Communicating across cultures

November 17, 2014

I’m Canadian. Well…really…I’m “kinda Canadian” according to my wife. I came south from Ottawa in 1987 right after high school where we met. She stayed in the nation’s capital before immigrating to Seattle last year.

Born and raised in Vancouver she’s shared many stories of the spectacular places she visited as a child in her travels across British Columbia with her father. I re-traced some of her steps this past summer when I travelled to Bella Coola in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, home to the rare and revered Spirit Bear.

I travelled to the remote village, home of the Nuxalk Nation, as part of a project supporting Coastal First Nations working to improve management of the abundant natural resources of the region. Central to that mission is asserting rights and title to their territories.

My role is to help Nuxalk leaders communicate the goals, values and activities of the Nuxalk Stewardship Office. I approached the work the way I would any other communications project – help them figure out how to deliver the right message to the right audience from the right messenger through the right communications channels.

From the beginning I felt daunted by the challenge of communicating to audiences ranging from fishermen, tourism operators, timber, oil and gas companies and government agencies. But I really felt out of my element when faced with stewardship leaders’ core goal of communicating with their fellow community. Without the understanding, buy-in and input of the Nuxalk people on how fish, wildlife, water and land in their territory are being managed, the stewardship office can’t do its job.

A central principle of strategic communications is to meet people where they are. And that means speaking to their values. And that’s where I was getting stuck. Sure, human values are human values and stewardship of nature is a value shared across cultures. But could I ever really understand the perspective and concerns of First Nation members from my cultural context?

To more fully grasp what First Nations are trying to do I needed something of an “a-ha” moment. I had to internalize that they aren’t waiting for some kind of sanction from the federal and provincial governments. They are thoughtfully and respectfully re-assuming authority over the land and waters that have always been theirs.

A series of Canadian Supreme Court decisions and especially the recent Tsilhqot’in decision have given a huge boost to their efforts. “Aboriginal title confers the right to use and control the land and to reap the benefits flowing from it,” said Chief Justice Beverley McLaghlin. Ensuring that the court ruling translates into changes on the ground will be an epic, difficult journey.

I can only hope that my own minor trek to support Nuxalk goals helps in some small way. Or at least that I don’t get in the way. Catch that self-deprecation? Guess I’m Canadian after all.

Mark Glyde

Image: First Nations’ have revived travel in handmade cedar canoes.