environmental changes, such as biodiversity loss, climate change, extreme weather events, and more. There should and must be a two-way exchange in the public interest — for all of us.

The concept of Two-Eyed Seeing is a good way of explaining what is now needed. Two-Eyed Seeing as taught by Mi'kmaw Elder Albert Marshall refers to “learning to see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of Western knowledges and ways of knowing ... and learning to use both these eyes together, for the benefit of all.”

The Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP) has developed useful policy regarding planners’ responsibility to embed reconciliation in their practice and offered objectives for planning and planners. The policy helps define the role that planning and planners play in reconciliation and calls on planners to engage in meaningful, sustained relationship-building with Indigenous Peoples. This is a positive step and a solid contribution. While we need not repeat their recommendations, they are highly related.
[1] Statistics Canada. Aboriginal Population Profile, 2016. Note that Indigenous people may be under-represented in Statistics Canada data.
[2] Guide for Lawyers Working with Indigenous Peoples, Law Society of Ontario, page 21.
[3] One Task Force member notes: Treaties as land “ceding” documents might better be described as land sharing documents, creating obligations to discuss issues of mutual interest.
[4] The term “Western” refers very broadly to a heritage of social norms, values, beliefs, and political systems that is Euro-centric in origin.
[5] Indigenous Peoples Worldviews vs Western Worldview, Jan 26, 2016, 2:32:00 PM, Working Effectively with Indigenous Peoples Blog, Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. Retrieved 2016-11-11:
[6] At the time of this report, the Ontario government is reviewing, and may possibly repeal, the Far North Act.


Cover image: Danielle Desjarlais and Kateri Lucier-Laboucan, Indigenous Design Studio at Brook McIlroy Inc.

The graphic is based on the Prophesy of the Seven Fires of the Anishinaabe and the idea that we are currently in the time of the seventh fire, when a choice will be made that will determine the future. This is highly relevant to the issue of planning and climate change. This is why the seventh fire at the top of the graphic is without colour. The outcome is up to us as a collective.