What started as a conversation over coffee with a senior government executive turned into a journey of learning and reflection regarding design, policy, service delivery, and collaboration. We were asked, “Do you know anything about what New Zealand is doing with regards to Indigenizing their public services? And is there anything we could learn from their efforts to put into practice here in BC?”
The following is a summation of those learnings and associated thoughts on how we can encourage further Indigenization of services in British Columbia. So, how might BC approach the challenge of transforming the design and delivery of services through Indigenization?
Let’s start with why
At OXD, we are looking at how we do business through the lens of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action #92.
We call upon the corporate sector in Canada to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a reconciliation framework and to apply its principles, norms, and standards to corporate policy and core operational activities involving Indigenous peoples and their lands and resources.
We know our colleagues in the public sector are committed to aligning with the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. We seek to change the way we operate by incorporating reconciliation through action and growing our design practice in a way that reflects this shared commitment.
I remember the first project in which I was tasked to obtain the “Indigenous perspective.”
This project left me with an acute feeling of unpreparedness, of feeling there was a lot I did not know. I was also uncomfortable with the implication that a singular perspective existed and would be representative.
I have no relational ties to Indigenous communities. I have been a settler in Victoria, BC for most of my adult life, living and working on the territory of the Lekwungen people, known today as the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations. I remember grappling with anxieties around tokenism and a lack of experience with process and protocol. There was no documentation or professional support to help frame research goals with Indigenous communities or help build relationships with key points of contact. There was no guidance to ensure a culturally safe engagement process and align findings with the entire body of research, accounting for differences in worldviews and values.
A just relationship with Indigenous Peoples necessitates rethinking the ways policy and service are designed. With this in mind, I looked to Aotearoa (New Zealand) to glean insights from how structural Indigenization is being practiced at scale elsewhere.
In writing this piece I did not exhaustively review every collaborative policy and/or design initiative in Canada and New Zealand or speak with all relevant parties. It is likely I am not aware of existing efforts that could further inform this work.
As a service designer who has worked with and for governments, I hope this piece sparks further discussion and helps engage new and diverse voices in the process of indigenizing our policies and services in BC.
Policy efforts in British Columbia today
Government services are designed and delivered through a fundamentally western worldview. To experience government services is generally to experience the legacy of colonization and a set of underlying assumptions regarding value and ways of knowing and experiencing. Excluding thousands of years of tradition and protocol reinforces a system designed to serve the needs to a Eurocentric audience living and working in a Eurocentric society.
This is not to diminish the hard work I’ve witnessed in the public sector; from the inclusion of Indigenous ways of knowing as part of organization-wide professional development efforts, to the Aboriginal Policy and Practice Framework at the Ministry of Children and Family Development (more on that in a bit), to the robust professional development opportunities provided to public servants who wish to further their reconciliation journey through a variety of channels and activities.
The passion I’ve seen from public servants regarding a radical transformation of the government’s culture and practice is at a critical mass.
In BC, all Ministers’ Letters align to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as well as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action. In a September 2017 news release, the Office of the Premier and the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation describe the new framework.
The provincial government has committed to now adopting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which has been accepted by 148 nations, including the Government of Canada.
In all government Ministers’ Mandate Letters, the Premier included a requirement that they review policies, programs and legislation to determine how to bring the principles of UNDRIP to action in British Columbia.
The new government will also accept and implement the 94 Calls to Action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, and will work with First Nations and the Government of Canada to do this.
The B.C. Government has committed to implementing the recommendations from Grand Chief Ed John’s report, Indigenous Resilience, Connectedness and Reunification – From Root Causes to Root Solutions, and provide better supports so Indigenous children grow up in their communities and not in care.
