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Pascal Harvey is the director of development and urban planning at Sid Lee Architecture.Illustration by Chief Lady Bird

Pascal Harvey is a Montreal-based sociologist, urban planner and entrepreneur of Innu descent. Born in Jonquière, Que., he has more than 15 years of experience in real estate, urban planning, public affairs and business development. As the director of development and urban planning at Sid Lee Architecture, Mr. Harvey cultivates his desire for social justice and economic equity with his passion for real estate, one project at a time.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?

My grandmother was Innu and what’s particular about my story, and for many others like me, is that upon marrying a non-native, the government took away her Indian status. I was raised in a setting where we knew we were Innu, yet we were in an external environment and a historical moment that did not necessarily encourage celebrating it. My grandmother took that very hard. When you’re told you can no longer be who you are, it’s difficult. It’s only in hindsight that I can appreciate completely who she was. I wish that I could’ve had more lucidity on my Innu identity when she and my great-grandfather were alive. I would have liked to have known what it meant to her to be Innu. When I – and later my children – regained my status following an amendment to the Indian Act, it felt like a responsibility to understand and own what it meant. My family’s experience of having the government determine the legitimacy of our identity at different points and times shows the immense complexity of colonization and the different layers present today around the process of identity and nation building among First Nations.

I had a typical middle-class Québécois upbringing. My dad was an officer in logistics in the military. We lived in Germany for four years and I spent a lot of time in Ottawa. I went to the University of Ottawa where I did a master’s in sociology and met my former partner. She was offered a position at Concordia University, and we moved to Montreal. My first job out of university was on Parliament Hill as the assistant to a member of Parliament. That was interesting, but at some point, I felt like I needed to ground myself into something that I was passionate about. I acquired a master’s in urban planning from McGill University. Urban planning has been a positive vehicle to channel my passions. I needed a concrete framework for creating, putting together ideas and materialize them.

What is the biggest influence your grandmother had on you?

I think my purpose and values as an Innu come a lot from my grandmother. She allowed me to become a more spiritual person – something I was really lacking. I’m not religious, I’m a trained sociologist and very much into deconstructing, applying a critical sense, and trying to understand root causes. At some point, it can bring a growing sense of disenchantment.

Over the past 10 years I have taken the time to learn about my Innu identity and to gain perspective on my family history. I made a decision to embrace my Indigenous background because I felt a strong and grounding connection with values that were subtlety communicated to me by being around my grandmother when she and our family were in contact with nature.

I am also grateful to my dad for encouraging me to understand who I was and insisting that I reclaim my Indian status despite my initial ambivalence. This was right during Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and I remember listening to women talk about their experiences. That immediately triggered thoughts of my grandmother’s struggles. I felt like I owed it to her to do something about it.

How can an Indigenous worldview benefit land development?

My job as an urbanist and a real estate development adviser is to provide guidance and collaborate within multidisciplinary teams to plan and envision the future of places where we live: How are we going to justify different interventions in terms of mobility? How are the interactions going to function on this site? How are we going to have room for social housing in a way that creates somewhat of a community consensus? How can we make it economically and ecologically resilient? These questions are at the heart of any human settlement.

Indigenous cosmologies and ways of looking at the intertwined relationship between humans, land and nature is an exciting and fruitful way of apprehending urban planning and finding solutions to the inequities that exist in our economic and political systems. My perspective on land use and development is completely informed by my Innu identity and a shared feeling and understanding among our people that regardless of who owns the land, we have a shared responsibility toward it.

At Sid Lee Architecture, I’m lucky to collaborate and work with people that value that kind of input in their leadership teams. Recently, we procured the Reinventing City’s Montreal competition with a project that aims to create an innovative economic structure to sustain a shared social responsibility of land occupation that fosters the values of accessibility, affordability and co-operation. This project is representative of how one can reconcile an Indigenous worldview with real estate development by treating land occupation – even privately owned land – with an inherent collective responsibility that commands appropriate stewardship.

What would you tell Indigenous youth who might be considering a career in urban planning?

Urban planning, architecture and design disciplines that pertain to your living environment are concrete vehicles to take your ideas, ambitions and aspirations for the world and transpose them into something that makes sense. It’s very satisfying to know that you can have impact on a built or natural environment and make a lasting difference. I would certainly encourage young Indigenous people to look into these professions. Their input is going to be tremendously valued because of the increasing relevance of Indigenous worldviews for everyone. As an illustration, traditional real estate development and financial markets are increasingly opening up to new ways of looking at things because [the traditional way] is no longer sustainable. Anyone who comes in with a fresh viewpoint on what buildings, parks or streets should be doing for society and understands the added value of good design, architecture and public policies will grab people’s attention.

Have aspects from your culture helped your well-being?

It’s really helping me to have a spirituality. I used to feel like that wasn’t relevant, and I lacked a sense of purpose. It’s something I’m still working on, but the biggest impact on my health and well-being is to be able to understand that I’m part of something bigger. When I think about my grandmother, I see her in her house sometimes, but I mostly see her being in silence in the forest, a place where I go often. You get into a different frame of mind when you accept certain things. I was able to reclaim my identity and it was an opportunity to have self-awareness and direction in my life.

How can non-Indigenous people be better allies for Indigenous people?

Because I’m a sociologist, one of the main routes through which I was able to make sense of the relationship between non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples in Canada is through the history of court decisions. It provides insights on the history of politics and the fundamental struggles that have happened in Quebec and Canada around the Indian Act outside of the emotional realm. Once you understand this, it’s very difficult to not have empathy toward First Nations and Indigenous populations who have been oppressed by colonization. What we really need is for non-Indigenous peoples to understand our loaded history. It’s a burden that we all carry. For this, you must put yourself in the position to understand the underlying policies and inequities that continue to contribute to the disparities we see. It’s a huge challenge because we’re all super busy and living crazy lives. It kind of falls on us to find ways to deliver that message but it cannot be strictly the responsibility of one or the other. Everyone has to accept their share of responsibility in finding a better future.

I’m really inspired by the approaches and ideas of people like Herb George and the Centre for First Nations Governance or John Burrows at the University of Victoria. It’s empowering to know that while the Indian Act is still around, we have the means to start putting together the seeds of self-governance. In my community, there is a project called Tipelimitishun where we’re drawing our own constitution. I think we’re the first community in Quebec to do that. I hope for the best for what will come of it. It’s very inspiring.

What advice would you have for Indigenous youth reading this?

Knock on the door of elders. It radically changed me to meet Luc Lainé and say, “I need to sit down with you to understand the politics and where we stand.” Trying to tackle these things alone is going to be difficult. Go toward elders and create these relationships that will help you. Develop your own approach and take on things. That’s the first thing. Secondly, I used to be reticent to say that I was Innu. I am a proud to be Innu. Say it, embrace it, and make it your own. There’s no rule about how to be Indigenous.

Karl Moore is a professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Montreal. He is also an associate fellow at Green Templeton College at Oxford University. He was the host of a long-running video series for The Globe and Mail in which he interviewed chief executive officers and business professors from the top universities in the world. His column, Rethinking Leadership, has been published at since 2011. He has established a global reputation for his research and writing on leadership, and has interviewed more than 1,000 leaders, including CEOs, prime ministers and generals.

Jennifer Robinson is a resident physician at McGill University Health Centre in Montreal. She has been a consultant on health care and health policy in British Columbia and for the Assembly of First Nations. She is Algonquin and a member of the Timiskaming First Nation.

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