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Building partnerships: Q&A with Jenna Strachan, Indigenous relations superintendent at Mercer Peace River



Who: Jenna Strachan
Role: Indigenous Relations Superintendent
Employer: Mercer International
Works in: Peace River, Alta.
Years in industry: 1.5

Sustainable relationships with Indigenous communities lead to sustainable forest management, says Jenna Strachan. As an Indigenous relations superintendent at Mercer, she works to foster dialogue between the organization and local Indigenous communities, and to expand knowledge within Mercer’s pulp mills and forestry operations. Strachan, who is Métis, says that there are many opportunities for Indigenous women to join the forest products sector and drive change from within.

Pulp & Paper Canada: Tell us about your role as Indigenous relations superintendent. What are you doing for Mercer?

Jenna Strachan: I’ve been with Mercer since July of 2019. It’s a really dynamic role. I’m not the only one in the organization doing Indigenous relations work. There’s actually a lot of us that are actively engaging and working to strengthen this key pillar of sustainability.

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My role is really focused on creating shared value and helping to continuously improve in that area through things like engagement, consultation, business development, employment, training and community investment.

A big part of the work is to build relationships with Indigenous communities. Trust in relationships is key and it can’t be done well sitting in an office! Pre-COVID, a lot of the work was focused on meeting regularly with each of the Indigenous communities that we work with to develop and maintain those relationships.

Now, we’re doing the best we can trying to transition that and leaning on things like phone calls, virtual meetings and that type of thing. We’re definitely eager to get back to face-to-face engagements with the communities.

P&PC: How does your work apply within the organization itself?

JS: The internal work is important as well. Integration across the business is key to maximizing opportunities. We need to ensure that once we’ve gone out to meet with and learn from the communities, the information and learning doesn’t stop there.

It is important that the knowledge comes into Mercer and is embedded into our organization to improve the way that we do our work, and that we integrate it meaningfully into our business. That’s something that we will continue investing in and improving, just like any other key aspect of the business.

We’ve got some exciting initiatives here at Mercer that you’ll probably find me working on on any given day. We’re doing our Detailed Forest Management plan consultation and General Development Plan consultation. We’re also doing multiple community-led traditional land use projects.

And we’ve recently made a commitment to the Canadian Council of Aboriginal Business and their Progressive Aboriginal Relations program, so there’s quite a bit of work in that space. We also have an Indigenous Relations Advisory Committee, and an Indigenous relations corporate team, so I’m supporting that work internally as well.

P&PC: What’s one of the traditional land use projects you’re working on?

JS: The overarching project has funding support through the Forest Resource Improvement Association of Alberta, and it provides for multiple, community-led projects focused on the collection of historical and contemporary land-use knowledge, which can then be loaded into a secure web-based and user-friendly application that we developed called the Spatial Viewer.

Under a data-sharing agreement to protect the intellectual property for the community, they can determine the level of sharing they would like to participate in with Mercer and share key areas of interest, value and concern so that we can incorporate that knowledge and those key areas in the very early stages of forest management planning.

Before we even make our development and operational plans, we can see what some of the community’s key areas and values and do a better job of how we’re developing our plan.

The other thing about the project is that, instead of the communities gathering and sharing this knowledge and then it staying static, as the communities are going out and finding new information – whether through site visits or discussions with elders, or while out exercising their rights – they can go into the system and change and adapt the information at any time.

In turn, Mercer also shares a lot of landscape data with each community, including high-resolution imagery, wet areas mapping, roads, oil and gas dispositions, registered fur management areas, and more.

I think it’s the information sharing in both directions that makes this project really unique and valuable. Some of communities are also using the spatial system to support consultation for other industries and infrastructure projects, which is exciting to see.

P&PC: You also sit on several external boards. Can you tell us more about those?

JS: The Peace River Logging Limited Partnership is a joint venture between Mercer and the Woodland Cree First Nation. This partnership provides revenue generation while also providing opportunities to participate in the harvesting, chipping, hauling, road maintenance and construction opportunities. It is a great partnership that enables us to work together on the management of boreal resources in a sustainable way.

There is a lot of potential with forestry-focused partnerships to support both environmental sustainability and economic prosperity, and I’m looking forward to supporting the growth of this approach.

“Indigenous women have always been leaders in our communities. Working in this sector just provides new ways and avenues to be leaders in their communities.”

The FPAC Indigenous Committee has been a really great opportunity for me, as a newer member, to learn from that shared experience across different companies on the land base across Canada, because I think that in this space in particular, partnerships and collaboration are key.

It’s really valuable to be able to come together and share what’s working so that we can collaborate or borrow that from one another instead of working independently.

I also volunteer on the local Sagitawa Friendship Centre Society Board; they are an incredible community-focused organization and I enjoy my time with that group as a way to stay active and engaged in the community.

P&PC: What’s been the project that you’ve worked on that you’re most proud of?

JS: Mercer’s got a lot to be proud of when it comes to Indigenous relationship building. I would definitely say that the traditional land use project is something that I am incredibly proud of. I think our TLU is really leading-edge and moves the dial on including Indigenous people and knowledge to improve sustainable forest management.

I’m also really proud of our recent commitment to the Canadian Council of Aboriginal Business’ PAR program because it pulls so many more people from Mercer into this important work, and it has a lot of our team members excited about the potential.

We’ve always been really committed to good relationships, but this will take it to the next level. It makes us more accountable and gives us a solid framework to pursue and build on. I’m excited to see some of the outcomes of that work as well.