The Province made it a priority to provide support to Indigenous communities seeking to revitalize connections to their languages. The revitalization of language is a human right as asserted within the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The BC government also introduced “Draft Principles that Guide the Province of British Columbia’s Relationship with Indigenous Peoples,” modelled on principles introduced by the federal government in 2017. The province’s principles provide high-level guidance on how provincial representatives engage with Indigenous Peoples. They address areas such as:
- the rights of Indigenous Peoples to self-determination and self-government, and the responsibility of government to change operating practices and processes to recognize these rights;
- the standard of conduct that government employees must demonstrate in all dealings with Indigenous Peoples; and
- the need for treaties, agreements, and other constructive arrangements, to be based on the recognition of inherent rights and respect.
Importantly, the principles include engaging with Indigenous communities when creating new policies and programs, reviewing services to make sure they are delivered in culturally sensitive ways, and renewing fiscal relationships to help further Indigenous communities’ right to self-determination.
As public and private institutions across sectors and service areas continue to affirm their commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples and communities, how can these efforts contribute to a coherent and holistic provincial and even national strategy regarding the systemic Indigenization of public services?
The Joint Degree Program in Canadian Common Law and Indigenous Legal Orders (JD/JID) at the University of Victoria—and the direct inputs it will have to the Canadian legal system—is the first truly structural example of Indigenization that I’ve seen, a swift transition from theory to practice.
Another example of systemic Indigenization is the updates to the BC grade school curriculum to teach more accurate histories and include Indigenous worldviews and ways of knowing alongside the western or colonial lens.
The Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) is also moving toward structural Indigenization through the Aboriginal Policy and Practice Framework. The framework was endorsed by the Delegated Aboriginal Agency Directors Forum and the Ministry in 2015.
The Aboriginal Policy and Practice Framework is an overarching framework intended to improve outcomes for Aboriginal children, youth, families and communities through restorative policies and practices. It applies to policy and practice involving Indigenous children, youth and families on and off reserve regardless if they are being served by a Delegated Aboriginal Agency or the Ministry of Children and Family Development. Restorative policies and practices are culturally safe and trauma-informed, supporting and honouring Aboriginal peoples’ cultural systems of caring and resiliency. The framework’s model for restorative policy and practice is Child, Youth, Family and Community-Centred; Culture-Centred; Inclusive, Collaborative and Accountable; and focused on Resilience, Wellness and Healing.
The framework utilizes the Circle Process as a “strength-based and holistic way to support policies and practices to be restorative.” I highly encourage an in-depth study of the document as it contains relevant learnings for anyone working in the public sector. While I could highlight many aspects of the framework, I have chosen four key elements.
Cultural Safety: A theory and practice that takes into account power imbalances, institutional discrimination, colonization and colonial relationships as they apply to social policy and practice. Cultural safety involves actively exploring and challenging complex power relationships, including the way that bias, stereotyping, discrimination, and racism manifest in these contexts.
Lifelong Learning: Acquiring the knowledge and cultural competency for safe services is a continual process. More emphasis on cultural competency is required to ensure that strengths-based and inclusive practices are incorporated in services for Indigenous children, youth, and families.
Culture, Tradition, Values, Language, and Identity: As policy developers and practitioners, we must consider community protocols on how individuals are approached, who needs to be involved, the process of involving them, the language used and when we need to consult with translators, Elders or cultural persons are required. Traditional decision-making processes must be considered to strengthen the inclusion of cultures, traditions, values, and languages and to support positive identity formation.
Interconnectedness and Relationships: A pivotal element of Indigenous cultures and worldviews is that ‘all living things and the environment are interconnected and interdependent.’ Children, youth, and families cannot be viewed in isolation from their extended family; their communities; and the mental, physical, environmental, social, and spiritual realms of their lives. Indeed, everything must be viewed through the lens of ‘relationships,’ both past and present.
The Ministry of Children and Family Development uses the Indigenous Policy Lens, released in 2014, “to support a more integrative and collaborative approach to policy development and promote equity and inclusion of Aboriginal perspectives in all policies.” The lens is applied in policy processes to ensure Indigenous perspectives are recognized as having an equal influence in policy along with legislation; evidence; alignment with Ministry values and principles; promising practices; and children, family, and community perspectives.
