When Mike Simpson from the Fraser Basin Council started the Community Engagement Session on Caribou Recovery in Valemount, my interest switched from a bystander to a captivated observer of facilitation in action.

The Valemount Community Hall was filled with a range of people, from politicians, bureaucrats, recreationalists, businesses making a living from outdoor recreation and logging, to a handful of curious onlookers.

I had heard first-hand reports about concerns expressed at the McBride session that stakeholder engagement for caribou recovery planning pales compared to government consultation with First Nations. In Valemount, a liaison for Indigenous Affairs came in to explain there were legal implications to treaty agreements and reconciliation with First Nations. What I witnessed was a quick response to public concerns in less than a day’s turnaround before the next meeting.

There was some apprehension among the loggers, business owners and recreationists about how the caribou recovery strategies could impact their livelihood and lifestyle. With that uncertainty, comes a fear and distrust that governments don’t understand what it takes to be in their shoes.

The panel did its best to address concerns, by stating that closures are not imminent and closure boundaries might be only tweaked to take caribou into consideration. And that this process would not impact existing private leases. They explained how they would address socio-economic impacts and how that is different and better than if the federal government decided to implement Section 80 of the Species at Risk Act (which would close the backcountry to protect the caribou without any concern for local communities).

The panel, especially Darcy Peel, Director of the BC Caribou Recovery program, impressed me with his ability to reflect back questions, share his understanding of the subject, explain his struggle when it comes to making decisions that balance all interests including financial resources, as well as empathize with the public. When a person dissed the government for poor use of tax dollars on caribou recovery instead of looking at the global issue of climate change, Peel responded with something like – ‘I see you’re quite knowledgeable on the subject,’ before choosing to explain how climate change science on caribou habitat played out in the strategies.

People left with less apprehension. There is still some distrust – will the government stick to what they said? Will other lobbyists influence them outside these meetings?

A transparent process that demonstrates how the governments arrive at the final solution by including stakeholder input would help build trust.

I empathize with Peel and the scientists on the caribou recovery team. When a family has a terminally ill member, it is hard for most to pull the plug on them, even when resources are stretched. It is easy for an outsider to say what they should or shouldn’t do. With the caribou recovery program, many of the stakeholders are bystanders. If they were asked to balance the interests of all the players, how would they respond?

For me, the discussion on caribou recovery is a lesson about how we communicate, a lesson on stakeholder engagement and balance. It’s easy to point fingers. When we’re faced with tough decisions in our own home or business, how easy is it to meet everyone’s needs?

Rashmi Narayan