In 2019, we worked on a project called “Wahbung: Our Tomorrows Imagined” to create a shared vision and pathway towards Mino Pimatisiwin (“the good life” in Cree) for First Nations people in the province of Manitoba in Canada. This project was an initiative of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, in partnership with three other local indigenous organisations and the University of Manitoba, and with support from Reos Partners.
The two of us have led a facilitation team made up of First Nations and Reos members, including Marcia Anderson, Brenna Atnikov, Moriah Davis, Mike Kang, Amanda Meawasige, Dean Parisian, and Darlene Spence. This team organised, designed, and led four multi-day workshops of a scenario team composed of Elders, Knowledge Keepers, youth, and First Nations leaders in health, education, community development, and child welfare. Our primary objective has been to support the scenario team to develop a shared set of answers to four strategic questions:
Perspectives: How do we see the complex current reality of our lives?
Scenarios: How might our lives unfold over the decades ahead?
Options: How could we deal with this unpredictable but influenceable situation?
Vision: What must we do to build a good life?
We have also had a secondary objective: to discover how to braid together the methodologies for collectively answering such questions used by the First Nations members of our team, with the methodologies used by the Reos members. Our approach to this braiding work has been to learn through doing: for each part of each workshop, we talked through and agreed on the methodology we would use, tried it, got feedback, and then adjusted course.
Our biggest learnings have arisen from mismatches and conflicts within our team and with the scenario team. We have been able to recognise and agree when something we are doing has not worked, and to pivot, over and over. In this way we have succeeded in helping the scenario team to answer the four questions, and to use these answers to lead their organisations and communities towards Mino Pimatisiwin.
Where we started
When the facilitation team started to design this project in March 2018, we were all excited to be working together on this potentially historic effort. Initially there was some give and take amongst us as to how to incorporate First Nations cultural considerations into the workshops. Yet, for the most part, the methodology we started with was the Transformative Scenarios Process that Reos has developed over the past 25 years through projects in different contexts around the world. This methodology is both structured and creative, and rests on the following basic assumptions (amongst others):
The foundation for building possible future scenarios for a system requires engaging in disciplined observation of the history and current reality of the system. In this project, we focused on the system that is creating well-being, or lack thereof, among First Nations people in Manitoba.
The basic requirement for productive and creative teamwork is to set aside hierarchy and formality. This requirement allocates the same amount of speaking time to all participants.
New outputs, such as shared answers to the above four questions, are created through a process of rapid cycle prototyping, where a first version is produced quickly and then subject to multiple rounds of feedback and improvement.
The facilitators act as trusted neutral guides of the process.
At the first workshop of the scenario team, in November 2018, we tried to implement the above approach. Some of First Nations members of the facilitation team doubted whether this would work, but they went along.
It didn’t work.
Within the first few minutes of the workshop, the mismatch between the methodology we were using and the expectations of the scenario team became apparent. For example, Reos often rings a bell when a speaker has used their one minute to introduce themselves, but many participants considered this rude to those speaking, especially Elders. Another Reos exercise practices a deeper way of talking and listening by looking into a partner’s eyes, which some participants found culturally inappropriate. Immediately, therefore, there was conflict in the room over whose way of doing things would prevail.
The facilitation team found this collision to be jarring. Many of our basic assumptions did not seem to hold:
The members of the scenario team experience multiple aspects of the history and current reality of the lives of First Nations—characterized by colonialism, racism, and oppression—to be traumatic and therefore difficult to discuss quickly or dispassionately.
The special roles of Chiefs, Elders, and Knowledge Keepers mean that for many participants horizontality and constraints on their speaking time were experienced as disrespectful.
Many participants experienced the quick structured activities (including those using unconventional and non-verbal ways of working, for example using Post-Its and Lego bricks) as constraining.
Because of these mismatches and a long history of oppressive processes in other contexts, many of the members of the scenario team did not trust some of the members of our facilitation team—especially the non-First Nations members from Reos.
What we learned
The Facilitation Team pivoted during this first workshop and many times thereafter. We couldn’t know in advance what would work and so we felt our way forward—often bumping our heads painfully. We kept asking what was going well that we needed to keep doing, and what we needed to do better. In this way we discovered methodologies that worked and we gradually increased trust and openness within our facilitation team and the scenario team.
The braided approach we ended up using involved the following elements:
Each day of the workshop began with traditional pipe and water ceremonies, drum and songs, and remarks by Elders and Knowledge Keepers.
The Elders and Knowledge Keepers engaged in their own parallel process separate from the braided scenario process.
Increasingly the workshops were facilitated by the First Nations members of our team, with the Reos members eventually having no speaking roles.
The structured, time-bound parts of the process were pared back to leave more time for less structured and un-bounded activities.
By using this braided approach to answer the four strategy questions, the scenario team constructed four stories of possible futures for First Nations people in Manitoba:
Dominion, a scenario of continued supremacy and erasure.
Dreamcatcher, a scenario of appreciation and appropriation.
All My Relations, a scenario of negotiation and reciprocity.
Sun, Grass, and Waters, a scenario of self-determination.
These scenarios are proving to be relevant, challenging, plausible, and clear. They have enabled Manitoba First Nations leaders to agree on a vision and a strategy for creating Mino Pimatisiwin. They are also providing a foundation for important negotiations with the federal and provincial governments about legislation and policy that affect First Nations.
Beyond this, most of the scenario team and the First Nations leaders have concluded that Dreamcatcher and especially Dominion are dangerous and must be fought against, while All My Relations and especially Sun, Grass, and Waters are promising and must be fought for.
These scenarios also provide crucial guidance to facilitators like us who want to braid Indigenous and non-Indigenous methodologies. We have learned that both the relational approach exemplified by the Dominion scenario (in which non-Indigenous methodologies are assumed to be best) and by Dreamcatcher (in which some elements of Indigenous methodologies are incorporated into non-Indigenous processes) will not be accepted by First Nations leaders and so cannot work. By contrast, the approach exemplified by All My Relations (which involves process negotiation and reciprocity) and by Sun, Grass, and Waters one (where the processes employed belong to Indigenous people and they choose what non-Indigenous contributions they want) will be accepted and so can work.