Fraser Basin Council


8.2 Community Collaboration and Engagement


“The hope for achieving sustainability in water management lies in the establishment of interdependent, community-based partnerships and increased stakeholder involvement.”15

“Simply put, transformational change will result when decision-makers in government collaborate with grass-root visionaries in the community to create a legacy”16

The value of collaboration among, and engagement with, different orders of government, different water use sectors, stewardship organizations, and the multitude of community stakeholders is a recurring theme throughout this guide. Collaboration is often cited as a key success factor in watershed planning. Basically everyone has a role to play, and a responsibility to fulfill when it comes to the use, protection and sustainable management of water resources and healthy watersheds. Specific benefits associated with community engagement and collaboration include:

  • stronger relationships between participants in terms of trust, respect, information sharing, and improved negotiation;
  • more comprehensive and widely accepted land use decisions as a result of improved communications, demonstrated commitment, and information sharing;
  • greater likelihood of successful implementation of the plan as a result of the involvement of all stakeholders, whose values and interests are reflected in the plan; and,
  • greater accountability of all community members involved in the planning process with regards to their own actions and behaviours in a watershed.

These benefits of collaboration are considered by many to be critical success factors for effective planning and implementation.

The sections that follow identify some key aspects of collaboration in water and watershed planning in BC. Recommendations for developing collaborative planning processes with local governments in BC are provided, the importance of working with First Nations is discussed, and suggestions for strengthening these critical relationships are profiled. Finally, some of the concerns, challenges and barriers associated with collaborative planning are highlighted, along with some of the opportunities or breakthroughs that BC communities have experienced when navigating through these challenges.

8.2.1 Multiple Planning Partners of Local Governments in BC

FBC_Pic10SMALL.jpgA growing interest and willingness within BC communities to get involved in watershed planning has emerged over the last two decades. Whether for site-specific issues or for broader regional land use considerations, collaboration is becoming a preferred model of decision making in many parts of the province. At the community level, a greater emphasis on collaborative planning for watersheds has put local governments in touch with a wide range of partners from different government organizations as well as representatives from both the business and stewardship communities. The following are a few examples of the partners that work with local governments in planning as well as some common roles these partners play. This information is from 21 in-depth interviews with local government staff from across BC. See also Section 4 of this guide for information on roles and responsibilities in water planning, management and governance.

  • Federal Departments (Environment; Fisheries and Oceans; Health; Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development and others) – Regulatory and/or approval roles; infrastructure funding; advisory roles; monitoring and reporting; research and educational roles.
  • Provincial Ministries (Environment; Health; Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations and others) – Regulatory and/or approval roles; water licenses and allocation; infrastructure funding and planning grants; advisory roles; monitoring and reporting; research and educational roles.
  • First Nations, Municipalities and Regional Districts – Provision of water services and related infrastructure and/or service agreements (drinking water, wastewater treatment, stormwater/drainage); advisory roles; monitoring and reporting; coordination and liaison; shared planning and co-management; funding partners; information sharing; and research and educational roles.
  • Academic Institutions – Research roles including research funding and student support roles.
  • Industry and Businesses – Advisory roles; monitoring and reporting; funding partners; research and educational roles.
  • Community – Community members are engaging in various aspects of planning and management such as:
    • attracting landowners to planning tables;
    • gathering information on watershed history and resource use;
    • identifying community and watershed values and identifying priorities;
    • collecting input, feedback and advice on key issues and documents;
    • organizing special events and open houses;
    • collecting resource data;
    • reporting violations; and,
    • managing communications and media relations.

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8.2.2 Good Practices for Collaborative Multi-stakeholder Processes

Bringing the right people together to discuss the myriad of issues within a watershed is no easy task, but when done well, it can be an efficient, credible, and cost effective means of developing integrated and robust solutions. There is no single approach to designing a multi-stakeholder process; however, a broad set of principles, or good practices, that contribute to successful outcomes of collaborative decision-making processes is emerging. The following table identifies several key elements and expected results of stakeholder engagement for successful watershed planning.

