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January 2013

Planning for growth in First Nations communities

For many of the First Nations peoples of Canada, community planning decisions are grounded in the heritage of the past. Leaders must take into account the unique cultural histories which have shaped whole communities and given them a sense of identity. Community planning in this way is particularly important for local bands when they negotiate with external companies and stakeholders for access to resources on First Nations land, such as transcontinental pipelines or hydroelectricity projects.

Recognizing this challenge, EcoPlan International set out to develop communications tools that would assist First Nations leaders as they move forward on key community planning decisions.  They did so by partnering with University of British Columbia School of Community and Regional Planning (SCARP) Masters student, Juliet Van Vliet through Mitacs-Accelerate to develop a custom Geographic Information Systems (GIS) map database for several Métis communities in Alberta.

The research process for the project was complex and had many stages in its execution. First, Juliet undertook a comprehensive literature review to analyze and determine the communication needs of the two communities which EcoPlan had selected.  From there, a plan to develop two digital communication tools was created. As families of the communities were interviewed by EcoPlan representatives, video software which displays transcripts of their oral accounts on-screen was developed to better catalogue, search and analyze the oral histories being told. This built on the work of her supervisor Dr. Leonie Sandercock in digital ethnography, by modifying software developed by the First Nations Studies Program at UBC. Furthermore, Juliet honed her skill in database management as she pinned the historical accounts of the families to specific points on a map through GIS technology.

Through this project, these First Nations families can begin to share the common histories of their traditional territories in ways that deeply enrich their understanding of their cultural identity. Furthermore, band leaders will be able to use the interview transcripts and GIS database to determine the needs and desires of the communities they are planning for. EcoPlan also benefitted from the opportunity to explore new tools that would otherwise have been difficult to access or understand.

“Mitacs-Accelerate has allowed EcoPlan to conduct Research and Development projects that we would not have been able to otherwise. Internships like these have kept us competitive and are a great way to give students an opportunity to get work experience.” says William Trousdale, President of EcoPlan International.

 Juliet also found many benefits to the internship, saying: “Mitacs-Accelerate allowed me to learn and grow as an individual and as a researcher. The synergy between academia and business through the internship gave me an invaluable opportunity to practice my skills and to break into my field for the first time.”

Dr. Leonie Sandercock praised Mitacs-Accelerate for affording Juliet an once-in-a-lifetime learning opportunity which also led her to a permanent planning position with the District of Tofino, in coastal British Columbia:

“Mitacs-Accelerate provided an invaluable hands-on learning experience for Juliet in terms of real-time planning in the field with an internationally renowned planning consultancy firm. The partnership between EcoPlan International and Juliet through Mitacs-Accelerate was a match made in heaven."

Mitacs acknowledges the Networks of Centres of Excellence's IRDI Program, Western Economic Diversification and the Government of British Columbia for their support of Mitacs-Accelerate in B.C.