The First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) is another example of systems-level Indigenization in British Columbia. From the website:
The FNHA is the first province-wide health authority of its kind in Canada. In 2013, the FNHA assumed the programs, services, and responsibilities formerly handled by Health Canada’s First Nations Inuit Health Branch – Pacific Region. Our vision is to transform the health and well-being of BC’s First Nations and Aboriginal people by dramatically changing healthcare for the better.
The FNHA is responsible for planning, management, service delivery and funding of health programs, in partnership with First Nations communities in BC. Guided by the vision of embedding cultural safety and humility into health service delivery, the FNHA works to reform the way health care is delivered to BC First Nations through direct services, provincial partnership collaboration, and health systems innovation.
The First Nations Health Authority does not replace the efforts of the provincial Ministry of Health or regional health authorities; rather it collaborates, coordinates, and integrates our respective health programs and services to achieve better health outcomes for BC First Nations in rural and urban settings.
Learning from New Zealand
British Columbia and Canada are not the first to undertake this journey of Indigenization and transformation. Aotearoa—the Māori name for New Zealand—has been on a decades-long journey to incorporate Te Ao Māori (the Māori worldview) into all aspects of public life.
I seek to avoid being reductive when holding up British Columbia and New Zealand (NZ) for comparative analysis. British Columbia is almost 1,000,000 square kilometres, compared to 268,000 in NZ. The 600,000 Māori in New Zealand and 100,000 more living in Australia, comprise dozens of iwi (Māori social groups descended from common ancestors). In contrast, BC is home to the second largest population of Indigenous Peoples living in what is now Canada, with distinct and diverse cultures, values, and languages, including 34 languages that make up 60% of Indigenous languages in the country. Within BC, there are over 129,000 First Nations people from more than 198 distinct First Nations (that’s one-third of all First Nations in Canada), more than 59,000 Métis, and nearly 800 Inuit.
That said, Ouri Scott, a Tlicho Dene architect, originally from the Northwest Territories, speaks to the cultural values of the Māori people aligning with the values of the Coast Salish.
They’re very similar. Some of the values [are] about thinking about the land, the water, the environment, our ancestors. And also the importance of our culture, so respecting the oral history, the stories, how our stories are connected to places. And they’re connected to value systems. From my understanding of Maori culture, my understanding of Coast Salish culture, those kinds of things are both really similar.
Regarding how urban planning and architecture can help heal wounds caused by colonialism and chart a new Indigenized future, Scott adds:
Colonialism, a lot of it, was about denying culture. And by embracing culture, representing culture, and reflecting culture in the built environment, I think that’s a strong way to show the identity of a place, the cultural history of a place. So instead of denying culture, we’re embracing culture. Instead of forbidding language, we’re using First Nations language in our signs and in our place names. It’s doing the opposite of what was done during colonialism.
A (very) brief history of the settling of New Zealand based on what I’ve read.
The current understanding is that New Zealand’s first arrivals came from East Polynesia in the late thirteenth century. These ancestors of the Māori discovered the islands on voyages of exploration. Over several centuries in isolation, the Māori developed a unique culture with their own language, a rich mythology, and distinctive design and performing arts.
In 1642, Dutch explorers were the first confirmed Europeans to arrive on the islands. In 1769 British explorer James Cook travelled to New Zealand on the first of three voyages. After circumnavigating New Zealand’s main islands he returned to Britain to report on what he had seen. By the late eighteenth century, sealers and whalers began visiting, eventually settling and farming.
The arrival of Europeans brought enormous changes to the Māori way of life. Māori people gradually adopted many aspects of western society and culture. With the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, the two cultures co-existed as part of a new British colony. Under the treaty, the Māori ceded powers of government to Britain in return for the rights of British subjects and guaranteed possession of their lands.
In later years, conflicting translations and interpretations of sovereignty, possession, and protection, among other things, led to rising tensions and eventual conflict between many Māori iwi and the government. Disputes over land sales led to decades of conflict and social upheaval, and epidemics of introduced diseases took a devastating toll on the Māori population.
