What is a First Nation?

Bob Joseph used to be called a sellout. That was before his company, Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., hit the big leagues.

Bob Joseph used to be called a sellout.

That was before his company, Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., hit the big leagues.

“When I first started doing this work, it wasn’t seen the way it’s seen today,” said Joseph, who gave a workshop to a couple dozen people at the High Country Inn on Tuesday.

“People were saying ‘You’re working for the corporation’ or ‘You’re working for the man,’” he said.

Joseph asked his father, chief of the Gwa-wa-aineuk Nation on northeast Vancouver Island, what to do.

“He said, ‘Just let your record speak for yourself, stay true to your principles and stick with what you think is right,’” he said.

Joseph was drawing fire from his fellow First Nations because he was walking into uncharted territory. He was an aboriginal person teaching big corporations, like BC Hydro, how to work with First Nations, as individuals and communities, without causing unintended offence.

He didn’t know it at the time, but his job forced him to break out of a mould. Not just a personal mould, but a political and cultural perspective that still pervades most conversations about what constitutes a First Nation person vis-a-vis the rest of Canadian society.

“I get a lot of questions about, ‘How do aboriginals think about this and how do aboriginal think about that?’ And the reality is that there is so much cultural diversity that, in some cases, they cannot even communicate there are so many different languages,” he said. “They’re as different to each other as Spanish and Japanese.”

He’s worked with natives in Peru. He’s advised everybody from the Royal Bank of Canada to Environment Canada to Enbridge. He’s worked with dozens of NGOs and First Nation governments. He’s helped the RCMP understand that direct glaring eye contact – an investigative tactic to ascertain whether somebody is telling the truth – can be taken as a rude gesture by many First Nations. He’s showed major companies that First Nations have a set of rigid legal protections that can be used if they’re not consulted on a project.

Put simply, he’s had to navigate that precarious line that determines what makes a First Nation different.

“The biggest problem are assumptions – the assumption monster,” he said.

“The biggest mistake that people do is they say, ‘I’ve just been hired to go work with First Nations by the Yukon government, that should be easy,” he said. “And they assume that what they know now, their skills and knowledge, is enough. But you’re working across cultures – they want different things for different reasons.”

If an executive is sent to Japan for meetings, he’s likely going to learn some table manners to make sure he doesn’t offend anyone. But for some reason, maybe because we drive the same trucks and share the same continent, most non-natives don’t try and learn anything about their new partners before meeting them, he said.

“The reality is that there’s a lot of differences there – legally, politically, culturally – and it should be a lot like being an international trader,” said Joseph.

Very quickly, he confronted some deep questions about the cultural pigeonholes First Nations and non-natives often find themselves in. Are First Nations hostile to building companies and earning a profit? Do they have stronger ethical or moral values than Western civilization? Are Westerners rapacious destroyers of the land by nature?

Of course, he didn’t find any of those simplistic notions to be true. But what was his alternative? How could he explain the differences between First Nations and the rest of North America without stooping to culturally relativistic stereotypes?

A story Joseph likes to tell during his workshops helps explain it.

In 1999, he received a call from his cousin who was recruiting him to go to Washington state and help the Makah Nation in its fight to revive their traditional whaling practises.

“He said, ‘Come on, Bob, we have to go an help the Makah – us indigenous people have to stick together,” he said.

Joseph declined. The Makah had decided to renew whaling after the practice had to be put on hold for most of the 20th century due to low whale numbers.

The cousin kept insisting.

“He said, “I’m not going to hang up until you tell me why you don’t want to help the Makah people, because us indigenous people have to stick together,” said Joseph. “If we don’t, we’ll be divided and conquered and we don’t get anywhere.”

That refrain, indigenous people have to stick together, has been the mantra of many First Nation political movements for the last four decades. It was the mantra that Joseph was unknowingly waging a war against.

Finally, Joseph decided to explain what was wrong with this idea that all First Nations people are the same.

Joseph asked his cousin if he remembered the potlatch Joseph’s father held in 1982. The potlatch was intended to give Joseph, a future chief, his traditional name.

Spelling it out in English could never do the name justice, but it literally translates as, “the point in time when the killer whale breaches the surface, when you see the dorsal fin with a shot of air,” said Joseph.

In Gwa-wa-aineuk spiritual belief, if a whale ever does appear near the village in such a way, it means a returning chief is coming to watch upon the people.

The name was given to him by his father at the potlatch, which featured dancing, singing and gift giving.

The cousin was there in 1982. He remembered the potlatch.

“I said, ‘I really need you to promise me then that if I ever come back as a killer whale and (I breach the surface,) that you don’t stick me with sharp things,” said Joseph.

“It was my way of telling my cousin – like I tell the people going to the workshop – that (whaling) is what the Makah people want, but it’s not what other aboriginal people are going to want necessarily,” he said.

When it comes to defending values, Joseph can only defend those of his own First Nation community.

“If somebody tried to come and hunt whales in our territory, I would be compelled to go out there with Paul Watson and the Rainbow Warrior to try and stop them because I hold different values than other aboriginal people about whaling,” he said.

“Aboriginal people will support something like whaling or taxation or housing or mining or forestry,” he said. “They’ll support something, or they’ll be against something or they won’t care.”

“So as we’re working with communities, we’ve got to just figure out what that is that they’re looking for.”

So when Joseph offers a workshop to a bunch of executives, and tries to tell them about the do’s and don’ts of working in a First Nation community, he gives it with that caveat – all First Nation communities are unique.

And that doesn’t jive with the pigeonholing mentioned earlier. Because in this new paradigm, one that Joseph believes has already begun, but isn’t yet mainstream, all people, both First Nation and otherwise, are put on an equal footing.

Each possess a need to use resources, to consume something. But they also possess the ability to think long-term about the resource, about restraining their use of a resource.

That’s just being a human being. And the differences? Those are historical circumstances that change for each group over time.

That changes the First Nation question completely. It means that all people have the ability to consume and restrain that consumption, but there’s a serious problem when a certain group can’t decide the degree to which they consume and restrain.

“The kinds of things (First Nations) talk about – self-determination, self-reliance, self-government – is across the board,” said Joseph.

“Nobody is against development, but it can’t be development at all costs,” he said.

“A lot of the things we want are the same, but we have values conflicts about how fast we want to do them.”

Basically, each group wants to work with the mainstream economy, but independently determine their own ideas about what should be consumed and how much.

Joseph sees this notion as the new paradigm, past the post-modern critique of the aboriginal position in Canada, which set First Nation as ecowarriors and non-natives as overly mechanical, money-obsessed Earth-destroyers.

In this worldview, the best way to navigate these differences in consumption and restraint values is through discussion, for each business and each First Nation community to sit down and negotiate their views together.

“There’s people that are already there, there’s people that are lagging way behind, but the trend has been set,” he said.

“We’re at a transition period,” he said. “The road ahead now is much rosier.”

Contact James Munson at


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