From left: Jenna Strachan, Indigenous relations superintendent at Mercer International, Chief Isaac Laboucan Avirom (Woodland Cree FN 474 Treaty 8), and Mercer’s woodlands manager at the Alberta Chamber of Resources Awards Gala in 2020. Please note the image was taken pre-COVID. Photo: Jenna Strachan/Mercer International

P&PC: What drew you to the pulp and paper industry?

JS: I worked in research and writing, not-for-profit, government, oil and gas, and it was the ability to round things out a little bit.

It was also really appealing to me to see and learn about the long-term planning and sustainability of this business, and how it starts with a 200-year plan with ongoing opportunity to shape and refine the plans for the land base.

There’s just so much opportunity for true partnership and innovation when you’ve got that long-term view, which is much more difficult to achieve when it’s more of a short-term project or program.

P&PC: What were some of the biggest takeaways you took from your previous work to your role at Mercer?

JS: I’ve learned a lot from the different teams that I’ve worked with in the past; I have been incredibly fortunate to have worked with truly outstanding people. There are two things that I think about almost daily that I’ve learned in some of my previous roles. I had a boss and mentor who often said that intention is irrelevant.

I didn’t understand completely what he meant at the time, but I think about it often and understand now that although good intentions are a great start, what matters the most is the impact. So I really try to focus my work and the work that Mercer is doing on, what are the outcomes? What is the impact? And, is the impact a positive one for the Indigenous communities, from their own perspectives?

The other thing that I’ve really taken away from an early role was something I learned when working in the Title and Rights Department with a Self-Governing First Nation in British Columbia.

“Challenging and changing the status quo takes a high degree of commitment, action and coordination. It’s a challenge, but also an exciting opportunity.”

It became very clear to me the difference between proponents and developers coming into the doors early to do meaningful engagement and partnership building before they finished their planning or submitted for permits compared to companies who didn’t engage early with that First Nation or who came to the table very reluctantly or engaged minimally.

There was so much more potential for collaboration, innovation and mutual benefit when proponents came to have that conversation early with the Nation. Conversely, those ones who engaged minimally, I saw them experiencing delays, additional late-stage mitigation costs or just not having that maximum potential realized for everybody involved.

P&PC: Where are the biggest challenges and opportunities when it comes to finding common ground for forest products companies and Indigenous communities in Alberta?

JS: The biggest challenge, and it does apply broadly, is that Indigenous Nations and Indigenous women even to a greater degree have been marginalized from meaningful sustainable resource development planning dialogue and equitable share of benefits of the development of resources in Alberta for too long.

The meaningful resetting of existing structures to shift this dynamic takes real and broadly based commitment from companies, governments and all parties – there is a lot of history and momentum around the way things have always been done.

Challenging and changing the status quo takes a high degree of commitment, action and coordination. It’s a challenge, but also an exciting opportunity. And it’s something that Mercer is working with the communities to shift through a number of important partnerships.

I’ll also say though that there is so much focus on the challenges and sometimes a spotlight seems to shine only on the difficult parts of the dialogue around resource development. There are absolutely differences and sometimes complete divergence of perspectives, but that doesn’t apply to the entire development conversation, only parts of it – and it’s rarely a “red light.”

“Although good intentions are a great start, what matters the most is the impact.”

It’s usually just a pause to allow us all time to work through things together. And usually together, we can find a way to work through those parts to realize mutual benefits. But the key is having the time and the trust in place to work through that.

Challenge and opportunity really go hand in hand. Working through challenges and capitalizing on opportunities takes both time and commitment – lots of it. Forestry has this time and commitment built in to a greater extent than what I’ve seen in previous roles that include more emphasis on shorter-term project horizons.

Indigenous nations want and need a sustainable land base. Forestry companies want and need a sustainable land base. We can support each other in maximizing the values – economic, cultural, spiritual, social and environmental – if we have that foundation of trust and respect to work from. When it comes to Indigenous nations and this sector, there is a lot of compatibility of interests and desired outcomes.

P&PC: What excites you about your future in the pulp and paper industry?

JS: What excites me is that I’m realizing more and more that this industry is about so much more than trees or pulp or paper. It’s really about the entire land base and about people, and the reasons why the land base is important to every one of us.

Getting to be a part of that conversation and the Indigenous relations aspect in particular, there’s so much diversity in the Nations I have the opportunity to work with and I have so much to learn.

It’s also very exciting to see these shifts in law, policy, the economy and society, which are really starting to expand and clarify Indigenous rights and the emphasis to really drive meaningful engagement and partnership.

P&PC: What advice would you give to women, especially Indigenous women, who are looking to either work within or collaborate with the forest products sector?

JS: Indigenous women have always been leaders in our communities. Working in this sector just provides new ways and avenues to be leaders in their communities, and to influence decisions that impact traditional lands and communities, and new ways to support families and Nations. We really need more Indigenous women’s voices and wisdom in resource development generally.

There are just so many opportunities in forestry and bioproducts, and there’s a huge range right in our own backyards that we might not be fully aware of.

I had a forestry company and a pulp mill in my backyard my entire life and I had no idea that it was just so rich with opportunity, or what the different folks in that business were doing. So, I really encourage that exploration of the multitude of career paths in this sector.

And when that opportunity presents itself to do some career exposure, I really encourage Indigenous women to take it up, ask questions and connect with mentors in their field of interest.

This interview has been edited for length.


This post is part of CFI, Pulp & Paper Canada and Canadian Biomass’ Women in Forestry series celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8. Find more content here and follow on social media with the hashtags: #WomenInForestry as well as #IWD2021 and #ChooseToChallenge.

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