Mike Hensel, OALA, in conversation with Devin Tepleski
Mike Hensel, OALA, and Devin Tepleski in conversation about relationship-building, responsibilities, and honouring the treaties
MIKE HENSEL, OALA, IS PRINCIPAL OF HENSEL DESIGN GROUP INC. (HDG), WHICH HE ESTABLISHED IN 1990 AND IS BASED IN COLLINGWOOD. HDG PROVIDES CONSULTING SERVICES TO THE PUBLIC AND PRIVATE SECTORS, INCLUDING LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE, AND ENVIRONMENTAL AND PROJECT MANAGEMENT. MIKE HAS ALSO BEEN PROVIDING SERVICES TO FIRST NATION COMMUNITIES FOR DECADES FOR A WIDE VARIETY OF PROJECT TYPES, WITH A PARTICULAR FOCUS ON BIOPHYSICAL ANALYSIS AND THE COLLECTION AND DOCUMENTATION OF TRADITIONAL KNOWLEDGE INFORMATION FOR COMMUNITIES AND THE TRANSLATION OF ORAL HISTORY, PHOTOGRAPHS, AND VIDEO RECORDINGS INTO INTERACTIVE GEOSPATIAL DATABASES. MIKE FIRST PREPARED MAPPED RECORDS OF TRADITIONAL KNOWLEDGE FOR THE DOKIS FIRST NATION IN 2002 AND THE CHIPPEWAS OF KETTLE POINT AND STONY POINT FIRST NATION IN 2004 TO PROVIDE A HISTORICAL BASELINE DURING VARIOUS NEGOTIATIONS WITH THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT. MORE RECENTLY, LONG LAKE FIRST NATION AND BATCHEWANA FIRST NATION HAVE UNDERTAKEN COMPREHENSIVE TRADITIONAL KNOWLEDGE COLLECTIONS IN WHICH MIKE HAS BEEN RESPONSIBLE FOR THE FACE-TO-FACE ENGAGEMENT WITH COMMUNITY MEMBERS AND ELDERS TO RECORD INFORMATION AND TO ASSIST IN DOCUMENTATION OF TRADITIONAL LAND-USE AREAS.
DEVIN TEPLESKI IS A THIRD-YEAR MASTERS OF LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE STUDENT AT THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO WHO HAS WORKED ON TRADITIONAL LAND-USE STUDIES, TRADITIONAL ECOLOGICAL KNOWLEDGE STUDIES, IMPACT ASSESSMENTS, AND ON VARIOUS COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENTS PRIOR TO HIS GRADUATE STUDIES. HIS WORK IS BASED ON THE PREMISE THAT LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTS CAN’T OFFER EFFECTIVE SOLUTIONS TO OUR MOST URGENT ECOLOGICAL ISSUES, SUCH AS CLIMATE CHANGE, WITHOUT UNDERSTANDING LOCAL COMMUNITIES AND CULTURE, AND THAT LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTS NEED TO FUNDAMENTALLY RECONSIDER METHODS OF COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT.
Mike Hensel (MH): There is a huge opportunity for landscape architects to participate in land-based issues affecting First Nation communities. If you can understand the land and intrinsic cultural connections and bridge that through sensitive analyses of the land and provision of design solutions, that’s what we, as a discipline, are well positioned to do and have the skills for. I have been very fortunate and honoured to have been provided access to First Nation communities and to assist them with projects involving the modification of the landscapes within their Traditional Lands.
Devin Tepleski (DT): There are parallels between some Indigenous cultural values and some of the ethical values common in landscape architecture. Yet there are so few Indigenous landscape architects in the profession. What can be done through the CSLA, the OALA, and the universities to promote the profession in Indigenous communities?
MH: This is connected with broader social issues. First Nations youth face greater challenges to pursuing post-secondary education than do non-Indigenous teenagers. I believe you are right that there is indeed a connection between the land and First Peoples that is intrinsic and overlaps with some of the values of our profession. To work as a landscape architect involves honouring the land, and this parallels aspects of Indigenous belief. I have come to appreciate more, as I have worked with First Nation clients, the emotion that is attached to the land. Quite apart from the components on the landscape, it’s an inherent connection. There is an Ojibway phrase: “We are the land.”
