RAVEN reflections with Susan Smitten: gratitude and greatness

We caught up with Susan Smitten, who has helmed RAVEN as  Executive Director for 14 amazing years. Smitten is stepping away from her job this spring, making way for new leadership at a time when the organization is thriving. 

She’s leaving behind big shoes to fill: but, she assures her successor, they’re comfortable. 

Says Smitten, “Part of my gratitude is getting to work with all of these amazing minds and people. People like former Xeni Gwet’in Chief Marilyn Baptiste — I mean,  she’s a rockstar!  She stood in front of Taseko’s trucks and bulldozers on the road in Tsilhqot’in territory to the proposed Prosperity mine and simply would not let them go through. She made them turn back. A one woman blockade!  How many people in your life will you know who have that kind of inner –  not just fortitude, but  – an absolute inner groundedness that will plant them in the middle of a remote logging road and turn a convoy of trucks around.

Marilyn Baptiste speaking at Taseko Mines AGM

Susan also speaks fondly of the late former Chief Al Lameman of Beaver Lake Cree Nation. Together, they travelled to England at the invitation of the Cooperative Bank, who’d invested a significant amount through their corporate social responsibility committee in the Defend the Treaties trial. “We all went over because there was a photographic exhibition on the south bank of the Thames: the mayor came and everybody was there. Chief Lameman gave talks and did the obligatory photo ops. 

“But, traveling around the country was a challenge; the Chief didn’t have the best of health. Even so, he approached it all with humour and this sense of groundedness like, ‘Okay, well, if this is what we have to do for the Nation to get people to care, then this is what we’re going to do’.”

Clockwise: Chief Al Lameman, BLCN; Susan at Hollyhock’s Social Change Institute; Susan with David Suzuki, Susan with Jody Williams of Nobel Women’s Institute.

This work has offered Smitten an opportunity to understand how real leaders live by example. She’s had the opportunity to really see leaders who are in deep, humble service, not just to the people who are alive now, but to their ancestors, and to their descendants. 

Photo of RAVEN's Executive Director, Susan Smitten, in a blue woolen coat and pink scarf, smiling at the camera knowingly.

That leadership has always inspired the people behind RAVEN — first, just Smitten and then Development Director Laurie MacKenzie (2012-2021), and later, a growing team that now comprises nine staff and some contractors —  to persevere through the challenges. 

“I’m grateful for every single person who walked through the door who wanted to work for RAVEN. They magnified whatever RAVEN has done, because they brought their own magic. What an honour it has been to be working with and on behalf of these amazing people.” 

Smitten also remarks on how easy the work is now, compared to how it was in the beginning.

“Early on, we crossed the border to address the George Washington School of Business, with Ron Lameman — Beaver Lake Cree Nation member and uncle of Crystal —  and photographer Garth Lenz.” 

“We went to deliver a talk on the tar sands with hopes of generating support. We had Garth’s horrifying aerial photographs, and Ron spoke about what was happening to the lands and waters saying that as a child he could canoe with his grandparents and dip a cup of water in the lake to drink it, and now we can’t.” 

“A lot of big players showed up for this talk: the NRDC (Natural Resources Defence Council), Sierra Club US. We were expecting this welcoming audience to our news. But it was stunningly hostile. The questions that came back to us were not even questions. They were just statements. ‘We don’t get that much oil from Canada.’ ‘The tar sands aren’t even that big.’  ‘Why are you making such a big deal about this?’ We were all more than a little gobsmacked.” 

“We came to the conclusion that as a group, RAVEN wasn’t just ahead of the curve. The wave had barely formed. And we were running in front of it, saying ‘There’s a wave coming!’” 

Ron Lameman speaking at the G2 Gallery in Washington, DC.
Ron Lameman speaking at a gallery exhibit featuring photos by Garth Lenz.

Now, 14 years later, after the phenomenal and unrelenting leadership of mainly Indigenous Peoples in Canada and groups like Honor the Earth in the US, there is a common urgency to stop tar sands expansion. 