Criterion Description
Purpose and incentives The process is driven by a shared purpose and provides incentives to participate and to work towards achieving consensus in the process. All participants should agree on the types of issues to be addressed by the planning process. A clear “terms of reference” may allow groups to decide whether to participate or not. 
Stakeholder participation  All parties with a significant interest in the issues and outcome are involved throughout the process. These could include residents, farmers, ranchers, businesses, industries and others. Representatives should be selected in a fair and open manner by each of the groups that have an interest in the outcome. Timelines for the planning process need to accommodate stakeholder participation and engagement.
Voluntary participation and commitment Parties, who are affected and/or interested, participate voluntarily and are committed to the process.
Self-design  The parties involved work together to design the process to suit the needs of that process and its participants.
Clear ground rules As the process is initiated, a comprehensive procedural framework is established which includes clear terms of reference and operating procedures. This part of the process can also help to clarify realities and expectations in terms of roles, responsibilities and limitations.
Equal opportunity and resources The process provides an equal and balanced opportunity for effective participation of all parties. 
Principled negotiation and respect Multi-stakeholder planning proceeds from the assumption that everyone has something to gain by reaching agreement. The process operates according to the conditions of principled negotiation, including mutual respect, trust and understanding.
Accountability The process and its participants are accountable to the broader public, to their constituents, and to the process itself.
Flexible, adaptive and creative Flexibility is designed into the process to allow for adaptation and creativity in problem solving. 
High-quality information The process incorporates high-quality information into decision-making. All participants should share information and cooperate to gather what information is needed for effective planning. 
Cooperation Cooperation and working relationships between participating groups is improved both during and after the process is completed. 
Time limits Realistic milestones and deadlines are established and managed throughout the process.
Commitment to implementation and monitoring The process and final agreement include clear commitments to implementation and monitoring.
Effective process management The process is coordinated and managed effectively. 
Independent facilitation The process uses an independent trained facilitator throughout. This may not be necessary in all cases, particularly where the planning issues may be less conflicted, where the community is not polarized, or where the lead facilitator of the planning process has established trust and credibility within the community. 

Adapted from both WCEL (2010) and Frame et al. (2004)

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8.2.3 Leadership and Local Champions

Collaborative planning processes benefit significantly from good leadership. Having a champion behind (or in front of) a planning initiative can really help motivate a group, and keep it focused on the end goal. This can be particularly important to sustaining interest, support and momentum over the long term during the development and implementation of the plan. Planning can take time, patience and persistence, and a committed and passionate champion can help build and maintain the necessary momentum. This is especially important during formative periods as well as times of conflict or other challenges.

A widely respected and credible leader can also inspire broader participation and collaboration within a planning process. For example, someone who has the respect of farmers, business owners and community activists can strengthen the credibility of a planning process, and thus inspire these and other stakeholders to participate in it. A leader may be a mayor, chief, or chair of a regional district or other prominent board. However, local champions can also be other highly respected elders, volunteers, retired professionals, or other citizens and community leaders with less official designations.

If there is no apparent single leader within a process, it can be helpful to bring in people from around the region and/or country who have relevant experience and expertise on key issues. For example, in the early stages of developing the planning process for the Coquitlam River Watershed Strategy, people from outside the watershed were invited to share their successes and failures with their roundtable processes. This helped set the bar and create inspiration within the planning group. From this foundation, leadership emerged from different elements of the community, including government and beyond.

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8.2.4 Building Public and Political Support

The absence of public and political support for a collaborative planning initiative can significantly hinder its potential to bring about positive change in a watershed. The public, various stakeholders and elected officials may not fully understand the water and watershed issues that exist in a community or region. Sometimes it is difficult to see the importance of these issues before a crisis occurs. For example, the status quo appears to be fine until a boil water advisory is issued, or water use restrictions are imposed as a result of a drought event.

Influencing the public and elected leaders to adopt proactive, collaborative, integrated approaches to water and watershed planning can be challenging. There are practical political realities to consider. For example, it may be difficult for elected representatives to see beyond the 3- or 4-year electoral cycle, and decide to invest in programs that may take years before real returns are achieved. Decision makers may be reluctant to consider new plans or programs that can be perceived as being risky, especially in tight economic times. This may be especially true in relation to climate change, where the benefits of planning and adaptation are even more uncertain and may be realized over a long time period.

