Relational dimensions of intercultural communication for public dialogue and decision-making: A case study of modern day treaty negotiation in British Columbia

Marcella Anne LaFever
Department of Communications & Journalism, University of New Mexico
July, 2005


Cultural diversity in the United States and Canada presents communication scholars with a challenge for increasing the representation of marginalized groups in public decision-making in North American. While differences in values, norms, and language make the process problematic; power inequalities and negative historical relationships are dimensions that are far more difficult to overcome.
The ability to build long-term relationships across cultural barriers is an area that appears promising for increasing the engagement of marginalized groups in the public dialogue required for community planning. The purpose of this study was to develop theory to describe how First Nations and the governments of Canada and British Columbia engage in communication for relationship building, a stated goal of the treaty process. This study used a grounded theory methodology to examine dialogue between treaty process participants; artifacts of the treaty process; and observations of Main Table treaty negotiation sessions. The purpose of this examination was to determine what communication structures, communication attitudes, and communication behaviors either inhibited or enhanced the process of relationship building during treaty negotiation. Based on these results a theoretical model was developed that explains relationships in the treaty process.
Additionally, a set of theoretical positions were generated and are summarized as follows: (a) planners can incorporate the use of new intercultural communication theory to increase community participation; (b) multiple relationships exist; (c) overall context effects each relationship separately; (d) racism and the nature of negative historical relationships must be openly and publicly dealt with at the beginning of the process; (e) the internal communication needs of the marginalized community must be considered first; (f) communication structures must focus on overcoming power inequalities; (g) communication attitudes must be supportive of collaborative approaches, non-hierarchical participation, and long-term commitments to relationship building; (h) communication behaviors must provide tangible demonstrations of sincerity.
While this study utilized only treaty negotiations as a research site, the findings can be translated into a format that can be utilized for relationship building with First Nations in other contexts, as well as with other marginalized communities. Further practical implications, as well as research and policy implications were discussed.