The Māori and New Zealand officials actively began working to address past wrongs and increase the standing of Māori people in New Zealand. The Māori population started to recover, and traditional Māori culture enjoyed a significant revival that was further bolstered by a Māori protest movement that emerged in the 1960s. This was followed by the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975, which set out to investigate and reconcile past grievances. While there is still much work to do, New Zealand’s government has said it’s committed to working alongside Māori leaders and “has accepted a moral obligation to resolve historical grievances.”
Familiar narratives between Māori and Indigenous Peoples in BC
There are striking similarities in worldviews between the Māori in New Zealand and Indigenous Peoples in British Columbia. According to Ko “Te Putatara” ko au (Ross Nepia Himona), Te Ao Māori can be understood as.
- An explanation of the world.
- A vision of the future, answering the question “Where are we heading?”
- Values, and answers to ethical questions: “What should we do?”
- A theory and practice about “How should we do it?”
- A theory of knowledge: “What is true and false?”
- An account of its own “building blocks,” its origins and construction.
Putatara, a noted activist and writer who has been writing on Māori issues in Aotearoa since the 1980s, adds:
Putting it bluntly, on the one hand there is a general worldview, fostered by the elites who presumably benefit in some way, in which Māori are a romantic re-tribalised society organized within the mythical whanau / hapu / iwi post-colonial construct, living the idealised concepts and values of tikanga Māori, and speaking Te Reo Māori. On the other hand there is the real world of modern Māori – mostly urban, disproportionately represented in the lower socio-economic class and in the prison population, living in poverty or near poverty in poor quality housing, suffering poor health, under-achieving educationally, beset by racism in their dealings with society and its institutions, and at the bottom of society according to most measures.
The reality of the Māori condition arises out of a culture of struggle and resistance. It is a struggle against insurmountable odds to make any headway into the mainstream of a New Zealand society of affluence and consumerism, and resistance against the seemingly oppressive forces of the state and its political economy that conspire to maintain that status quo. Over the last two or three generations some Māori have made it into an educated middle class but the Māori middle class is still a minority and its idealised world view is not representative of Māori in general.
This familiar narrative could be a recounting of Indigenous experiences in British Columbia, where 78% of the Indigenous population lives off reserve, mostly in urban areas, and experience disproportionate poverty and its associated toll. In 2011, The Assembly of First Nations produced a Fact Sheet summarizing quality of life statistics for First Nations in Canada they made the following observations.
- One in four children in First Nations communities live in poverty. That’s almost double the national average.
- Suicide rates among First Nation youth are five to seven times higher than other young non-Aboriginal Canadians.
- The life expectancy of First Nations citizens is five to seven years less than other non-Aboriginal Canadians and infant mortality rates are 1.5 times higher among First Nations.
- A First Nations youth is more likely to end up in jail than to graduate high school.
A 2019 report produced by the Assembly of First Nations, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and Upstream found that little had changed for Indigenous children in Canada in the last decade. The report, titled Towards Justice: Tackling Indigenous Child Poverty in Canada asserts that “First Nations children are far and away the most marginalized and economically disadvantaged.” In addition, First Nations children are six to eight times more likely to be taken into care than non-Indigenous children and suffer disproportionately poor health outcomes. While this report focuses on child poverty, its authors note that if a child is living in poverty, everyone else in their home is living in poverty too. These are just a few of the statistics that illustrate the systemic, generational struggles Indigenous Peoples experience. Further compounding these challenges is the fundamentally western worldview through which government services are ideated, designed, and delivered.
What does the process of Indigenization look like at a systems level?
A sustainable approach to designing services and programs is co-creation where the communities share in the development of the services they will use. This is a participatory design process, from policy through implementation, where lived experiences and different ways of knowing are brought to the process as expertise and become central to the design process.
Community Research, a non-profit organization working in the community and voluntary sectors in Aotearoa, uses codesign approaches when working with Māori communities regarding norms, expectations and outcomes. Their approach uses the following insights and principles.