DT: When landscape architects work within an urban context, in a city like Toronto, where the Indigenous community is diverse and multicultural, there is the added complexity around who to talk with in order to fulfil the mandates of certain project goals. Projects in these urban contexts don’t necessarily face the same bureaucratic scrutiny as, say, resource-extraction projects that have processes for engagement that are established, if inadequate. Furthermore, the legal obligations in an urban context may not have been tested in the same way as they have been for resource-extraction projects, and the landscape architect may not be aware of complex histories, the governance structures within First Nations, or important details of treaties. Project briefs will likely come along that request elements of Indigenous culture, whether through interpretive elements or program, or, in some cases, form. It should be clear by now that landscape architects should develop these elements through collaboration with Indigenous peoples, but the question many might have, particularly in an urban context of pan-Indigeneity, is, which people?
MH: You have to be proactive, and you have to be determined to get to the root of the issue at hand. You get at this through engagement, but you also have to be a bit of a detective to find the undercurrents of the issue, if there are any. Then you need to find a way to get at the core of the issue and respond to it responsibly and sensitively. That’s where engagement comes in.
I’ve been involved in projects where I’m told, this is your role and here is what I want you to do. And I’ve lost jobs where I’ve dis- agreed, and we couldn’t come to terms on an approach. Recently, we were asked to be involved in a mining-related project. The mining proponent wanted to hire us to work for them and engage the First Nation communities whose traditional lands were being affected. I said, “I can’t do that. I think that the model to be used is to fund the First Nation, and we will work for the First Nation to complete the Traditional Knowledge Assessment.” The mining company thought about it, went back to their board, and said, “You’re absolutely right. That’s the way we need to do it.”
DT: Many landscape architects may be unfamiliar with the duty to consult and accommodate. Could you expand on what that is and the history of it as it applies to your work?
MH:The Supreme Court ruling in the Delgamuukw decision mandated that Traditional Knowledge, the stories from Elders, be considered valid data, and be recognized and utilized in the decision-making process. When I first heard that, it went right to heart. I realized that the duty to consult, or the duty to engage, stemmed from the fact that the treaties were not being upheld. The point is that the natural resources within a traditional land-use area are to be shared with the First Nations associated with that traditional land-use area. The duty to consult is the requirement of any proponent within the traditional territory to engage that community for the purposes of determining what the potential impacts are and what their interests may be. That doesn’t always happen as it should.
Most agencies haven’t been mandating it. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency does, but many other agencies do not: Municipal Affairs and Housing, for example. They have trained their staff. They have put directives out to municipalities, and the words are entrenched in regional, county, and municipal Official Plans, but as long as they get a letter out to the community, which they call engagement or consultation, they consider that the tick of the box and move on.
True engagement involves asking questions properly. And in order to represent interests properly, you need to have the right information. This is where Traditional Knowledge comes in—through assistance from the community or through their own efforts to document Traditional Knowledge. Each First Nation community needs to articulate what their traditional land-use area looks like, and what elements and special values are within it that need to be considered. So, when a proponent comes forward and says, ‘’Here is what I want to do,” you are able to overlay that information on the Traditional Knowledge mapping and are able to tell the story. Only then will you be able to say, “Here are the issues that are going to arise with this proposal.” You can then begin the dialogue that leads to, potentially, an effective solution on both sides because you are able to visualize what the impact is. It is very difficult to articulate what you are trying to achieve when you don’t have a picture of the uses on the land. As a landscape architect in this situation, I see my role as the facilitator and preparer of the pictures of the land taken from all the information shared by the First Nation community. I see it as a process of engagement and communication in a respectful way: “Here is what our interest is. Please help us understand your interests. We recognize your right to this land. Please explain to us what we need to do to work together to find a way to make this project happen.” And we also have to recognize and respect that there may not be a way to make it happen. In my practice, we are the instruments that facilitate that communication and that understanding through the collection of the data, the presentation of the data, the articulation of what it means to both sides. Then we are a resource as the dialogue unfolds. We are there to help facilitate the dialogue and steer it to a conclusion.