However, a broad recognition among the public, community stakeholders and other political constituencies about the importance of sound planning for, and management of, water and watershed resources can create the necessary political climate for elected officials to provide support and leadership. This level of public and stakeholder support can be particularly important when implementing a water or watershed plan. If there is broad support and shared ownership, then each citizen, household, business and organization will understand the value of the plan and their contribution to its implementation (e.g., paying taxes, levies, or fees; reducing water use through conservation efforts; reducing activities that waste or pollute water).

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8.2.5 Defining Roles, Responsibilities and Jurisdictions

Collaborative planning has a way of getting complicated quickly. With multiple issues, interests and needs being considered by multiple groups with multiple skill sets, across multiple political and geographic boundaries, it is important to be very clear about who is responsible for what within the planning process itself, and for implementation of the plan.

Collaborative planning and shared decision making are challenging, especially when the participants are unclear about jurisdictional issues between government bodies, between rural and urban communities within a region, and between public and private lands. Jurisdictions are further complicated when planning is undertaken at a watershed scale, which may span the administrative boundaries of multiple local, regional and First Nations governments. For an overview of jurisdictional roles and responsibilities, see sections 4 and 9.4 of this guide.

A clear articulation of the roles, responsibilities and limitations of individuals and organizations can go a long way to maintaining trust and open communication at the planning table. At a critical stage in the development of the Bowker Creek Initiative on Vancouver Island, when competing interests challenged those participating in the planning process, defenses arose, and the process threatened to stall out. At the encouragement of the facilitator, all participants stepped back from the process, revisited the original vision statement for the watershed, and shared truths and concerns about their individual and organizational constraints. By stepping back and clarifying their areas of strength, people began to realize that they would be more successful if they worked together rather than being adversarial. The result was a renewed commitment to the process and a shared desire to support each other more.

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8.2.6 Communications, Education and Outreach

FBC_Pic11SMALL.jpgCommunication among those engaged in the planning process and with those outside of the process can contribute greatly to successful collaborations. The importance of good communication can be paramount when embarking on more proactive approaches to planning (e.g., climate adaptation planning). The following are key recommendations for establishing effective communications:

  • ensure that the information being shared is well sourced and clearly presented;
  • maintain public communications through websites, mail-outs and meetings;
  • maintain two-way communications between local government and community groups;
  • provide time for direct, face-to-face communications to ensure that important information does not get lost in translation; and,
  • uphold internal communication across different departments and across different planning processes.

In the process of developing the Coquitlam River Watershed Strategy, a Coquitlam River website was launched. The website now plays a critical role in the process by:

  • communicating elements and outcomes of the planning process;
  • posting and sharing information on the watershed;
  • encouraging dialogue between planning meetings and other gatherings;
  • posting the results of community meetings promptly; and,
  • distributing information on upcoming public events.

In the Okanagan region, the Okanagan Basin Water Board’s sharing of information and knowledge with politicians has positively influenced political will and created opportunities for new approaches to water planning and management. It is equally important to educate the public, water use sectors and other stakeholders about the local and regional issues that need to be addressed by water and watershed planning, and how planning can benefit their interests.

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8.2.7 Collaboration with First Nations

Intergovernmental relations around water and watershed management are challenging, and the case is no different with First Nations. A key observation that emerged from workshops held with First Nations in the summer of 2010 is that “First Nations are often not consulted, not consulted enough, or not consulted soon enough”17. In some cases, this is attributed to existing policies and structures that limit participation by First Nations, and there is a sense that addressing First Nations’ rights can slow down a planning or decision-making process.

There is significant concern among First Nations that “although First Nations across Canada are already experiencing the impacts of climate change, they are often left out of policy discussions that will affect water health and security in their territories”. 17 Although stakeholder engagement sessions were conducted specifically for direct First Nations input some Bands have indicated the need for more direct participation in the modernization of BC’s Water Act.

