National Director of Indigenous Relations at SNC-Lavalin
Ruby Littlechild, is Plains Cree and originally from Maskwacis, Alberta.Ruby is of Treaty 6 descent. Ruby comes from the Wandering Spirit bloodline, one of Big Bears’ revered spiritual warriors. Big Bear was a signatory to Treaty No. 6 agreed to in 1876.
Ruby believes training, education, healing, reconciliation, respectful relationships, business development, collaboration, stakeholder engagement, and the understanding of historical and cultural awareness are key factors in successful Indigenous Community Economic Development and to alleviate systemic inequality and oppressive living conditions that First Nations people live under.
Work and impact
How is sustainability/social impact integrated in your work?
I work in the infrastructure industry. I’m all about sustainability and building safer, equitable infrastructure in our First Nations communities across Canada.
What are your past and current areas of focus in a few words?
Indigenous inclusion, Indigenous awareness, and building Indigenous communities in the past few years. Since I started at SNC in March 2020, it’s been a learning curve. I’m grassroots First Nations. I’m Cree, but a lot of my colleagues don’t have that grassroots connection to First Nations communities, so I’m bringing forward the needs of the communities to infrastructure, because there’s a market there. There are over 630 First Nations communities in Canada and over 600 reservations in the USA. So there’s a need for safer water, internet lines, power lines. I always say that it’s the last frontier for infrastructure development, our First Nations communities. They’re a forgotten group. But now with the Truth and Reconciliation Report, a shift has occurred. People are watching Canada and how they empower and build Indigenous communities and treat the Indigenous peoples.
How did you enter this space?
12 years ago, I was hired by APEGA, the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta, to create a mentoring and outreach program for the 48 First Nations communities here in Alberta, because there were no engineers. At the time, there were 68 Aboriginal/Indigenous engineers, there were 60 Metis engineers and they have the benefit of white privilege, and then I found 8 First Nations engineers. 5 of those 8 were adopted and raised in mainstream society, they had no connection to the community. There were 3 grassroots engineers from First Nation communities and their parents were teachers. And so I started bringing engineers to the communities. Because of residential schools and colonization and intergenerational trauma, our people don’t embrace the engineering profession, because they’re not exposed engineers. People don’t want what they don’t know. So I showcased First Nations engineers. The lawyer profession did this. They found First Nations lawyers and showcased them, so we need role models. Because of residential schools, our communities lack role models. Our community here in Alberta is different because out east, they were colonized 500-700 years ago, but here in Alberta, we just got colonized 146 years ago, that’s when we agreed to treaty. So it varies across Canada. But again, we’re still healing from residential schools, our people don’t embrace the education system because of what happened with the school systems, so our people are becoming teachers and social workers because that’s all they’re exposed to in our community. So that’s why I started working with engineers and learned about what they do, how they operate, and what they build. I brought them to the communities and a lot of my First Nations communities, they were like, ‘Wow, we didn’t know engineers are capable of this’ so it’s bridging that gap, walking in 2 worlds.
Did you always want to work in the impact space?
I’ve always walked in 2 worlds. My family was on the reserve in our community, but I’d always lived in a city. I was exposed to racism, so I saw a need for education, and education became my salvation which is why I did the Masters in Education and the MBA. I knew I had to decolonize my own mind to because my parents went to residential school, and I went to residential school, but I wasn’t conscious that we were living in oppression. We normalized it. But when I went to university, and I learned about treaties and historical trauma and colonization, I became conscious that this systemic oppression wasn’t right. So I’ve always worked in mainstream organizations; I worked for the Government of Alberta, APEGA, and I worked with my own people too but there’s a lot of oppression in First Nations communities and the oppressed become the oppressors. So I learned that too, but once you have a higher consciousness, you can’t go back. You have to keep educating and creating awareness. So now I’m at this level with this with the company, but I am still educating and even when I was doing my MBA and my MEd, my PhD professors had no understanding of First Nations people, so I’ve always been the educator. Just to educate about what happened to our people, but not to create dissension or guilt, it’s awareness. When I worked at APEGA I met a lot of new immigrants who came to Canada for a better life and they were engineers. They said, ‘that’s not right, Ruby,’ so when I talk about racism and oppression and how we have to alleviate it through education, they validated my experience, because of their own experiences.
What are you most excited about that has been happening in your industry/field for the past few years?
I’m excited about the social change that’s occurring. My leadership at SNC, they’re really on board. My CEO, my president, they see the need for change. They say ‘let’s get out of the dark ages.’ They want to empower Indigenous communities, they want to learn, and they want to understand. And I don’t have white privilege. I don’t have male privilege. So that’s why I had to get all this education. I’m grassroots First Nations, Cree. And they listen to me. They value my opinion and my expertise, so I’m excited about that, that there’s change taking place. Whereas, like I said, I’ve always worked in mainstream organizations where I’ve had to get more education than non-Indigenous people because I had to prove myself, armour myself. But they’re listening. I think the most exciting thing is that they’re willing to listen to a grassroots First Nations woman who grew up on the reserve, who knows the oppression and trauma. We’re not here to create guilt or resentment, we need to create social change, we need to build these communities. This is Canada, right? There’s so much work to be done, but I think we’re on our way. I’m an optimist.