DT: You are talking about relationship- building that goes beyond the responsibilities of established regulatory frameworks—a decision as a landscape architect and as a citizen to engage in the spirit of the treaties.
MH: Yes. I think you have to start from the vantage point that there are traditional land-use boundaries and land-use interests on the part of First Nations that need to be considered and respected. Starting from that premise, when we get any job anywhere, it is not about asking what are the standard checkboxes, but also what are the interests of the First Nation regarding this project? From a jurisdictional perspective, there may be a requirement in an Official Plan to engage a given First Nation, but regardless, you have to be proactive and think more broadly. You have to think outside those boxes. What other interests may there be here? You need to enter into a dialogue with others who might have the answers to those questions. Figure out what the interests are. In doing that, you are doing the responsible thing for the community, yourself, and for that particular First Nation.
DT: For projects that involve remediation of sites, such as mines and other extractive industries, the impacts on the land have direct consequences for the people who live nearby, and also a legacy of stress that continues beyond the project and its remediation. How important is it to allot time for working through these issues and to consider the stress, pain, and trauma of what the community has experienced?
MH: I’ve seen the emotion of Elders talking about what once was, and what now is, on lands they lived on as children. The only thing I can think of that helps alleviate some of the pain is providing a view of the future that is real and tangible. With some agreements being reached today on new projects, there are considerations being made through reparations, compensation, and benefit agreements and funding that provide the advancement of solutions for the healing of the land and the community. As a landscape architect, it is invigorating to be part of a team that helps advance healing. Maybe it is water benefits. Maybe it is reforestation. It might be wildlife habitat. It might be something in the landscape that provides a sense that even though all these bad things have happened, we are finally moving forward together.
DT: What have you learned from the people you have worked with that has made you a better landscape architect?
MH: About twenty years ago, I worked on a project at Six Nations. It was a new school, and I had designed a series of interpretive stations within the site plan. I was quite proud of it. I had designed an interpretive trail including a butterfly wildlife garden, utensil garden, and a three sisters garden. These were designed to help engage and teach the children about their culture and history. The balance of the site was naturalized. While it was being implemented, I was quite proud of myself watching it take shape. It was all coming together. A woman walked up to me and said, “Are you responsible for this?” I said, “Yes.” And she said, “What consideration did you make for the souls of these trees? Do you know where these trees came from? How were they oriented? Where were they facing? How did you consider these things when the trees were ripped from the earth and brought here?”
By the time she was done with me, I felt about an inch high. I learned that I needed to be more considerate of all the elements, including the spiritual, that fit into the context of design, placement, and the order of implementation. I had been so detached, taking this seemingly basic design element, a tree, and just putting it in a spot that was shown on my plan.
Now, when I go to communities, I try to look at each design solution through the eyes of the user and with the sensitivity of the culture that is viewing it. I do this so that I know in my heart of hearts that I’ve thought as broadly as I can about that design solution and I’ve thought through every element of it as completely as I can to know that it is as close to the expectation and level of appreciation that I can provide.
DT: When landscape architects go into a community engagement process, there is always stress in not knowing how it might go. There are unknown unknowns. Of course, you should always do your homework, but if there is one thing I’ve learned, it is that you need to be open to making a fool of yourself sometimes and be ready to learn from those missteps.
MH: You have to be humble. I always start by telling the First Nation communities I work with, “I work for you, and I am your instrument. You have to help steer me and point me in the right direction. If I am making a misstep, you have to let me know.” The stress comes with the job, but the test is when you present your findings or present your solution. You are asking people to tell you how you did. Even when you’re a bit surprised by the circumstances and events that come at you, they help you invoke even more considered thought in your work.
DT: Beyond the stresses related to impacts to the land, there are significant stresses stemming from the Crown’s historical relationship with Indigenous peoples. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission offered several calls to action that overlap directly with landscape architecture’s work.
MH: We need to recognize what has happened historically because it can lead to better understanding of the situation today. I think awareness is key, and it is up to each individual landscape architect to develop that awareness and understanding.
A SELECTED RESOURCE LIST FOR LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTS:
https://native-land.ca/. This website will help with research into which First Nation’s territory a project falls within.