Recently appointed as executive director, Indigenous Resource Network, John Desjarlais believes in communication and respect for different perspectives.
Although new to the role as executive director of the Indigenous Resource Network (IRN), John Desjarlais has been with the organization for some time. Context: Energy Examined recently spoke with Desjarlais to learn about his views on Indigenous-industry relationships and new directions for the IRN.
1. What’s your background with the resource industry?
I’m Métis Cree from northeastern Saskatchewan. For more than 20 years, I’ve been involved in the natural resource industry in a variety of capacities and industries, mostly in uranium mining and processing, and as a contractor in the energy sector.
There were many people like me, Indigenous people working in natural resource industries either directly or through supply chain opportunities, and we felt like we needed a voice because there was nothing that reflected our experiences or our perspectives. There was no co-ordinated method to work with industry or government to address issues like procurement, consultation, policy and engagement. Many of us were successful from a business standpoint but we needed a way to represent our communities through dialogue and building respectful relationships. So that led to the Indigenous Resource Network.
We also felt that our experience and perspective wasn’t accurately portrayed in the media, which tended to sensationalize Indigenous activism. Overall, we felt there was space for different Indigenous voices. It was important to speak up and offer more depth and points of view around resource development.
2. Tell us more about the IRN and how it helps to address those issues?
The IRN was established to create a voice for indigenous workers, businesses and communities that have an interest to understand and deepen Indigenous involvement in the resource industry. The IRN provides an organized voice so that industry and government can work with communities to understand our perspectives.
Some of the bigger concerns are things like energy security, sovereignty, affordability, reliability, reconciliation, and the different energy mixes. More locally on a project level, especially in B.C. and Alberta, we have concerns about feasibility, exploration, operation and reclamation, timeframes, opportunities but also challenges where we think we can offer solutions through good Indigenous engagement.
3. The IRN has developed strong relationships with the resource and energy sectors, but how do you engage with Canadians, how do you get your message out?
Like any other organization, we use a variety of strategies. We have a media strategy, social media strategy, communication strategy around some of the work that we do, we constantly push and monitor our messaging. The other aspect is just presence. We give talks and presentations, leveraging our network to get out there and speak to some of these issues and concerns and to share and articulate our experience more deeply in terms of the capacities available within the Indigenous community around resource development. We take any opportunity to be on a panel or podcast, speak to the media, where we can share our perspective.
But ultimately, I think everything is grounded in that relational piece. We want to meet people, to share our concerns but also our knowledge. We want to be out there. We want people to sense the energy and our desire to help find solutions with some of these huge, complex challenges in terms of increasing Indigenous participation. But at the same time we want to position Canada very well in terms of responsible development with of course, Indigenous participation.
4. Not all Indigenous communities across Canada are on the same page when it comes to resource development. How do you engage with people or communities that oppose development?
I think we’re very much grassroots, very much connected to our communities, cultural, spiritual, everything like that. We’re not here to pick fights with any other Indigenous group. We can support their capacity to understand issues on a more technical or operational level, which can shift opinions.
And, you know, Indigenous activists – we get it. A lot of them are angry and struggle with engagement. If there’s any way that we can support industry or support these groups for strengthening relationships or coming to an understanding of energy issues and the education around them, I think we’re there.
Our people have challenges right across the spectrum, people see and think differently. We respect those differences but at the same time will offer maybe a different viewpoint on some of these development opportunities or challenges.
I’d like to be a little more assertive. I think Indigenous people becoming much more engaged, educated and involved right across not just that value chain within the industry and resource development, but also in terms of the organizational hierarchy and decision making and authority. And so as we’re seeing greater Indigenous participation, we’re seeing a shift. We’re seeing more ownership, and by that I mean ownership of the process, more engagement, more investment. I think as Indigenous people become meaningfully involved in industry, they’re starting to realize the equitable benefit of resource development.
Things are changing quite rapidly, driven by an industry that understands there’s not just a social case, but there’s a strong business case for equitable inclusion of Indigenous people right across the industry.
5. In your role, are you considering new directions or strategies for the IRN?
I want to focus on adding more depth, building on the work we’ve done to further understanding and expanding our network in terms of Indigenous workers and businesses across all industries, understanding what’s really working for this group, and then help to deepen that inclusion and engagement.
The other piece is to better understand the industry’s impact. Beyond dollars – employment, supply chain and so on – what is the community expecting and would like to see in terms of self-determination, infrastructure, community programing, serving the true needs of the community?
I think we’re very independent, values-driven, seeking partners in industry and government and community – how do we align, how do we support each other? We have mutual goals, we want to advance solutions, practically and pragmatically address challenges, avoid posturing and positioning and politicking to help drive all Canadians forward.
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