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Consulting for change

October 7, 2014

Chastity Davis avoids saying “empowerment” when discussing the work she does with First Nations women.

“The reason I don’t like the word empowerment is because I believe the leadership potential is already within us,” explains Davis, who was named chair of the Minister’s Advisory Council on Aboriginal Women (MACAW) in B.C. last month. “As indigenous women, most of us come from matriarchal societies and that leadership is already inside of us and sometimes it’s just sleeping or supressed.”

An aboriginal relations consultant and prolific volunteer, Davis is dedicated to helping aboriginal women realize their full potential and have their voices heard. In her three years with the MACAW, she’s been advising the minister and cabinet on policies and procedures for dealing with aboriginal women’s issues. In June, the advisory council initiated the signing of a MOU to end violence against aboriginal women in B.C.

“We really feel that it’s a silent problem in our communities and not a lot of people know about the statistics and how much violence aboriginal women face,” says Davis, a graduate of the BA in Professional Communication and a student in the MA in Intercultural and International Communication. “We think the first place to start is to give voice.”

Davis and the MACAW – with the help of $400,000 in government funding – have launched a program called Giving Voice, which supports First Nations women in their efforts to talk about violence in their communities. The program was piloted last year and the group produced a video showcasing some of the projects and participants.  

“We believe that communities know how to heal themselves and they have for many years pre-contact,” says Davis. “The funding is not about having outside people come in and advise our communities; it’s about the women creating and hosting programs to give voice that is culturally relevant to their community.”

Davis also volunteers with the Minerva Foundation and sits on the board. She is very involved in the foundation’s Combining Our Strength (COS) program, which brings together aboriginal and non-aboriginal women to enhance leadership development.

“That work is really exciting and fulfilling,” says Davis. “I’ve had the privilege of working with hundreds of aboriginal women in this province through Minerva.”

Barbara Ross-Denroche, an alumna of the MA in Leadership program, has worked with Davis at the Refinery Leadership Partners and has collaborated with her on several leadership development initiatives with Minerva.“Chastity is well respected and sought after for her ability and experience to educate and develop leaders,” she says. “She is a gifted, values-based leader committed to enhancing aboriginal relationships between communities and organizations.” 

Whether she’s volunteering or consulting, Davis always looks at issues through the aboriginal lens and helps others do the same. In her consulting practice, Davis often works with resource companies that are moving capital projects forward. She engages indigenous communities and educates companies about working with First Nations.

When we reached Davis, she was living in a cabin in Telkwa, a small town outside of Smithers, B.C., working with TransCanada on its Prince Rupert Gas Transmission Project. She has been working on the project since March 2013, largely helping TransCanada take the government-designed and enforced engagement and consultation process to a deeper level of engagement.

“My approach is really grounded in indigenous knowledge. I think that is something that needs to be more integrated into the consultation and engagement process,” she explains. “It needs to be a more collaborative process and a more respectful dialogue where Western knowledge and science is enhanced by indigenous knowledge and culture. It needs to be more of a holistic process.”

Despite her approach, Davis receives some criticism from First Nations people. Because she is working for the companies to ensure their outcomes are met, she sometimes feels conflicted but is comforted by the knowledge that her work is making a difference and is aligned with her values. She also receives a great deal of support from aboriginal and non-aboriginal people alike to see the unique value in her work.

“I really feel that my strengths are working inside companies and helping educate them on how to work better with indigenous communities and there’s a real value there,” she says. “There aren’t a lot of indigenous people working inside of corporations and they need help. I think there’s an opportunity for change and I think companies are willing to listen and take steps to understand, respect and acknowledge the indigenous way of life. And they need indigenous people within the company to help them and guide them to that change.”

Davis is taking it a step further and is researching corporate relations with First Nations communities for her master’s. To this end, she brought together four corporate representatives and four members of the First Nations community to discuss contentious consultation themes, such as environment and land and time pressures. A cultural elder co-facilitated with Davis and the conversations were held in four talking circles, grounded in indigenous ways of dialogue, sharing and ceremony.

“It was really rich research,” says Davis, who is currently writing her thesis.It gave me some insight into how that engagement process can look moving forward. It broadened my perspective. The program has allowed me the opportunity to step back from my everyday work and practical side of things and really think about the consultation process.”

“Chastity’s ability to see issues through an indigenous lens and a Western lens is needed more than ever, as there is so much pressure on all sides to engage in a positive transformation of what have long been very lopsided or non-existent relationships between indigenous communities and governments or corporations,” says Dr. Virginia McKendry. “I was eager to supervise her thesis research because she was adamant about bringing the element of ceremony into the research process, and because she has been so intent on integrating Western theory and knowledge within an overall Indigenous research methodology. That her research is already making an impact speaks to the wisdom of her research design – as a result of their experience in the data generation phase, participants in her study are already creating authentic, ethical relationships that are grounded in awareness of and respect for the worldview of the Other.”