Let the Community Lead Where You’re Going to Go

This month, we sat down with Candace Cook, a research scientist at RES’EAU WaterNET. The RES’EAU WaterNET is an NSERC-funded program which aims to achieve breakthroughs in engineering, chemistry, genomics and social sciences in small water systems. RES’EAU focuses on water research and strategic approaches that can be applied to water health monitoring and treatment technology development, as well as novel approaches to treating water for microbial and chemical contamination, algal toxins and taste and odour compounds. We also got to ask Warren Brown, Operations and Maintenance Manager with Lytton First Nation about his experience with water in his community, and his experience working with RES’EAU WaterNET.

IRSI attended the RES’EAU AGM this year and watched this fantastic video- RES’EAU has given us permission to share it with you.


Video credit: RES’EAU-WaterNET 2018


Candace Cook, Research Scientist,


Candace, as a research scientist, you’re visiting communities frequently. How do you work to build trust and great working relationships?

I think with every community we work with, I try not to walk in with any notions or preconceived ideas of who these people are and the challenges they are facing.  I consider any information that is provided to me about our partner communities, but I always aim to go in with an open mind.  In treating the initial meetings as if I’ve never been given any detailed background, it really allows for an organic sort of introduction.  I let the community lead how I am going to interact.  If I’ve never been there before I’ll often bring discussion aids – maybe a powerpoint presentation, posters, or some information documents – but I always come prepared to just have a simple conversation, without any bells and whistles.  I really go with whatever works in that moment, and above all else, strive to listen. If a community is less forthcoming, I’ll try to ask less technical questions and more about the nature of the community itself.  Is it a fishing village, have they gone out on the lake this summer, what do the kids do for fun, etc…? I try to build more of a human element so it’s not all about the engineering and research.

If you’re trying to listen, to really learn about people, and develop your understanding of their community, you set the stage for a great working relationship. Even if you can’t gather technical information in a typically direct way, the community will have its own way of telling you everything you’re going to need to know.


Your internationally-acclaimed Community Circle approach gets a lot of attention in media articles on RES’EAU. Can you walk me through how you approach that?

At a very basic level, it’s a make-sense approach. We’re including all the players that needs to be involved in a project, from the onset.  In doing this, bringing everyone to the table, we’re ensuring the project moves forward in a collective manner.  One of the critical pieces to this is involving residents, as well.  It’s not just the community leadership and administration- we’re going directly to the source and looking to hear from the people most closely affected by a particular water challenge.  We do our best to bring them to the table, even if it’s not for a technical discussion, to identify concerns and develop a narrative of what the community would like to see done.  Even leadership in a community might not be fully aware of the water issues residents are facing, especially in the case of remote villages.  By approaching things in this manner we’ve found that more technically-relevant information actually comes forward, making it a lot clearer for everyone to come up with a suitable solution.

I think one of the reasons we’ve seen success is that we’re not going too far down road before we realize we didn’t consider something.  By including all stakeholders in the process, we can address issues and challenges as they arise. We’re allowing the community- the residents, the operators- to have that voice because oftentimes it’s the most critical to mitigating problems.

At the end of the day, our team ultimately strives to be inclusive and communicate well throughout the lifecycle of a project.  Gathering collective input, letting the community lead research and design, and making sure the end product is reflective of all the work and feedback we received throughout the process, is what directs our role in the Community Circle.


What advice would you give to a researcher who wants to work in community?

If I were talking to any researcher who was visiting communities for the first time, I would stress the importance of going in with an open mind.  Be humble, listen to what is shared with you, and don’t display any pre-defined research notion you may have on your mind. In my experience, going into a community as anything other than a respectful individual who is there to learn, hasn’t been met with positive response.  Let the community lead your research- let the people who have welcomed you to their home lead the direction of the work you’re going to do.


Warren Brown, Operations & Maintenance Manager, Lytton First Nation





Warren, what does water mean to you, in your community?

Water is the sustainability of life. In order for us to continue living healthy lives on our reserves, we need water, and it has to be potable water.







What does RES’EAU do right in their work with Indigenous communities in BC?

I think that what Res’eau did right when entering our community, is that they engaged with our leaders, then the community as a whole. Then they engaged the communities that they were going to work with, as a group and as individual households. They would always ask the Band first if something they wanted to do (questionnaires, meetings, etc.) with the membership was okay first. Res’eau, I felt was very inclusive to me, and flexible in the way of schedules. They would keep us informed the best they could on how things were progressing with a project. No real surprises that I can think of.







How can other researchers engage with Indigenous communities in the best possible way?

Other researchers can possibly learn from Res’eau on the proper engagement of a First Nations Community!? I find that they were always adjusting how things were done in our community by communicating with the Band or O+M (Operations + Maintenance), asking how we felt things went, could it be different or improved.







Candace says you have an incredible team of operators. How do you foster great working relationships, and build capacity in effective ways?

With the Water Operators and the O+M Dept. as a whole, I try to give them my respect and acknowledge the work they have done. Even after a rough day of work, I try to start the next morning with a smile and just saying “Good Morning” to everyone as they come into our office. I try to keep them informed of things as I learn of them. I am very inclusive in planning of work projects –  it’s not just my plan and that’s it! I put my plan on the table and ask the crew if there is a better plan or if I missed anything. Problems are discussed to find the best solution. I believe that when you allow your fellow workers to see value in their input, it encourages them more to enjoy coming to work. This crew does not work for me, we all work together for our Nation. I’m not comfortable being called “the boss” – just being acknowledged as a fellow worker is great!


T’oyaxsut ‘nüün (Thank you!) to both Candace Cook and Warren Brown for sharing your thoughts and advice with us!