Suzanne Life-Yeomans joined Matrix Solutions this year as our Director, Indigenous Relations. In her role at Matrix, she will continue and expand our efforts to foster respectful and productive relationships with Indigenous partners in the communities where we live and work. We recently had an opportunity to chat with Suzanne about her career to this point, experiences that have shaped her commitment to her work and goals for her new role at Matrix.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and the experiences that have led you to working with Indigenous communities in Canada.
Suzanne: I was raised in Cowichan Tribes’ territory on Vancouver Island and I’m Dene from Smith’s Landing in the Northwest Territories – I currently live in Ponoka in Treaty 6 territory. I’m married, with one son and one dog. I was not raised around my culture (Dene), so I immersed myself in Coast Salish culture and traditions.
When I was in schooling, I didn’t really know I was Indigenous because I was raised by my white dad and my white stepmom. In my high school years, I kind of found out from someone teasing me at school that I was Indigenous. After that, I decided to really dive into the culture because I was friends with a lot of Indigenous people, and I wanted to learn everything about where I was from. This led me into working with the BC Government, including with the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs– exposing me to all the injustices that Indigenous people have faced and continue to face.
My biological mom was a residential school survivor, and I really saw the impact that the injustices had on her. This made me decide, ‘I want to do something to help Indigenous people.’ My passion has always been to help in some way – helping to ensure that Indigenous rights are not infringed upon is a big thing for me. That’s why most of my career I’ve been in consultation, lands and economic development and government roles. I want to ensure that those rights are protected.
Why have you dedicated your career to working in Indigenous relations and what aspects of your work do you find most meaningful?
Suzanne: So, I guess I kind of touched on it already – Treaty and Aboriginal rights are my passion. It’s the main thing I’ve done over my career, and I even did that when I wasn’t working with First Nations communities. For instance, when I worked within a municipality or a provincial government, I worked with them to ensure that they’re doing things properly for Indigenous people.
I love bringing important issues to the forefront, so I sit on lots of committees. One thing I’m really dedicated to right now is the work related to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and two-spirit people (MMIWG2S+). I worked with the Alberta joint working group for two years to create recommendations for the Government of Alberta– and they just announced that they’re creating a Premier’s Council to implement those recommendations this month. They’ve drafted what they’re calling a road map and I’m hoping to get on to the Premier’s Council to make sure that work gets finished. When we were working on developing the MMIWG2S+ recommendations, we also worked with the Human Trafficking Task Force, which is another group that was within the government. Just learning about all these terrible things happening right here really impacted me, so I’m trying to truly advocate for both issues.
What are you most looking forward to about your new role at Matrix and what are your goals for your role?
Suzanne: The biggest reason I applied to Matrix is because it’s an environmental company. We are stewards of the land and working for a company that’s aligned in these values is very important to me – protecting Mother Earth and keeping it sustainable for future generations. Matrix shares the values that I have, and the values that most Indigenous communities have.
Regarding my goals, the biggest thing is to ensure that Matrix has inclusion and trust from the Indigenous communities that they work with. Trust is the most important thing because you can’t have true relationships without trust.
I want to also build on what Matrix currently has established. The company already has good relationships with Indigenous communities, so I want to build upon that.
How have you seen the relationships between Indigenous communities, consulting firms and other organizations evolve in recent years?
Suzanne: In my experiences working in the Alberta oil sands industry, I’ve noticed companies have really stepped up. Over the last 10 years, I’ve seen that companies are realizing if they build true relationships with Indigenous communities, they’ll get more cooperation. It’s beneficial for companies to have true relationships with Indigenous communities because these communities aren’t going anywhere. No company can predict if they’re going to have to work with a community again in the future. If I come to you and I don’t have good intentions, then I come back again and we’ve already had a bad experience, would you want to work with me? Probably not. I think companies have started to realize this in recent years.
Overall, things are way better than they used to be. For example, let’s say 10 years ago, there might have been an Indigenous Lead within companies, but it was very rare. Now it’s more common – they even have full Indigenous teams for some companies. If you have good Indigenous people hired within your company that can help you navigate through working with First Nations and Métis communities, it just makes it smoother – and I’ve seen this approach implemented in a lot more companies today compared to past years.
Can you share an impactful experience you’ve had working with an indigenous community?
Suzanne: When you’re working with Indigenous communities, you aren’t allowed to share information without their consent but I can give you a generalization.
Working with the elders and the youth has always been impactful to me. When elders participate in ground truthing it’s truly amazing – even just the energy when you’re hearing their stories is impactful. Another aspect that has been meaningful to me is when I can be involved with mentoring our youth, such as a joint venture with colleges where youth receive training within a trade or some type of mentorship that helps them get jobs.
What are your passions or hobbies outside of work?
Suzanne: I like to be with my family when I have time off and I enjoy being outdoors. Like I mentioned before, I sit on a couple of boards and one of them is through the Alberta government and its First Nations Women’s Council on Economic Security. We work with the government and give them recommendations, kind of like my MMIWG2S+ joint working group I used to be on – I’m very passionate about this work.
Thank you so much Suzanne. It’s been incredible being able to learn about your experiences and how much of a positive impact your work has had on Indigenous communities. Is there anything else that you wanted to cover that we didn’t mention?
Suzanne: The only thing I can think of is that I’m almost done my second week at Matrix, and I have never had such a warm welcome from a company that I’ve worked for. Everybody’s been so nice, and I have a good feeling I’m not leaving Matrix – until I retire!
Interview conducted by Kirsten Villaroman