“Consensus is a Ceremony of Communication”: A Conversation about Abundant Collaboration with Lewis Cardinal

May 20, 2022

Park People

In the lead-up to The Park People Conference, taking place virtually September 21-23, 2022, Park People met with Lewis Cardinal, a communicator and educator, who has dedicated his life’s work to creating and maintaining connections and relationships that cross cultural divides.

Lewis is Woodland Cree from the Sucker Creek Cree First Nation in northern Alberta, Canada. His consulting company, Cardinal Strategic Communications, specializes in Indigenous education, communications, and project development. Currently, Lewis is Project Manager for “kihciy askiy–Sacred Land” in the City of Edmonton, Canada’s first urban Indigenous ceremony grounds.

The Park People Conference, focused on the theme of abundance, will showcase new ways to build partnerships, attract resources, create spaces and deliver impact in city parks. Each day of the conference will focus on one aspect of this theme. Lewis’ keynote presentation kicks off the first day dedicated to the topic of abundant collaborations – the cross-sector collaborations that create whole new possibilities for city parks.

Registration for the Park People Conference is now open.

 

 

Jodi Lastman: You began your work on kihciy askiy-Sacred Land in 2006. From the outside, 16 years seems like a very long time to stay with a project and see it through to fruition. What are your thoughts on the time it’s taken to make kihciy askiy a reality in Edmonton?

Lewis Cardinal: Listen, building relationships takes time. Nobody’s done a project like this before so there’s no blueprint. The City of Edmonton didn’t have policies and processes to do something like this. We had to make these things up as we went along and, naturally, that slowed things down.

I mean, the city’s not in the habit of giving land back to Indigenous people.

It took a lot of community consultation to make kihciy askiy happen– with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. The elders made it very clear, that we have to move forward in a good way, and take the time to build the relationships that need to be built.

We said, let’s just keep moving forward with this and try to be as patient as we can because the process is the product. If we want this to be a sacred site that is built on love, trust, respect, and understanding, that’s what we need to embody in the process.

 


Sweat lodge circle and tipi area beyond, kihciy askiy, rendering from the City of Edmonton

JL: Can you help me understand what you mean by “a good way” and some of the practices that encompass that approach?

LC: The city and community had to approach learning from each other with an open heart and an open mind. We start with ceremony, respecting our relationship with the city, and respecting the individuals we are working with because, at the end of the day, we’re all just human beings trying to do something to benefit people in our community.

We had to bring the City into how we do things and we had the opportunity to work with the City to learn how they do things too.

To do that you each need to have a clear vision of what you’re trying to build together. From there you share that vision with colleagues, friends, and partners. Then they each start to see themselves in that vision, that story. It is not just our vision, as Indigenous people. It’s a shared vision.

Working in a good way is also about being respectful, even during disagreements. Our Indigenous tradition teaches us that it’s all about relationships, and these relationships are critical to moving anything forward.

I mean, we’re all human beings, right? We lose patience. But when things start going sideways and you’re starting to feel the tension, you have to slip back into the ceremony to bring yourself back into a sense of balance so you can continue to move forward in a good way.

One thing I’ve learned from this process is that you really can’t drag anybody along to where you want to take them. They have to come willingly. And that’s why the vision needs to be shared so everyone involved sees themselves in that story.

 


Credit photo: kihciy askiy Tipi and site v2, Teresa Marshall

 

JL: What you’re describing sounds like a very joyful approach to consensus building.

LC: Yes, that’s right. We could have pulled all kinds of political cards and tried to force the City to do what we wanted to. But, kihciy askiy would have taken longer than 16 years or it may not have happened at all.

We continuously remind each other that we are in a good relationship, and it becomes almost like a mantra to continually remind us why we’re doing this.

Picture a young man standing with his mom and his little sister at a bus stop in Edmonton with a towel underneath his arm. Somebody asks that young man: “Where are you going swimming?” He responds: “I’m not going swimming. I’m going to a sweat lodge. I want my mom and my sister to see it too.”

When you share that kind of vision, it shakes loose some of the rigidity we may have built up. It cuts through the titles that we have as individuals, and it puts it into the heart of the human being that you’re working with. And I think that’s what works because it’s consistent, it’s like ceremony.

Consensus is a ceremony of communication. Consensus is the sacred process of honouring each person’s vision so that they can connect themselves to an idea in their own way.

When communication fails it creates shadows. Those shadows create doubt and confusion. Then, the process becomes a playground for individuals who might want to take advantage of that communication breakdown. So being consistent in speaking together and building a shared vision is very important.

 


Credit: Rendering of the view from the entrance to the pavilion building from the City of Edmonton

 

JL: Are there practical ways you try to achieve consensus?

LC: We always begin with ceremony, prayer, and mindfulness, because they take us back to the essence of what it is that we’re trying to do. Creating consensus can be unnerving at the beginning because people aren’t used to working with it, and they may stumble and fall. But once you get used to it, things move really quickly. Suddenly, everybody’s agreeing to the same vision.

We always make sure to celebrate and honor our partners. Whenever I get a chance to talk to the media or groups of people, I always say what a wonderful relationship we have with the city and how honoured we are to work with the City of Edmonton. This is an act of reconciliation.

By honouring your partners you’re reinforcing the relationship and strengthening it.

Every relationship has its dark side. That is our flaw as human beings –we always tend to muddle things up more than they need to be. We can become controlling and destructive. But the opposite is also true. We can become very creative and very loving and very open and we can make positive changes for a lot of people. So working within this context of consensus and relationship building is foundational.

 

JL: How has the process of working on kihciy askiy changed Edmonton?

LC: Over the last 18 years we’ve had the Edmonton Urban Aboriginal Accord, the Edmonton Declaration and the new Indigenous framework. This has helped the city rethink how it works with other communities, beyond Indigenous communities. It’s created a freshness of possibility.

In Cree tradition, we have the word tatawâw, which means you are welcome. It expresses openness to embracing all the people and communities who make Edmonton their home. It says “there is room for you here.”

 

Here are some resources to help you learn more about Lewis Cardinal and his work:

Registration for the Park People Conference is now open.

We hope you’ll join us at The Park People Conference, September 21-23, 2022.

 

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Cover photo: kihciy askiy Ground Blessing ceremony, Teresa Marshall

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