Are there any misconceptions about your profession or industry?
There are misconceptions. I’m very cognizant about not exploiting First Nations people, our trauma, and our oppression. I tip-toe when I engage businesses who want to work with First Nations communities because I don’t want to exploit our people. We’ve been exploited enough. And we always have the save the First Nation mentality, and I feel as First Nations people, we have to save ourselves. We know what’s good for us and we can impose, so when I bring my colleagues, my engineers into the communities to build, I’m very cautious. I know what the communities want, and I know the lack of trust, and I have to respect that, but I also am really grateful for the non-Indigenous allies, the non Indigenous champions, who want to build communities, who see the importance of clean drinking water. Here in my reserve, my parents have the worst water. It’s yellow, it’s dirty. I live in the city and my grandchildren, when they go visit their great grandparents, they can’t believe the way they live. They can’t believe that my parents have such terrible water. There’s still so much work to be done.
Life and aspirations
What does a typical workday look like for you? What’s your work-life balance like?
Some are really busy. I work on various projects across Canada, building hospitals, and I’m involved on any projects that have to do with First Nations communities. Right now I’m building my team here at SNC. I’m slowly hiring First Nations colleagues and staff to help me. What parts of my job or what I find most challenging is I get exhausted always having to justify and explain First Nations existence. I get tired but I’m used to it because I worked in mainstream most of my career. I’ve always had to work with a non-Indigenous man with privilege and power, who was pro-Indigenous to get stuff done. I’ve always had to whisper to him ‘do this, this is what we have to do.’ I’ve had to find those allies, and it shouldn’t be like that, but it’s still my reality. But I’m grateful for those who see the need for change.
What parts of your job do you find most challenging?
Just the education. Always having to explain and do Indigenous awareness trainings because Canadians won’t take it upon themselves to educate themselves. And they need to, and I say this with the utmost respect. There are over 600 communities. Canada was created on something that’s shameful, and that we have to reconcile that. I don’t want to impose guilt, but it’s the right thing to do.
What’s next for you, what are your long-term goals (if you have any)?
I am going to finish what I’m doing here. I have a plan to roll out SNC-Lavalin’s Indigenous Reconciliation Action Plan and move forward with it and keep it grassroots and Indigenous. I’m going to do that, and then we’ll see what happens. I just want to build communities. I see the need for better infrastructure in our communities, and it’s bridging that gap, it’s alleviating that fear. A lot of Canadians won’t engage First Nations out of fear, so I’ve had to find those allies who want to build First Nations communities.
Advice for the next generations
What are 3 key skills required in your position?
Moral courage, speaking truth to power, and higher education. I always think we were spiritual people before colonialism. Because we were put in jail if we were caught dancing or praying. I think this is where we took a big hit as First Nations people, because we weren’t allowed to be who we are. So I’m always telling our people to embrace their culture. Go back to who you are. We as First Nations people have to decolonize our minds, heal ourselves, educate ourselves, get out of victim mode, become our own savior, because we have to empower ourselves. We can’t expect non-Indigenous people to save us, we have to save ourselves and find our path.
Whether it’s from your own path or the ones from your colleagues and friends who have a similar profession, how important is it to have a specific degree to be able to work in your industry/profession?
I think we need more First Nations engineers. They’re very hard to find. When we chase projects to build communities and we don’t win them, we’re always told ‘You need Indigenous project managers, you need Indigenous engineers.’ Our people are getting there, but there’s a lot of poverty in our communities, so the last thing on your mind is getting an engineering degree.
What are some personal characteristics that you value in someone you’re interviewing/working with?
Authenticity, collaboration, the willingness to learn. I work with a lot of French people in Quebec and I have colleagues in Australia, so I’m learning from Australians and French people and they’re learning from me. When we all meet up and collaborate on a project, I really like the fact that everyone’s willing to learn, and they value diversity. The world is so big, and this is what I like about my job. I get to meet so many diverse, good people who want to make the world a better place.
Knowing what you know now, would you have done something differently with respect to your career? If not, why and what is your best life or career advice for youth?
I think it’s healing, it’s knowing yourself, knowing your roots, knowing where you come from, because I had to do that first. I had to get to know my culture and who I was, my ancestors, my history and trauma, and why my parents were the way they were. You can’t go forward if you don’t look back. I say this with the utmost respect, but a lot of people I went to university with, they struggle. They get their degree, they get their career, but then they struggle and crash because they have that disconnect from culture, community and family. We are collective people, as First Nations our communities and our families are so important to us. You have to be true to yourself if you’re going to build healthy and strong communities, and that’s what we’re doing, that’s what I want to do is build sustainable, strong Indigenous communities.