In some cases, limited participation by First Nations relates to limited capacity within their communities. It can be challenging for smaller First Nation communities who have limited resources to keep up with government invitations to participate in a multitude of referrals, and other planning and decision-making processes. There is also concern that participating in such processes can sometimes be misinterpreted as “representing the First Nation community”—a mandate that may not actually be afforded to one individual.17

Working towards more effective collaboration with First Nations requires building government-to-government relationships that acknowledge Aboriginal title and rights. To foster these relationships, it is important to develop a shared vision that celebrates differences as well as areas of common ground. A shared vision enables the identification of key issues, shared goals, and action plans, and a commitment to shared decision-making. Through trial and error, experiences across BC have culminated in the identification of some beneficial practices for collaboration with First Nations. A series of recommended best management practices for building successful and positive relationships between First Nations and local governments was developed at a workshop with regional districts in 2005.18 Many of these practices also apply to other relationships within collaborative decision-making processes:

  • Establish a relationship before there is a problem;
  • Respect each other’s differences (i.e., do not try to change each other);
  • Recognize and understand that history and past experiences impact current perceptions and opinions;
  • Focus on learning about each other’s history and initiate information-sharing events early in the process to learn about the respective roles, responsibilities and history of each other’s organizations;
  • Recognize the importance of a First Nations Chief and Council;
  • Focus on slow, incremental steps and recognize that success cannot be measured in the short term;
  • Work towards the project agenda after individual relationships are solidified and unified;
  • Define the nature and scope of the relationship early (including an understanding of each other’s needs and the reason for interaction);
  • Focus on areas of common concern or interest;
  • Identify the elements of uncertainty and work towards addressing them before they create friction in the relationship;
  • Be prepared to resolve disputes and agreements;
  • Establish a process and forum for communication and dialogue;
  • Exchange staff lists to allow for quick and effective contact between organizations; and,
  • Confirm expectations and assumptions throughout the relationship.

Best management practices are commonly agreed upon standards. However, most communities are still challenged by various aspects of collaborative planning and decision-making. Through their own experiences, local governments in BC are continuing to learn how to best work in collaboration with other partners and stakeholders on water and watershed planning initiatives. Based on some of the challenges and opportunities experienced, the following recommendations have been developed by First Nations for First Nations to improve collaborative decision-making:

  • An appropriate level of First Nations representation on a watershed basis is needed. In many cases, First Nations are under-represented on watershed boards.
  • A First Nations’ Water Commission would be valuable for addressing First Nations’ water concerns and policies.
  • Developing an Aboriginal water strategy would help represent a national vision for water and watersheds. It should include cultural values, such as respect for water, which would uphold the preservation of water.
  • First Nations need to define what consultation should look like. Each First Nation should determine what it expects from consultation and should develop protocols for consultation and communication processes. 17

The Coast Salish Conference – An Example of Collaboration
The Coast Salish Gathering is an example of First Nations collaborating successfully towards shared decision making with other levels of government across watershed and political boundaries in the Pacific Northwest.

The Salish Sea region is comprised of the watersheds of the Strait of Georgia, Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound, which span the border between the United States and Canada. For millennia, the watercourses of the Salish Sea have provided valuable resources to the Indigenous people of the region, supporting their sustenance, economic livelihoods, and cultural practices. Population growth, industrial expansion, and economic demands have put significant pressure on these resources, and the Coast Salish people have grave concerns about the resultant environmental degradation.

The Coast Salish Gathering brings together Tribal and First Nations leaders along with non-tribal governing officials in an annual government-to-government consultation event to engage in a policy dialogue to find common ground on environmental and natural resource issues in the region. The focus of the gathering is to find resolutions to key issues, concerns and projects through the sharing of values, traditions and knowledge. Issues addressed at gatherings include access to adequate water quality and quantity, access to toxin-free traditional foods, and development of collective climate change policies.

Not only has the Coast Salish Gathering resulted in significant environmental advocacy; it has contributed to the rejuvenation of the Salish people, reawakening relationships that were fragmented by the introduction of the US – Canada border. The phrase "One People, One Body of Water" now resonates throughout the region. To date, there have been five gatherings, bringing together more than 800 elected and traditional leaders.19

Fraser Basin Council’s Guidelines for Working with First Nations
The Fraser Basin Council (FBC) has developed a set of guidelines for working with Aboriginals, which are founded upon the recognition of Aboriginal title and rights, and the need to define and acknowledge title and rights in a just and fair manner.20 The guidelines are intended to articulate respect for Aboriginal perspectives and contributions to sustainability. While the guidelines were not developed specifically for water and watershed planning processes, the FBC sees these principles as being fundamental to strengthening the outcomes of any planning process.

