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Connecting with Communities

Itoah Scott-Enns, Director of the Arctic Funders Collaborative


They say there are seven degrees of separation between every person in the world. In the North, there are maybe two. Our small population and community networks mean that Northerners are very people oriented and are used to doing business face to face, even knowing the family history of those you are working with. Everywhere I travel from Nunavut to Yukon, someone knows one of my parents or siblings. For southern-based grantmakers supporting the North, this means they bring new and different dynamics to a preexisting social fabric and have to find creative ways to connect, understand, and collaborate despite the geographic distances, and cultural and social differences. If often involves overcoming or accepting a significant level of discomfort as an outsider to a community, but it is also an awesome opportunity to learn about new cultures and different ways of life.


Getting on the ground and talking to people to connect the way Northerners do, face to face, can be one of the best ways to lay a foundation for a partnership. As you get to know people, you will get to know the interconnected and complex nature of the social fabric. You may also become privy to stories and histories that have shaped the current environment you are working within. When my non-Indigenous father from Ontario first came North and married into a Dene family, he had a steep learning curve becoming immersed in a new culture. My uncle, Moise Rabesca, gave him the advice to “Just listen. Don’t worry about doing anything, but listening.”


Going into a community can be a tough thing to figure out if you are not aware of how things work. Up here, fax machines, newspapers, radio, and word of mouth are still important communications tools employed to compliment Facebook and email. Taking care to coordinate and follow protocols might help so that you are not plopping in unannounced, which could be a very unproductive trip. There was once a group of business executives who traveled from international locations to meet with a community, only to get there and discover all of the community was away on a fall hunt. Oops! You might try and work with any pre-existing connections you have in the community to support your planning and if you have none, find someone that does who can help you make introductions. Once you have some connections in the community, you can determine who the appropriate members are in the community who should be made aware of your pending visit. In the North, this may be a band, hamlet, or Indigenous government office. While the Chief or local leader might be unavailable to meet with you, they might appreciate knowing that you are coming so they can ensure that their staff are available. 


Make sure to be clear about your intentions or the purpose of your trip to everyone involved. If you work for a funder, communities may have preconceptions that they will get funding out of your visit if you are not clear that you are merely there to make introductions or to learn. Philanthropy is not a commonly understood concept and to many people “funder” = $. Making your intentions clear will help to manage expectations on both sides and ensure your community networks help set you up to connect with the right people for your specific learning objectives. Regardless, people may not be shy about sharing about their initiatives, funding needs, and community plans. If you are gracious and listen, it can be a good way to help understand community priorities.


Be open to unexpected opportunities! If you are lucky, you may end up being brought on the land or to participate in cultural experiences. When the Gordon Foundation’s new CEO, Sherry Campbell, came North for the first time we rolled out the Northern red carpet by bringing her out on snowmobiles to check fish nets and eat fresh fish and moose off the fire. There was no better way for us to help her understand the Northern way of life. She was a good sport and only got squeamish when she was offered rare, jiggly bone marrow to eat. You might want to leave your schedule flexible if this happens since you never know how long it might take. Don’t be afraid to ask someone about what is respectful behavior if you are ever unsure (such as taking pictures).


Understanding the history of a region can be valuable because historical events or past relationships may impact a community’s current approach to business, who may be involved, and the manner in which they manage their relationship with you. It comes back to that two degrees of separation, so getting the sense of the reputation of governments, NGOs, and others groups in a community can be a critical factor in successfully building cross-sector and collaborative initiatives. 


Some funders are not always able to invest the efforts needed to develop and maintain these sensitive, but important relationships with Northern communities and so many of our members re-grant through other funders or organizations that have the reputation, trust, networks, values, and time to invest in relationship building. This is perfectly acceptable and also a great way to reduce your risk as you become oriented to the North, just make sure your partner is a reputable one. 


For some of our funders, trips to the North have been life changing for their staff and deepening their understanding of the North has helped to shape their funding programs. The AFC organizes ‘learning trips’ for our members into Indigenous and Northern communities across the Arctic so that they can learn about the people, cultures, and community priorities in the North. They can also witness the impact of their grantmaking on the ground. The next AFC Learning Trip is happening July 10-15, 2016 in Denendeh (the land of the Dene) in the Northwest Territories. Stay tuned for pictures, stories and experiences from this special trip to my home region as we travel the Dehcho (Mackenzie River) with Dehcho Chiefs, get our hands dirty cleaning fish in Tlicho territory, and learn about what land stewardship means to the Dene people who have been practicing it since time immemorial.

Mahsi cho,

Itoah Scott-Enns



-Itoah is a member of the Tlicho Nation in the Northwest Territories, Canada, and has been working as the Director of the AFC since June 2015. She seeks to bring a Northern Indigenous perspective to the forefront of her work within the philanthropic community. She is based in Yellowknife and is passionate about building a sustainable future for Dene in the North.

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