Indigenous Communities and Deep Democracy – Interviews with Pru Gell and Cath Elderton


Pru Gell
Pru Gell


Cath Elderton
Cath Elderton

On June 4th, I had the privilege to interview two Deep Democracy practitioners via skype, Pru Gell and Cath Elderton from Australia. When I first learned of this assignment, I immediately groaned, because I’ve done blogs before, and didn’t find them any fun at all!! Do people even read them? It just seemed a little outdated in this world of social media such as facebook and twitter. I’ll tell you first about the two practitioners, then more about myself to give you a little bit of context to this story.


Pru Gell is currently a facilitator, educator and founder of True Way Together. She is also the director and facilitator for Pru Gell & Co. and the Learning Manager for the School for Social Entrepreneurs. She is interested in doing work that encourages Indigenous and other Australians to have courageous conversations about what it really means to work together in a way that draws on the strengths on all involved and then to work together towards positive social change.


Cath Elderton is the Co-Manager of Training and Professional Development at the Aurora Project which provides professional development for staff of organisations that run Indigenous land claims in Australia. She is also interested in doing work that is focused on the psycho-social aspects of dialogue building and conflict transformation when working with individuals and groups of people.


My name is Shauna Johnson and I am Coast Salish on my mother’s side and Tsimpshian on my father’s side. I am a registered Indian under the Canadian governments Indian Act under my dad’s band but I feel most connected to my mother’s community because that’s where I grew up. I am currently a master’s student at the School of Community Regional Planning (SCARP) at the University of British Columbia in the Indigenous Community Planning specialization. I chose to go into planning because of my experience working with my mother’s community, Tsawout First Nation. Tsawout is located on the Saanich Peninsula just 20 minutes outside of Victoria on the Southern tip of Vancouver Island.


When interviewing these two practitioners, I was just learning about the Deep Democracy method in a Facilitation, Negotiation and Mediation course at SCARP. I feel like when we learned of this method, we barely scratched the surface. It wasn’t until later, after the class, that I had an “aha!” moment. It finally became clear to me why it’s so challenging for Tsawout First Nation, to move forward in many of the endeavors they are trying to achieve. Continued oppression is still a challenging and active force from the Canadian federal government and the Indian Act. However, the community must work together collectively to resist and resurge as indigenous people. How can this be achieved when practically everyone is constantly on the terrorist line? When I learned about the Deep democracy method, I felt like I had finally found a useful tool to use in my career as an indigenous planner.


So what is Deep democracy and why does this method seem to be so special? I began by asking each of my interviewees to tell me a story about their experience as facilitators in using the deep democracy methods and both stories were so great to hear. In listening to their stories, there were two main thoughts that I took away with me as a facilitator in training. The most important one is that every view is valid and as a facilitator, its important that you ensure all the voices and views in the room are heard because it could be his/her point of view that could shift the argument or discussion in a new direction.


The second thing I took away from their stories is that sometimes, you just need to accept what is, and let things flow because even though, as the facilitator, you may think you have this plan on how things will go, things will pop up within the group and you may not end up reaching a decision in the end. What’s important may just be the process of sharing and allowing those voices to be heard.


The struggle that I had as I began learning about Deep Democracy was with my own confidence as a facilitator. I worried about my skills as a facilitator and whether or not I am skilled enough to take this on within my own community. This became less daunting by the end of this interview. One of the questions I posed to Pru and Cath was “How did you start when you were a novice and how did you build up your skills/metaskills and your confidence?” Both of them responded with a very simple answer: practice! Practice is key in learning how to facilitate groups and you really have to see facilitation as a life long learning experience. Every group will be different and pose different challenges, making it exciting, but at the same time questioning whether or not the facilitation session was effective.


This led to the next question of “Do you have any sense of the effectiveness of your facilitation? ” Pru and Cath both responded by saying that it’s a challenge to really know how effective your facilitation is and the only way to really measure this is through directly asking the participants. This could be accomplished by simply asking using the soft shoe shuffle method or talking with the individuals using Deep Democracy tools. But you can also get a sense of it by observing the engagement level of the participants: are they just there to be there or are they truly engaged and participating in the process?


The last question that sticks in my mind is the one that asked “How does this idea of even having this kind of conversation about the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous issues come up in the first place?” I really enjoyed their answers on this question which was that it would likely pop up within existing relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous people. This makes sense to me, especially in the context of Indigenous peoples in Canada where the relationship has been broken for so long. There would need to be some level of trust to go into such a heated argument that would most definitely be charged with so much emotion. When you are in the middle of such overwhelming emotion, it can be difficult to actually come to the table and even be able to discuss such complex issues effectively and in way that can help provide insights into the issues. This can prevent the issues from being seen in a new light and shut down the whole process entirely. Having some level of trust as a foundation to begin with, before the argument is key. This may take time, especially within First Nation in Canada.


As a future Indigenous Community Planner in training, I am so thankful for being able to interview Pru and Cath. Interviewing them solidified my interest in pursuing more training in the Deep Democracy method. I feel like it is such a essential skill for me to have moving forward in my career, because I know there is still so much conflict in my own Community of Tsawout First Nation. I hope that I can apply these new skills and learn along the way.

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