“When the Pull Together campaign to stop first Enbridge, then Kinder Morgan, came along,” Smitten continues, “we were able to show that, when you have a whole lot of people paddling the canoe in the same direction, you really can change the world. RAVEN became a force.” 

By mobilizing thousands of people to donate, fundraise, and organize events to support First Nations against Big Oil, RAVEN raised millions of dollars for Nations whose legal actions managed  to stop one tar sands pipeline and delay another. 

“Suddenly, all the heads snapped in our direction. Funders, great grassroots donors, allies: all these people that we talked to all the way along, were asking, ‘So, what’ll you do next?’ Then, it all pivoted.” 

Smitten has observed a shift in the numbers of people who are coming to RAVEN, not because they necessarily see support for First Nations as a means to protect environmental values, but because they want to stand in solidarity, reconcile, or decolonize — these are all different strands of a cultural shift that’s taking place. 

“We started an organization years before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report. Even after the TRC came out with the 94 calls to action, nothing shifted right away.  Most of the attention was on the federal government, and rather than take reconciliation as a verb into their own hands, everyone was looking for something to happen.”

“Nations got more vocal and began to denounce government inaction, asking ‘was the whole TRC process just an exercise in futility?’ –  the activist edge that drives so much positive change started to become very vocal.”

Clockwise: Idle No More demonstration, 2012; Susan with Sarah Harmer and Chris Brown; Stop Enbridge march, 2015 ; Paul Cheokten Wagner speaking at Pull Together rally, 2018.

RAVEN benefited from that consciousness rising. The amazing tidal wave brought by Idle No More propelled the organization’s communications in new directions. 

“Where before, RAVEN may have simply held the mic or the megaphone for the leaders, now we invited everyone – from people at the grassroots, to businesses, to soccer moms, to drag queens – to use their talents and their networks to put solidarity in solid form and fundraise for these critically important cases.” 

This organization is still the only one in the country that fundraises to support Indigenous Nation’s access to justice. That’s something for which Smitten, and her team, are really proud. 

“I’m hoping that the next person will walk in and bring their enthusiasm and their brand of magic, to take RAVEN to the next level… or two or three! We have lots of room to grow in terms of working with Nations across the country – coast to coast to coast. We have lots of room in terms of expanding the educational program that we’ve just launched with Home on Native Land. That’s our first foray into that part of RAVEN’s educational mandate. We do (ambitiously) see this as a way to unite the country by helping to create genuine discourse and expanded understanding, so we can find more common ground as we’re all working through the mess of colonization to occupy a common future where we can all thrive.”

Susan Smitten campaigning on behalf of West Moberly Nations, 2017

When asked what a person needs to succeed at the job, Smitten mentions some basic legal education and a deep understanding of Indigenous realities. As well, she recommends someone with “brazen chutzpah that this can be done, and the humility that it takes to do it well.”

She adds, “I hope they love it as much as I have for the last 14 years. Really, for me, it’s never been a job. And so I hope that it’s as joyful and fulfilling for them as it has been for me; that it’s something that fires their creativity, gets their blood boiling and keeps them in a space where they’re living their principles.”

“I’m 62 years old. I haven’t had a break in my life in that I’ve worked since I was 15. I want to just take a pause where I can rest a bit. It’s heavy lifting creating a non-profit. I’ve had about 150 balls in the air all at once, not the least of which is trying to raise the money for the Nations with whom we’ve undertaken this solemn promise. After 14 years, we have this amazing team and everything’s solid: I’m choosing to bow out now. In my 60s, I feel like I’ve earned that.” 

“I am leaving the next RAVEN executive director with an incredible team. We have a Board made up of brilliant Indigenous leaders, an advisory panel made of up some of the best Indigenous legal minds in the land, and a staff of mixed settlers and Indigenous people who are doing the work, internally and externally, to embody the kinds of respectful relationships we’re going to need to cultivate in order to survive, and thrive, here on planet Earth.”

We wish Susan the very best in her next endeavours, knowing that we’ll still be seeing her face and hearing her heart-driven voice in everything she does. 

To apply for the position of Executive Director, click here. 

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