- Māori whakapapa: normal, natural, common, ordinary – also means without restraint, intelligible – create space for our people to be without restraint
- Can’t have single definitions when working on Māori development
- To the Māori design is not new, and it lives within their whakapapa
- Co-design with Māori – a convergence of worlds
- Tuka Mai / Tuka Atu: shared understanding and an equal distribution of power
Co-design is not limited to generative activities—that is, developing discrete service touchpoints and experiences (for example, a digital interface) or the policy that serves as a catalyst for service design and development. Co-design is critical throughout the service design process to understand the ways it reframes how and who we make with, instead of who we make for.
To understand how we can shift the service design process, we need to ask ourselves several questions. How do we conduct insightful and meaningful qualitative research in ways that are culturally safe, respectful, timely, measurable, effective? How can we create value for all parties? And how can this be codified in a first-principles framework, repeatable and relevant across the public sector?
Māori ethical frameworks and design principles
Linda Smith and Fiona Cram at The University of Auckland used the Community-Up Model (2001) to develop Maori Ethical Frameworks for researchers. In their words:
While respect is a universal principle with no prescribed method of practice, there are some key Maori concepts that can act as a guide to researchers. There have been a small number of ethical frameworks developed specifically from a Maori perspective. Each framework seems to contain within it a similar set of values that inform research practices and ethical processes.
The framework includes concepts like whanaungatanga and manaakitanga. Whanaungatanga refers to building and maintaining relationships in the Māori context. It is a process of establishing meaningful, reciprocal, and familial relationships through culturally appropriate means and establishing connections and engagement and, therefore, a deeper commitment to other people.
Manaakitanga is sharing, hosting, and being generous. Russell Bishop defines it as “a value that underpins a collaborative approach to research, one that enables knowledge to flow both ways and that acknowledges the researcher as a learner and not just a data gatherer or observer. It also facilitates the process of ‘giving back,’ of sharing results and of bringing closure if that is required for a project but not for a relationship.”
The design and use of physical space is a key part of the Indigenization of the public sphere. The Auckland Design Manual is intended to help guide the design and development of the built environment in Auckland. Central to the manual are Te Aranga Design Principles: a cultural landscape strategy /approach to design thinking and making that incorporates a series of Māori cultural values and principles.
These process-oriented principles have provided the foundation for, and underpin the application of, the outcome-oriented Auckland Design Manual. One of these principles is rangatiratanga, the right to exercise authority and self determination within one’s own iwi / hapū realm. Another is kaitiakitanga, the concept of managing and conserving the environment as part of a reciprocal relationship, based on the Māori worldview that we, as humans, are part of the natural world.
These and other core Māori values underpin and guide the application of the Te Aranga Māori Design Principles. These principles were developed to recognize the challenges Māori people experience in urban areas and to outline Māori interests in the built environment. The term “urban design” was deemed too narrow to capture or resonate with Māori worldviews and the term “Māori cultural landscape” was developed as a response.
As Māori we have a unique sense of our cultural landscapes. It includes past present and future. It includes both physical and spiritual dimensions. It is how we express ourselves in our environments, it connects whānau, whenua, awa and moana through whakapapa, it includes both urban and rural, it is not just where we live, it is who we are.
What are parallels between the Indigenization of Aotearoa and the BC context?
There is much to learn from the decades-long efforts of Māori and Pākehā (New Zealanders of European decent) in formalizing these strategies.
The British Columbia Public Service sector is in the midst of a cultural shift and I’ve met people doing the hard work. I’m left wondering: how do we practically prepare public servants to build and sustain productive relationships with Indigenous communities to design better policies and services? What strategies and protocols can create the conditions for success? How can co-design be part of British Columbia’s Indigenization process?
According to the Auckland Plan 2050, two key pathways have led to successful outcomes for Māori-centric design.
- The role of marae (meeting places) as focal points for social, cultural, and economic development.