The FBC is committed to achieving a vision for the Basin where social well-being is supported by a vibrant economy and a healthy environment.

Respect and Equity
The FBC respects the diverse values, cultures, interests and knowledge of all communities and regions in the Basin, and is committed to supporting equitable opportunities for achieving sustainability.

Inclusive Decision Making
The FBC acknowledges Aboriginal governments as an order of Canadian government and strives to support coordinated and cooperative efforts among all government and non-government interests.

Meaningful Engagement
The FBC supports opportunities for meaningful Aboriginal involvement in all relevant activities the Council undertakes toward achieving a more sustainable Fraser River Basin. Parties are encouraged to develop a common understanding of and shared expectations for meaningful involvement, and identify and address capacity challenges and opportunities related to involvement.

Intellectual Property—Traditional and Local Knowledge
The FBC acknowledges the value and significance of traditional and local knowledge, and respects the important linkage between traditional knowledge and Aboriginal rights. The FBC recognizes that incorporation of traditional and local knowledge is integral to ensuring sustainable management. The FBC promotes wider application of the interpretation of traditional and local knowledge, with the approval and involvement of the knowledge holders. The FBC also honours confidentiality and limited conditions of information release. Information will remain the property of knowledge holders.

Communication and Cooperation
The FBC is committed to fostering frequent and open communication, information exchange, and inclusive dialogue to develop shared solutions to sustainability challenges. The FBC’s work does not entail consultation in the legal sense.

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8.2.8 Strengthening Relationships Through Values, Trust and Respect

Every community has its own history, which influences the relationships between watershed stakeholders. Special interest groups that may have been positional, or even adversarial, in the past need to be included in any collaborative process, as do different levels of government that may not have always worked well together. Relationships around a collaborative planning table can bring complicated dynamics to the planning process, and navigating politics can be a challenge. Each party arrives at, and participates in, a planning process with its own attitudes, beliefs, and expectations of the process. Rarely are these all aligned at the start. As a result, the potential for conflict is real and needs to be managed carefully, often with the help of an external facilitator who is impartial or neutral with respect to the values, interests and positions of the various participants.

In many cases, individuals around a planning table come from diverse backgrounds that are informed by a wide array of attitudes, beliefs, traditions and values. Dedicating time at the outset of a planning process to understanding these differences is critical to building trust and respect that will support a successful collaborative process. Shared understanding can help identify common ground between those at the table, and can help build the trust that is needed for dealing with some of the tougher issues that may come up for discussion. In most cases, it is better to keep the tougher issues off the table until trust has been established within the group because it enables much more productive conversations.

Integrating community values within a watershed plan can enhance support for the planning process. This can also help build trust and respect among participants, thus strengthening their relationships within the planning process. In the Bowker Creek watershed on Vancouver Island, the participants in the planning process sought to encourage politicians to stand behind the initiative by demonstrating how community values are reflected in the watershed blueprint. In the words of Gerald Harris, a community leader in the Bowker Creek watershed:

“We belong among many centuries of people who have lived and will live along the creek. This storytelling aspect needs volunteers telling the story and building community celebrations around it. As more people in the community identify ourselves consciously as Bowker Creek watershed people, the Blueprint will have the political support it needs over the decades” 16

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About Rethinking our Water Ways

This website is a guide to help BC communities learn more about planning for local watersheds and water resources, navigate current planning processes, consider relevant issues and challenges — including regional climate change impacts —  and build capacity to develop and implement plans.


The Rethinking our Water Ways guide and website are possible thanks to funding support from the BC Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources Canada's Regional Adaptation Collaborative Program. The guide and website were launched and distributed through a series of regional workshops throughout BC, with funding contributions from the Fraser Salmon and Watersheds Program, Environment Canada and the Real Estate Foundation of BC. Learn more about our funders and advisors.

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Share your suggestions for this website, and ideas for future water workshops, with:

Steve Litke
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T: 604 488-5358

About the Fraser Basin Council

Rethinking our Water Ways is an initiative of the Fraser Basin Council (FBC), a charitable non-profit society that advances sustainability in the Fraser River Basin, across BC, and beyond. Established in 1997, FBC brings people together from multiple sectors to learn about sustainability and find collaborative solutions to current issues. Learn more about FBC by visiting