Useful Software Advice for Managing Referrals
Researched and written by Russell Collier

The Crown Lands Referrals process is a legislated requirement for all provincial and federal resource management agencies who make decisions that may affect BC First Nations. The information presented here is intended to guide or aid those dealing with Crown Land Referrals in selecting a database program suitable to their needs. This information will provide advice on the best software to use in managing various referrals.

Currently in British Columbia, land title/treaty negotiations and consultative/planning processes are taking place simultaneously. Processes such as the “Land and Resource Management Planning” (LRMP) are becoming increasingly dependent upon the participation of First Nations. It is the constitutional requirement of the provincial government to consult with First Nations about land use activities that may infringe on aboriginal rights. This consultation is done in the form of referrals. First Nations have been reluctant to participate fully in provincial land use planning and referrals processes to date because these processes pose risks to First Nations as well as provide opportunities.

Generally, it can be said that these referrals processes have not lived up to their potential. And while they could one day prove pivotal for protection of First Nations’ aboriginal rights, they will not do so without some sound preparations. A well organised tracking system must be incorporated into these preparations. This cannot be emphasised strongly enough– especially if you want to use information derived from the referrals process for bidding on contracts, assessing impacts to aboriginal rights, or taking another party to court. It is crucial to be able to track the lengthy and convoluted paper trail that such a process generates. It is fair to say that since the Ministry of Forests staff have been tracking referrals results for some time now, you will need to be just as well prepared as they are. One means of being prepared is to organise your referral information into a database. However, before a database is chosen it is important to establish what kind of data you would like to collect.

What information is important?
Far more important than choosing which software package to use is deciding what kind of information you need to collect. Deciding what questions you need to answer will dictate how you set up your data management system and what kind(s) of software, if any, will complement your system.You might not actually need to use a software package to meet your needs. Depending on your need you might find you could work just as well with a paper-only tracking system so long as you are clear about what you need to extract. That said, there is a lot of utility in a good database program that is intelligently matched to your requirements.

To set a scope for reviewing software for tracking referrals I first interviewed several people who have a need to track large quantities of data and keep them well organised. I interviewed Jim Boothroyd of Sierra Legal Defense Fund (SLDF), Chris Heald of West Coast Environmental Law (WCEL), and Kathy Holland, former librarian of the Gitxsan Treaty Office (GTO). I obtained additional assistance with GTO’s custom referrals database program from Larry Joseph, database programmer. These people and organisations were chosen because their information management requirements are similar in many respects to First Nations and their need to track referrals. Their feedback and advice is greatly appreciated.

Case Studies

Sierra Legal Defence Fund: Communications Department

West Coast Environmental Law: Overall Organisation

Gitxsan Treaty Office: Custom Referrals Database

Software Reviews

MS-Outlook 97/2000

MS- Visual FoxPro 6.0

Oracle 8i Enterprise Edition

Visual dBase 7.5

Maximizer 6.0

MS Access 97/2000

SIS Custom Access database

When I started this software review, I had little idea it would take on such a life of its own. The products available are varied, but after a closer look they seem to fall into three main categories: contact managers, like Maximizer and Outlook; high-end DBMS software like Oracle, FoxPro and dBase; and low-end DBMS solutions, like the generic Access or custom Access packages. There are other solutions available as well. I could not try them all, and if I could have, this review would have been much, much longer.

My best pick for this review would be either Larry Joseph’s custom referrals tracking Access package, or uncustomised MS-Access. If you pay more up front for Larry, or someone like Larry, you will have the advantage of having someone do all the set up work for you. If you start from scratch you will still pay about the same amount (possibly more in development time) by doing it all yourself. Either approach works well and will depend on your own needs.

I do think using a contact manager has merit. Contact managers do one thing well – they track events associated with people. They can usually be used in conjunction with a true referrals database program with great success. Don’t forget that before you start, you need to think very carefully about what questions you want answered. A small office may need only a well-organised paper system. An office with more staff or more ambitions would benefit from a low-end software solution. Don’t discount your eventual need to use something high-end. If First Nations are ever going to have a major impact on lands and resources decision-making, we will eventually need familiarity with the giants of the database world. It all comes back to “What question do you want answered?”

Copyright © 2002 – Sliammon First Nation & Ecotrust Canada

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