- The delivery of services “by Māori, for Māori,” based on Te Ao Māori values and practices.
In my time in and around the public sector in BC, I’ve seen a multitude of similar efforts. However, there is no overarching, mandate-driven framework or directive similar to that found in Auckland that unites these initiatives through process, training, and outcome measurement.
Of course, there’s no way I can know about everything that’s happening in government and other public bodies or what background efforts may already be underway. I can only offer anecdotal observations, what I’ve gleaned through research, and what I can envision, especially from a service designer’s perspective.
Moving toward transformation and inclusion in policy and services
Based on my experience, here are some suggestions for policy makers and service designers working towards transformation and inclusion.
Include Indigenous designers, however that may be defined
Combine traditional values and practices with western methods and tools. Embed these partnerships throughout all levels and sectors of government, working both within specific programs and business areas and across silos, on systems-level initiatives.
Establish systematized processes and provide supports for the design lifecycle across government
Processes and supports can include:
- Providing access to guided protocols when engaging with Indigenous communities and real-time in-government supports to help navigate protocols;
- helping public servants navigate the differences and nuances of working with the 198 distinct First Nations in BC;
- providing documentation that supports public servants in these processes (first principles, design frameworks);
- establishing and nurturing relationships with partner Indigenous communities;
- making meaningful design choices with Indigenous input the standard, regardless of the project timeline;
- updating procurement processes that allow public organizations to purchase culturally appropriate services for the work; and
- creating realistic budgets and political support for all the above.
Better onboarding for public servants
Incorporating change requires both understanding the issues and a desire to change. This applies to responsibilities to UNDRIP and to the TRC Calls to Action. Participatory learning experiences increase opportunities to build relationships with Indigenous people and communities by allowing policy makers and designers to better understand community needs. It is important to increase opportunities to work in communities while learning about Indigenous worldviews and values. Through all of this work, ensure that Indigenous consultants are fairly compensated for their services and labour, both visible and emotional.
Design Indigenous-first services where appropriate
In areas where Indigenous Peoples are overrepresented, such as lack of housing and child protective services, we should design for outcomes that reflect Indigenous needs. Yet, we also need to recognize that non-Indigenous-centred outcomes may be equally positive through the same service experience. This is the intent of the Policy and Practice Framework at the MCFD.
Promote cross-sector collaboration and sharing
It’s important to learn from one another and not duplicate efforts. We need to use this shared understanding, these aligned principals, and this foundational commitment as the basis for formalizing our ways of working together.
Establish an anti-racist public sector culture committed to reconciliation through action
Establishing a public service culture that is committed to reconciliation through action demands that we collectively overcome our fear of admitting what we don’t know so we can learn by doing and grow through these experiences. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls upon all levels of government to educate public servants on the history of Indigenous people in Canada. Call to Action #24 asserts that “this will require skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism.” These efforts should be ongoing and more involved than a one-day cultural sensitivity course. While one-off engagements can be of value, they are merely a first step. As people with the privilege of shaping policy and services we have a responsibility to learn about and confront Canada’s history, the legacies of colonialism, and the systemic anti-Indigenous racism and injustice that persists. This understanding should be embedded in the organization’s culture and the commitment to reconciliation should be made explicit.
Many public and private institutions in BC are just beginning to make a commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples and communities. I wonder how these organizational efforts contribute to a coherent and holistic provincial and national strategy or framework regarding the systemic Indigenization of public services. This is an opportunity to synthesize the many efforts across jurisdictions, bring Indigenous voices to the forefront, and commit to a programmatic approach to updated and new policies and service delivery design and implementation.
First principles, good practices, and values-driven frameworks can better align public servants to modernized research and design services and policies. New policies that engender trust in nation-to-nation relationships should define the work of the Province of British Columbia. This is particularly important when the goal is to create policies and services that don’t only functionally account for the wants and needs of Indigenous communities but are Indigenized from the inside out.
I remain excited and optimistic by the ongoing journey this requires.