When Tanya Laing Gahr dove into the Ktunaxa Nation’s creation stories for her MA in Professional Communication (MAPC) thesis, she learned some important lessons about communication.
“One of the things that came out of my thesis project was a deep understanding of how aboriginal world views can positively affect how we do communications,” says Gahr, whose thesis involved a film of highlights from a day of storytelling. “There’s a more holistic approach to life, to knowledge, to relationships in First Nations culture. I now approach professional communications from a more holistic point of view. Bringing that heart into everything I do and remembering that communications is about relationships and that’s foundational to First Nations philosophy.”
It’s an approach Laing Gahr is practising and encouraging as a communications officer at the City of Vernon, a position she’s been in for nearly a year and calls her dream job.
“Everything that we do and everything that we say communicates who we are,” she explains. “What I like to do is root myself in authenticity and encourage everyone who works in the city to root themselves in authenticity when they’re communicating. So we’re communicating on a deeper, more authentic human level and that’s having an effect.”
In an effort to delve deeper into the identity of the City of Vernon, Laing Gahr recently held the city’s first open space session.
“It’s a very creative, very open-minded, very unstructured workshop format and we’re using it for local government, which is very structured, very hierarchical,” explains Laing Gahr. “The participants jumped in and I find it so exciting that everyone is willing to take this chance with me.”
The inclusive participatory meeting focused on internal communications and was facilitated by fellow MAPC alumna Shereen Samuels, who Laing Gahr describes as her “best friend, mentor and greatest support.”
Laing Gahr sought to explore how employees are talking to each other, about each other and about themselves. The session also assessed the strengths and the blockages in internal communications. All of the conversations from the session were recorded and now MAPC students will be analyzing them and putting together an internal communications strategy. It’s all part of the MAPC Organizational Communication Challenge, which allows students the opportunity to explore and analyze real issues organizations are facing and present recommendations.
“This is what I did three years ago and it was foundational for my learning for this position,” says Laing Gahr, who graduated in 2013. “It’s great to be able to give that same deep understanding to this year’s students and get a little something out of it myself.”
Dr. Jennifer Walinga, director of the School of Communication and Culture and founder of the Organizational Communication Challenge, is pleased to welcome Laing Gahr to the residency, highlighting the purpose behind the invitation as part of how “we strive to keep our alumni involved in our programs.”
“RRU alumni usually crave extended learning opportunities and are committed to giving back to the program in meaningful ways that align with our goals and values as a university. Bringing Tanya back both as guest speaker and as an Organizational Communication Challenge client is an excellent example of how we bridge the learning.”
Laing Gahr will also be speaking to the class about her work and her experience at RRU. “Our group of grads from both cohorts are very, very tight,” she says. “We’re not just friends, we’re professional associates and many of us have worked together professionally and have supported each other professionally.”
While Laing Gahr has been busy in her new role with the City of Vernon, she also puts her communications skills to work for First Nations organizations, often collaborating with fellow RRU alumni, including Dan George, a leader in the field of Aboriginal-industry mediation. This spring, Laing Gahr spoke at the Yukon First Nations Resource Conference about the need for a more holistic way of approaching conflict resolution between First Nations communities, industry and government and taking a decolonized approach to conflict resolution rather than skilled negotiation. She also returned to Cranbrook to do a workshop with the Ktunaxa Nation on how to build a strategic communications plan that comes from who they are.
Authenticity is a theme in the work of Laing Gahr, who is also an actor and director and brings her theatrical skills into her everyday work. She says her artistic experience has helped her become a keen observer of people, the way they interact and the subtext behind their words – important skills when working in communications.
“When I started the master’s program, I remember sitting in orientation on the first day and thinking I was going to have to carve away a part of myself to do this properly,” she recalls. “That this very expressive, artistic side of me was going to have to be left at the door and I was going to have to use a lot of big words. The Royal Roads professors that I had the privilege to learn from not only encouraged me to bring that side of me, they embraced it, they supported it, they cheered it on.”
Dr. Virginia McKendry, Laing Gahr’s thesis supervisor and program head of the MAPC program, encouraged her to frame her authenticity as an asset, and one that is critical to conducting research with Indigenous communities.
“Not only did Tanya’s research demonstrate all of the intellectual sophistication we expect from our graduate students, she exceeded those requirements by bringing her whole self to the project, something that can feel very risky in a social sciences environment,” McKendry says. “In fact, her willingness to be vulnerable, her generosity of spirit, and her ethical commitment to her research participants were key to her successful completion of a participatory research study that led to positive change at many levels, even as it was underway. Her story is a testament to our ability to attract students who have a strong desire to make a positive difference in the world, and who are willing to be changed in the process.”
“Virginia was a powerful guide for me,” Gahr says. “She was just so supportive. She told me that bringing one’s whole self is exactly what’s needed in the field of communications and in academia. Having gone through the Royal Roads experience has allowed me to be more myself at a higher level and I’ll be forever grateful.”