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Building social capital with Indigenous communities

Building social capital with Indigenous communities

8 Minute Read

What is social capital and, given the diversity of Indigenous communities in Canada, what can corporations do to build social capital with First Nations organizations?

This article originated in the Journal of Aboriginal Management (JAM) magazine and has been re-posted with the author’s permission.

Jonathon Mitchell is a Senior Manager at MNP, who has been with MNP since February 2021. He also serves as the VP of Supply Chain Canada, British Columbia Institute, and is the Treasurer of All Nations Trust. He holds a Masters of Indigenous Business and Leadership from Simon Fraser University.

Jonathan is a proud member of Westbank First Nation and worked for that Nation in various senior management roles in finance, for more than eight years. While there he gained an appreciation of the opportunities facing First Nations, which inspired him to apply those skills in private practice.

Jonathon can be found on LinkedIn here.

Carter Wilson joined MNP in 2016 as a summer student and is now a Manager with specialization in advisory, assurance, and accounting services. His focus is on helping Indigenous communities improve financial management practices, from policy to new systems and software. He obtained his CPA designation in 2021.

Carter is a proud member of the Peguis First Nation in Manitoba and holds a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Manitoba. He has a strong penchant for volunteerism and helping improve his community.

Carter can be found on LinkedIn here.

What does social capital mean to you?

Jonathon: Social capital, to me, is an individual’s or an organization’s following or involvement in networking, whether it’s locally or globally. It’s their interactions with their community and target audience.

Carter: When I think of social capital, I think of community; it’s what people think of you in your community. It’s about getting to know others and other viewpoints in the Indigenous space.

Is there an element of social capital that relies on good rapport between two parties?

Carter: Absolutely, social capital relies on good rapport. Good rapport does not mean you agree with everyone, it means you respect each other’s opinions. In the Indigenous space, we’re so diverse. Jonathon and I, for instance, we’re both Indigenous but our opinions of Indigenous topics are often quite different.

Jonathon: It’s possible to create a negative social capital. From an Indigenous perspective, we do our best to be positive, move forward, and be progressive. The organization that we work for (MNP) does a really good job of that as well.

You have to be purposeful and mindful. I think it’s important in the Indigenous space to try and break negative stigmas, and focus on positive social capital.

Why is building social capital an important first step to interacting with the Indigenous community?

Carter: The way I operate is trust. I ask myself “How much do you trust the person you’re talking to?”

Often we gain trust, as Indigenous people, from who you know. As an example, in my community, many people know my parents, so I am often referred to as “Joyce and Terry’s son” it shows I was raised in a similar community, and likely we hold similar values. But that familiarity can be achieved in other ways, such as opening up about your own life, and upbringing so they can get a glimpse of the community you were raised in.

You need social capital to gain that trust in the community first, and then you move forward from there.

Jonathon: On social media, your alignment to certain things is also important in building social capital. You have to be really cognizant of these things. It matters. It’s a reflection and extension of who you are, the organizations and people you align yourself or your organization within your social capital.

Do Indigenous communities get to know the parties that approach them before agreeing to work together?

Carter: Projects go much better when the element of trust is there. I’ve seen projects go forward and do well when there isn’t a full level of trust, but I’ve also seen much more success when that foundation of trust is there. It is because you both can ensure each other’s best interests are at heart.

Jonathon: Proposals are always interesting because it relies on both parties. I think Nations are more likely to select their partners based on overall fit, values, and business relationships instead of your typical corporate entity that puts more weight on price or similar criterion.

I think from a social capital perspective, it’s imperative to build relationships and trust models. Overall fit and alignment of values is going to be more important to an Indigenous community than it is for a corporation, and is imperative to an ongoing business relationship.

How do you go about building trust with someone you haven’t met yet?

Carter: It starts with understanding. Indigenous groups are so diverse, you can’t blanket us as all having the same interests. There are many ongoing debates, pipelines for one. Whether for or against, there are many Indigenous people that hold values on both sides. You need to understand the individuals or groups you’re working with and not the “Indigenous idea.”

Jonathon: Organizations must be humble in their approach. They cannot assume they know everything about the nation or how a project or opportunity will proceed. Caution and appreciation is going to go a long way.

If we’re making recommendations to corporate America and Canada, the one constant to consider and maintain is to be humble.

What would you say about transparency as a means of building trust?

Carter: The way I always engage is to be upfront and direct.

For a working relationship, I think it’s an absolute must. Communicating things they might not want to hear also builds trust, instead of only telling them things they want to hear. Nothing can be executed perfectly every time, but by identifying potential challenges early can save the relationship later down the road. This gives both parties the ability to plan for the challenges, and work through them together.

When I’m doing a software implementation, I make sure to mention: “There’s going to be bumps. But we will try to avoid the bumps as much as we can.” They’ll respect you for being upfront.

Jonathon: When trying to build social capital, clear intentions are so important. Approaching things in a good way is important. There’s a lot of stigma out there, and a lot of mistrust. Whether you’re a corporation or an Indigenous community, it’s easy to start conversations mistrusting one another. You have to approach it in a positive manner, with transparency and clear intentions.

Intention is key because not everything is sunshine and kittens. Like Carter said, there’s going to be bumps on a project, in a relationship, in leadership, even on an individual micro scale. Trying to shine a beautiful light on everything doesn’t create trust. In fact it’s very untrustworthy; you have to be real.

