“When you are open to understanding the North and the people of the North, when you have a team that is hungry to understand and develop the mine in an ethical way, that’s progress.”
Cheyenna Campbell says that community consultation is like a puzzle, and her role is to share the last puzzle piece with both parties, whether they be industry, a First Nation, or government. It’s how she has formed strong relationships with these parties – understanding that a lack of information can lead to stalemate, conflict or litigation.
Cheyenna is the Lands and Resource Manager for the English River First Nation as well as a band member of English River First Nation. Her role involves working with parties with the end goal of development or other business relationships, as well as acting as a community voice. “We can tell industry that we don’t want development in an area because it will disrupt the way we use the land,” says Cheyenna. “Land-based learning is an important part of how our community passes on our traditions, language, and our culture.”
Building these relationships so that you can have transparent, thoughtful conversations requires very specific knowledge. “I must dance along that ridge between the two worlds,” says Cheyenna. “Norman Wolverine and other Elders in the community, like Isidore Campbell, provide me with traditional knowledge and history in a culturally sensitive way, and I am able to combine that information with my knowledge from real-life experience in the legal world.”
“We have the ability to tell them what works for us.”
Cheyenna also sees the relationships and processes changing. They are no longer one-way where industry or government has the final say. “This is our playing field now,” says Cheyenna. “This is how we live, our worldview. We can enlist our own scientists, like ERFN band member Jeffrey Skopyk (a geophysicist and geologist) who can talk to us and give us critical information, so we can make informed decisions on matters that have the potential to affect our lands and our people – now and in the future.”
The power of investing in people and communities
Cheyenna says English River First Nation, and other Indigenous communities, want to work with industry while still ensuring traditions are maintained and protected, which means protecting the land.
“All of the uranium mines and mills are regulated by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission [CNSC],” says Cheyenna. Where Indigenous communities can play a huge part is in setting parameters around how they can be consulted from beginning to end on the development. This is aided by the CNSC, which provides resources to address Indigenous community needs, including how to be properly informed and consulted – from the initial environmental impact statements to Indigenous rights assessments. The Federal Government does not provide funding to protect Indigenous lands, Indigenous communities must work independently to do so. It becomes extremely important that industry and Indigenous communities work together to ensure Indigenous voices are heard.
“Our Constitutionally protected Treaty and Aboriginal rights have the potential to be impacted by any proposed mine or exploration project,” says Cheyenna, who notes that more frequently, both parties are able to reconcile development with preservation of the land. A prime example of this is with Denison Mines and its Wheeler River Project. “When you are open to understanding the North and the people of the North, when you have a team that is hungry to understand and develop the mine in an ethical way, that’s progress.”
Trust in the process
“It all comes back to lack of information – that people haven’t been told the whole story,” says Cheyenna. Historically, many interactions of Indigenous communities with government or industry have been negative, which explains why there is distrust amongst community members.
Cheyenna says the issue of perceived environmental contamination is a prevalent one, especially because regulations aren’t always understood by our people and therefore they aren’t always trusted. “We don’t blindly accept that the government has our best interests at heart, because of the difficult history between the people of our Nation and the Government,” she adds. The community needs to understand how the environment will be protected.
A relatively new standard in consultation with the CNSC is the creation of plain-language summaries – to put the content into an easily-digestible and translatable document. “The CNSC has indicated to us that all documents released to our Indigenous communities now contain a plain language summary because the CNSC chose to listen and implement meaningful change based on what we told them. We said we needed their documents to be easy to understand and to be in less technical language so that we are able to translate it into our language so the people in the community know exactly what is going on,” says Cheyenna. By working with elders in her community, she can translate their knowledge into legal form for proponents and government bodies.
Giving back to the nation
Cheyenna says her work is part of her drive to give back to her community – the community that invested in her by giving her a post-secondary education. She says English River First Nation’s Elders have always seen the need to invest in its young people, to employ them.
Cheyenna grew up on the La Plonge reserve. During the school year, her mother would rent an apartment in Saskatoon, North Battleford, or Meadow Lake so that Cheyenna and her siblings didn’t have to attend the Beauval Indian Residential School. “Even though we moved around a lot, we got a good education. My parents really nurtured that.” And although she didn’t have a lot of toys, Cheyenna said she could always access books.
Before she became a lawyer, Cheyenna got her degree in Indigenous studies with a focus on Indigenous women’s rights and law, being mentored by renowned Mohawk lawyer and activist, Patricia Monture-Angus.
It was not the easiest road for Cheyenna. After receiving approvals and funding from the Chief and Council, she started law school with a 4-month-old daughter, committed to get through it. Cheyenna remembers, “My mother said, ‘Never rely on anybody – finish school so you can take care of yourself and the baby’.” However, without extended family and good friends, Cheyenna would never have finished law school.
In law school, Cheyenna focused on Indigenous law, and her early career was focused on civil litigation, but she changed direction after the passing of her first husband. At the time, she was caring for a 2-year-old, a 5-year-old and a 14-year-old. “It was a lot to deal with and I needed a change,” says Cheyenna. “Suddenly our world became very different.”
“My hope is that once I am long gone, my five kids will be able to say that I made a lasting impact on our community. I want them to be able to say that I made a difference and that I helped to preserve the land, the water, and ultimately the culture of the people of English River First Nation.”
It was then that Cheyenna approached Des Nedhe Group and English River First Nation leadership for a chance to be part of its growing team. Mentored by Norman Wolverine, she was able to learn more than she ever had about her community’s relationship with the land. Now, as a key member of English River First Nation and Des Nedhe Group and its blueprint for future progress in English River First Nation, Cheyenna sees firsthand how the work she does will impact future generations.