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The power of influence in negotiating: Lessons from Coleen Volk

  • Communications
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  • Dec 23, 2014
The power of influence in negotiating: Lessons from Coleen Volk

Coleen Volk found herself at a crossroads when she was fresh in her role with Environment Canada back in 2011. 

Her dilemma: Whether or not to recommend the approval of the Joslyn North Mine Project, a proposed oilsands mine north of Fort McMurray, Alberta by French energy powerhouse TOTAL. Although the project might boost the economy, an environmental assessment on the project revealed wildlife could be impacted by development in that area.

“We didn’t want to be seen as running roughshod over the environment,” she said.

Volk, who is now Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet (Senior Personnel), Business Transformation and Renewal, Privy Council Office, was at the time Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Environment Canada. Environment Canada’s mandate was to protect the environment, but Volk said she was reluctant to halt an economic-generating project like the Joslyn mine without investigating other solutions.

During a visit to Ivey on November 26, Volk shared with HBA students in Professor Paul Boothe’s Business 4582: Business and Public Policy course how she worked out an alternative deal with TOTAL and the lessons she learned from that process.

Volk said she subtly encouraged TOTAL to limit use of some other lands it owned to protect the natural features. This way, the wildlife impacted by the Joslyn mine could migrate to the other land or at least the wildlife inhabitants at that site would be protected. TOTAL agreed to a conservation agreement with Environment Canada that would provide a replacement habitat for wildlife during the life of the Joslyn mine.

“I learned how important it is to use your influence, not just your authority. I had no authority to ask for a conservation agreement, but I could influence them in that direction,” she said. “I also learned how important it is for the government to see a problem from a private-sector perspective and then try to find solutions that might be palatable to the business.”

Volk said her previous private-sector experience proved an asset in this situation. Her success in negotiating with TOTAL also helped her to solidify her leadership of her Environment Canada branch.

“I could think a little bit more like the people on the other side of the table from me. I had a better sense of the challenges they were thinking about and the issues on their mind,” she said. “It was a good opportunity for the team to see me in action and build some credibility.”