Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Relationships as the Backbone to Community Development

By Alison Everitt, 1st year MDP student

I have now completed my field placement with the Health Division in Norway House Cree Nation. I spent eleven weeks working in the community and I can honestly say that I learned a lot. Leaving for my placement, I had certain expectations of what I was going to see and do during my time up north. I thought that I would write a few funding proposals, sit in on community events, and maybe see a bear or two. While all of this did prove true in the end – and certainly taught me a lot – it was the unanticipated knowledge that I found to be the most rewarding from my time in the community.

The main memory that I will take away from this experience is the importance of building relationships within the community. The people that we met in Norway House were incredible and I was always treated with great kindness. People were always ready to offer words of welcome [“We’re very excited to have you here!”] and pieces of advice [“You’re living on West Island? Watch for bears!”] in the hopes of making our stay in the community as rewarding and comfortable as possible. As Rachel and I only knew each other when we first arrived in Norway House, the support that was given to us by community members was greatly appreciated.

What I soon learned was that this level of support and kindness was the backbone of the entire community. All of the people in the programs in the Health Division work endlessly to help as many community members as possible in spite of limited access to the resources that are often enjoyed in ‘the south’. Local businesses make significant donations towards community events in the hopes of making them as successful as possible. Individuals also play their part: for instance, by the beach there is one family who will sit outside and make sure that all the children are safe while they play in the water. Family members also allow the children to leave their bicycles on the lawn outside their house so that they can ensure that the bikes won’t be stolen. 

Our work in the community repeatedly highlighted the importance of relationship-building. During my time in the Health Division, one program manager in particular demonstrated how this rapport is necessary for community development programs. By observing her interactions with the women who participate in her programming you could tell that they all really liked her and also held so much respect for her. This allowed her to talk about topics such as breastfeeding, and have everyone listen and really value her input. She really showed me that, particularly in a First Nations community, your relationships with people are your top priority. Your word is everything; and once people trust and respect you, then you can start having a meaningful impact in peoples’ lives. This is when actual change happens. Working with wonderful people like her was one of the most rewarding parts of this field placement and it is these relationships that I will never forget.

Rachel Bach (Front-L) & Alison Everitt (Front-R) at the Norway House Health Division

This summer, I saw how things actually work on a reserve. I was able to see what really needs to be improved and also to see what initiatives are already in place to try and do so. I can also now appreciate how many opportunities there are to make a difference, as well as numerous challenges involved in doing so. For example I learned how small initiatives, like a cooking class, can have such a large impact for those who participate in it. I now know that a project or program doesn’t have to be a big, complicated one in order to make a significant change; it just has to be one that will produce a change that is actually needed.

In sum, my time in Norway House taught me a lot of the things that I was expected to learn on my field placement. However, it also gave me knowledge and insight that I did not expect to gain and that is why my time in this community was so valuable to me.

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