Collaboration has been a buzz word in the municipal world for many years. However, collaboration in rural communities means a lot more than just information sharing and the occasional joint meeting. Rural collaboration allows communities to have programs which would otherwise be unobtainable. Unlike urban municipalities, there are no mandated bodies to encourage collaboration; relationships are developed and maintained by the municipal representatives themselves, with the scope of collaboration determined as-needed. Even more importantly, collaboration is not only about working with municipal neighbours. For Alberta’s rural municipalities, building relationships and working together with neighbouring First Nations and Indigenous communities has taken on a growing level of importance.
For Brendan Powell, MD of Opportunity Deputy Reeve, collaboration means “engaging in meaningful conversations and dialogue that’s equally valuable to all parties involved”. That’s why Bigstone Cree Nation, Peerless Trout First Nation, and the MD of Opportunity collaborate on anything and everything that benefits their residents including recreation, seniors housing, and disaster mitigation. Although the three organizations have very different governance structures and histories, they all ultimately want to provide their residents and businesses with quality services and infrastructure; collaborating is the best way to accomplish this goal. This was especially evident when they worked together to protect residents of all three communities during a 2019 wildfire evacuation. When Wabasca and Bigstone Cree Nation residents were ordered to leave their homes in 2019, the relationship between the MD and both nations made coordinating the resident evacuation simple. The ability to collaborate and share information quickly allowed for the safe evacuation of all residents.
Planning among the MD and the First Nations has moved beyond specific events and emergencies as well. Even as many communities saw an increased need to collaborate during the COVID-19 pandemic, the MD of Opportunity took it one step further. Through the development of a joint five-year capital plan, the MD of Opportunity solidified its commitment to a working relationship with both nations and a collaborative approach to planning and investing in infrastructure that will benefit the regional as a whole.
For Deputy Reeve Powell, collaboration can be as easy as you make it. His advice for how to start collaborating with First Nation neighbours?
“Just start, set the meetings…and find common ground. It doesn’t have to be big projects. It can be small projects that will benefit the region as a whole.”
In rural communities, collaboration often occurs out of necessity. Large spaces and small populations mean that communities often have to work together to meet resident and industry needs. As rural municipalities and Indigenous communities continually increase their focus on how to work effectively with one another, challenges related to decision-making processes and cost-sharing often arise. While these can certainly be barriers to effective collaboration, when there is a common vision for how to best meet the needs of all communities and a willingness to work together, positive outcomes will follow.