Consultation: Duty, Rights and Privilege

consultingLast week, I began a six-part blog series, Consult, Collaborate, Clarify and Commit: The Four C’s of Social Justice.  This week, I am discussing the first ‘C’ – Consult.  Consulting can be a problem in social development projects, because it can mean different things to different people.  Webster’s Dictionary defines “consult” as, “(1) to go to someone for advice, (2) to ask for the professional opinion of someone, (3) to talk about something with someone in order to make a decision, and (4) to look for information in something, such as a book or map.” In all these definitions, there is an assumption that someone or something has more knowledge or ability to give us the answers we need to solve a problem.

We consult with lawyers.  We consult with physicians.  We even consult with wedding planners and event caterers.  In all of these cases, we need to talk to someone who has more experience and knowledge than we do – and need their advice to make the right decisions.  When we accept someone as being the ‘expert’, it often means that there is an unequal power dynamic in that relationship.  By this, I mean that the consultant can be ‘better’, more knowledgeable, and even more important than we are.  This is especially a problem in marginalized communities, who have a long history of being told that their needs are less important than the needs and desires of others.  In many cases, this history is so prevalent that the community members believe they are inferior, unimportant, and lacking knowledge to help themselves.  They have become disenfranchised and disempowered.  They do not need yet another ‘consultant’ coming in to tell them that they are doing it all wrong, and need an expert to give them the answers they cannot provide for themselves!

In some cases, the consultants themselves become trapped in an idea that they know best, have the best answers, and need to be listened to so they can ‘fix’ the problem.  While I was in Tanzania a few years ago, I was sitting in a coffee house, overhearing a Canadian teacher talking to their friend about a problem in the school they were teaching in.  According to them, the students they had did not know how to ‘properly’ clean things, lived in filth and squalor, and were downright ‘stupid’ about how to avoid disease and health problems.  I was dismayed at their attitude – which showed me that they really believed they had all the correct answers, and that the students lived backwards lives with no understanding of how things were supposed to be done.  These Canadian teachers were the ‘experts’ in their own minds, and everyone else in Tanzania had to be properly educated.

In Canada, one of the government’s responsibilities to First Nations lies in a legal ‘duty to consult’.  In this context, there have been problems in British Columbia with successful consultation and accommodation.[1] All too often, this duty has become one of informing, rather than consulting. Under Canadian law, the government is not required to come to an agreement with the specific First Nations group.  Instead, consultation is designed to ‘reconcile’ conflicts between the community and the actions of the government, especially when those actions may impact Treaty rights.

This duty to consult does not apply to private industry, even though it is considered to be good business practice.[2]  This has led to situations where railroads and electric lines are built on or through Reserves.  In these cases, First Nations have little or no say in the construction.  This also means that gas or oil companies can survey or build on areas of land which affect First Nations communities directly.  It is these cases that have led to many conflicts in recent years over land and resource rights across Canada. In 2014, the Tsilhqot’in case showed that this form of consulting has not worked well, and has done little to change the problems positively.[3] To learn more about this important legal case in Canada, see this link:http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/tsilhqot-in-first-nation-granted-b-c-title-claim-in-supreme-court-ruling-1.2688332

These are just a few examples of how ‘consultancy’ which privileges the knowledge of one group often leads to social injustices, inequality, and power struggles.  If we are going to truly work with and help marginalized communities, it is going to be necessary to redefine what ‘consult’ means, and how we engage with those communities.  For First Nations groups, this change means we need to consult at the beginning of projects, provide them with all the information they need, give them time to consider the options, AND apply their concerns or needs into the proposed plan of action.

In development work, consulting needs to happen in a way that fully includes the community.  In every case, individual community members must be seen as equal partners in the consulting process. As I discussed last week, participatory action research is a way to fully engage communities, and allow their knowledge to be equally important to the consultant’s.  Once we have redefined consulting in this way, it allows us to help communities in better and more meaningful ways.  Meaningful consultation leads to collaboration – the second of the ‘four C’s’ of social justice.  Next week, I will discuss collaboration in more detail.  Until then, I am Spatial Integrity – making the invisible, visible!


[1] New Relationship Trust. 2009. Best Practices for Consultation and Accommodation. Meyers Norris Penny LLP.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

One thought on “Consultation: Duty, Rights and Privilege

  1. Pingback: The Chippewas of the Thames and the Clyde River Inuit: Colonial Narratives which need Retelling | spatialintegrity

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