What tools are available to build your network?

Jonathon: I like to leverage spaces and institutions I already belong to, like Supply Chain Canada, or as an alumni of Simon Fraser University in order to build positive social capital.

I think leveraging your local community, institutions or groups you belong to, are simple and easy ways to build positive capital. This will allow you to leverage specific tools that are available, such as social media.

Very rarely are Indigenous communities in a position to reach out to a corporation, and generally speaking, even if they are in a position to reach out, they likely wont. Corporations are likely going to have to make the first move — that very humble, cautious, respectful outreach. That goes for reaching out to individuals as well as a community.

Carter: The way I got in with a community was through the university I went to. That was the easiest first step, and everything else flowed afterward. The first step is the most important, for me that was education, and getting involved with student groups. Eventually I met many of my connections by putting myself out there more and more.

One thing I know is always used in my community is Facebook. It’s a huge one, more than any other platform. I like it because I can see many things going on in the community and everyone has access to it. But it can hinder individuals or organizations if they’re too focused on any negative things. Everyone wants the best for the community; keeping things positive is crucial if you want community movement.

Jonathon: I’m a bit old, so I’m more of a LinkedIn user myself. I tend to leverage that as my main social media tool, especially professionally. It works for me.

How does social media help or hinder your ability to connect with the right people?

Carter: I think it’s important to not forget to bring up the positives in your organization or community. But when there are issues, try not to focus on the individual or the organization, focus on the issue and the challenge itself. It’s easier to align with a challenge than it is to align with a negative comment about people or organizations.

Jonathon: On a micro and macro scale, be supportive. Try adding positive commentary, sharing wins, sharing good stories, or even spreading awareness in a positive matter.  It allows the narrative to become educational and informative rather than negative or disgruntled finger pointing.

How do Indigenous values inform networking practices?

Jonathon: Generally, Indigenous people are collaborative. Decision making usually occurs in a collaborative manner, ensuring everyone is on the same page. Very rarely will a large decision be made in a split decision, usually everyone is for or against it. Sometimes, if it is a split decision, some communities won’t go forward with it unless there’s more people on board.

Collaboration is a value to be aware of when networking.

Carter: When I think of my community, stories are a big part of it. That’s more of an informal method of communication that is difficult with Zoom and I think it’s so important. Between individuals, the informal is often more important than the formal.

For example, at a family gathering they might tell me a long-winded funny story from the other week. Something random. Telling stories and informal conversation is how I feel more connected to my family and it is also that way for the communities I am a part of. It’s very rarely “I worked with this person once on a project…”, it’s more common to hear “I know them from here or here,” more informal settings. Personally, I feel I have the strongest connections with clients that I can trade stories and experiences with each other before or after a project call

Do you find the trend of remote work has changed the way you approach networking?

Jonathon: The robotic answer is that yes, we are progressing in a virtual format. We’re leveraging the tools that are available to host community meetings and things like that, Teams, Zoom, or even a simplistic FaceTime or Duo conversation. We’re evolving in this direction. I had the opportunity to host a community meeting on Saturday, which was all done virtually.  

I think it’s important to ensure there’s methodologies in place for collaboration, to ensure you’re visible, attentive, and you’re not just a “blank screen” or floating name. I think there’s methodologies to make sure you are holding interest, but it is a challenge.  

As a whole, I think Indigenous peoples prefer face to face. We prefer community events. Because of the pandemic, and everything that’s happening in the world, communities are suffering. They’re not able to do their potlatches, pow-wows, or their large community events. These events make Indigenous people proud, they are representations of their culture.

This new world has had negative effects. We have to try to be positive about it and embrace these changes. But there’s huge systemic issues that have resulted because of it. We heal through community.

Carter: The pandemic has changed things from meeting people at community events, to having to message them on LinkedIn or Facebook. You have to ask virtually to have a coffee and pick their brain about something. Before, it happened so naturally.

There are also virtual events that can be great to expand your network and learn something new. Especially for those who live in more remote areas, or across the country. Although this method might not be available for areas that may not have reliable internet.

How can Corporate Canada better network with indigenous communities in the spirit of reconciliation?

Carter: First and foremost, before any business gets started, understanding both ways is the most important thing. I see too many times people using just blanket statements.

For example, I was working with a community where one organization assumed that honorariums were always given in the same way to every First Nations community. They said “We do it this way with one person in Eastern Canada,” and they were comparing it to somebody in Western Canada. And I had to remind them “We’re not all the same.” You need understanding before even responding.

Jonathon: I think this interview is a pretty good example; Carter and I trying to be as helpful as we can, but two very different individuals, and we don’t represent our collective Nations with our perspective, nor do we have the perspective of our organization. We’re not the Indigenous voices for MNP. I’m just me.

I think corporations need to understand that. If I can make a plug here, that re-evaluation of approach is something that MNP does very well. The firm makes sure each approach is specific. I’m very proud to work for MNP; I chose this firm because of their values and their approach, and their understanding of Indigenous communities.

We’re all still just individuals. Don’t blanket the approach. You’ve got to approach it with open ears, very humbly, and you have to reach out.

To learn more about how MNP can help, contact your local advisor.

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To learn more about how MNP can help, contact your local advisor.


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