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A guiding force

October 2, 2014
Dan George

When Dan George was asked to be an independent and neutral facilitator on the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project, he was hesitant to get involved in a debate that has divided British Columbians.

“When I was asked to do this, I sought counsel from a couple of chiefs,” says George, president and lead negotiator with Four Directions Management Services. “One said, ‘Don’t do it. Your presence in the room will legitimize that project.’ Another chief said, ‘Do it, Dan. Your presence in the room will legitimize aboriginal rights and title.’ Then I talked to the real chief in my life and that’s my wife, who’s my business partner, and she said, ‘This is what we do, Dan. This is what you went to university to do. This is what you’re trained in, so we do it.’”

And so they did.

“When I thought about the legacy of mistrust that our people have with the federal and provincial crown, with industry and oftentimes with one another, I thought I could step into that space and help people come together and find common ground,” says George, whose courage was bolstered by his RRU degree. “Going to Royal Roads was a major turning point in my life. It gave me a lot of the theory behind the practice. It legitimized me in some people’s eyes. It opened doors for me that would have otherwise been closed. But more importantly, it built up my own self-esteem and my confidence.”

George, a graduate of the MA in Conflict Analysis and Management program, was hired by Enbridge in 2008 to design, establish and implement the Community Advisory Boards (CABs) along the proposed path of the pipeline. The five advisory boards are based in Edmonton, Grand Prairie, Prince George, Terrace and Kitimat. The boards are comprised of representatives from Aboriginal groups, local government, industry, environmental organizations and other stakeholders. About 150 people in total have been regularly participating. The public is also welcome at the sessions, which take place in each community quarterly.

“It’s been a really amazing experience to be a part of because the project is highly controversial and top of mind for many people,” says George, who takes on the role of facilitator at all of the advisory board meetings. “I’ve been able to use skills that I learned at Royal Roads and I’ve been able to hold the room and hold that conversation.”

The topics at the meetings include project design and risk, community benefits, business opportunities and Aboriginal traditions and laws. At each meeting, members determine a priority list of topic areas they would like discussed at the next meeting. While conversations can get heated, they are always civil and solutions-oriented.

“It’s not a forum for picketing and yelling at one another,” George explains. “We’ve created it to be a safe, respectful, inclusive place for people to learn about one another and to learn about the project itself so they can move towards decision-making that is more fact-based rather than emotion-based.”

The key to creating a positive, productive environment comes down to approach.

“My approach is grounded in respect, recognition and reconciliation,” says George, who is also consulting on the Liquefied Natural Gas Environmental Stewardship Initiative. “Respect for one another’s different points of view, recognition of our shared place on the land, reconciliation of world views and values – all moving towards the establishment of mutually beneficial relationships.”

For George, if people walk away from a session he’s facilitated feeling like they’ve been respected, heard and valued, regardless of the outcome, he knows he’s been successful.

Fort St. John Mayor Lori Ackerman is one of those people. Ackerman sits on a CAB and says the experience has made her a better person, in large thanks to George. Ackerman remembers the early meetings as laden with fear, anxiety and anger. She credits George with fostering a positive environment and says she and other participants now look forward to getting together to learn from each other and have respectful conversations.

“I was truly expecting an environment that was acrimonious at best. What I experienced was nothing of the sort,” Ackerman says. “Dan George became the heart that kept this group focused on respectful conversation. He never just talked the talk, he walked it and kept us all on that path. Even if we veered off, with respect and quiet encouragement, you were brought back.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by industry and First Nations alike.

“On issues which divide British Columbians, Dan consistently finds the thread that unites,” says Enbridge’s Janet Holder, leader of the Northern Gateway Project. “Under Dan’s leadership, the CABs come together to provide constructive recommendations that have led to meaningful and demonstrable changes in the project’s design.”

“It has been my pleasure to both participate and witness as Dan skillfully dismantles conflict one conversation and one person at a time in order to recognize the significance of multiple perspectives,” says Gitxsan Nation Chief Elmer Derrick. “To this end, it is in the silence that some of our greatest learning occurs – a philosophy that requires patience, understanding and thoughtfulness.”

George may make it look easy, but it’s not. While he’s clear he doesn’t promote the project, he still faces criticism. He recalls being told his business would suffer and his First Nations clients would leave him. But that hasn’t happened.

“I think I’ve demonstrated that I can act independently and neutrally,” he says. “I’m all about process. The group in the room is all about outcomes. I guide, they decide.”

There are still many decisions to be made around the proposed project and much work to be done. On June 17, the federal government announced its decision to approve the project, subject to the Joint Review Panel’s 209 conditions. One of the primary conditions is to continue to develop broad-based support for the project at the community level with a particular emphasis on First Nations and Aboriginal rights and title.

“When you talk about any kind of engagement, one of the biggest challenges for any kind of industrial development in this day and age is achieving social licence,” George says. “And that’s not only social licence from the First Nations community, it’s from the broader public as well. To be able to achieve social licence requires the establishment of forums for meaningful dialogue between interested or affected parties.”

Just nine days after the government announced conditional approval of the pipeline, the Supreme Court of Canada granted declaration of aboriginal title to more than 1,700 square kilometres of land to the Tsilhqot’in First Nation, the first time the court has made such a ruling. The decision presents a tremendous challenge for the province of British Columbia and for industry that wants to operate in B.C. and needs certainty about the land question. As new issues continue to arise, George is dedicated to leading sessions that stimulate meaningful dialogue.

“When I go into the rooms, I still get butterflies,” George says in advance of this week’s CAB meetings. “I still get anxiety. When I stop getting butterflies, when I stop getting anxiety, I should stop doing this work. If I don’t feel those things, then it doesn’t mean anything to me anymore.”