Wisdom Stories: Sarah Thomas
My ancestral name is Skiletilwut, I am a member of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation with family ties to many other First Nations through my parents lineage. My father, Stanley Thomas was born Tsleil-Waututh; my mother, Maureen Thomas (nee: Charles) was born Semiahmoo. Even further down the line I have connections to the Squamish Nation, Lummi Tribes, and the Hawaiian people. The colonial system says I can only legally have status and membership to only one Nation but my heart and spirit are connected to all. I will be a lifelong learner of our cultural and spiritual ways as my grandma because I know the traumas and injustices she had to go through to get to where she is today, 94 years and still practicing her culture.
I graduated from highschool in 2000, not knowing what I wanted to do with my life professionally or personally. I took some time to “find myself” only to realize that wasn’t who I really was and wanted to be. At the age of 22 I found myself pregnant, with no career, I had a job but it wasn’t what I really wanted to do. After the first year of my daughter’s life I realized I needed to give her the best life I could and that included going to post-secondary school to further my education, finding a career I was passionate about and giving back to my community. Fast Forward 10 years I had my Bachelor’s Degree in Communications, was working full time for my own community as the Communications manager and volunteering with our girls group and elders programs. My daughter was in elementary school, I was content with my life, my job, my success. I had some amazing mentors in my life, who pushed me to see I wasn’t finished with my educational journey or my professional journey. I went back to school to receive my MBA, took a leap to a new career, where I was helping other First Nation communities with policy development and Financial administration. That didn’t last long, I soon realized that wasn’t my passion. Today, I am working for a non-profit organization working in the transportation and marine sector, where I am able to build capacity in First Nation Communities across Canada and provide mentorship by sharing my experiences with Indigenous Post-secondary students working in STEM and wanting to do Indigenous-led research in their own communities. This gives me hope for the future of our communities and the lands and waters that will provide resources for my children and grandchildren. I hold many volunteer positions on boards and committees, I am in a position where I have personally learned to choose the roles that are meaningful to me, and not to just be the Indigenous voice on their Board, but ones that I am passionate about sharing my voice and wisdom with. Currently, I sit as the Director of Communications on the Vancouver Canadian Public Relations Society Board. This allows me to share best practices in communications with Indigenous people, my journey in pursuing a communications degree and share stories to educate the communications industry. I am also in my first year as a trustee on the Vancouver Maritime Museum Board of Directors, sharing my knowledge of the connection my community and the surrounding Nations have to Vancouver and the waterways that connect us. A personal goal of mine is to also give back to my own Nation so I have been a part of the Inlailawatash LP Board of Directors, a Tsleil-Waututh Nation owned company. I sit on some advisory committees where I am learning just as much as sharing at this point. This is definitely not the end of my journey but I am proud to see how far along I have come and the small impacts I have had on others.
What is matriarchy to you?
Grandmothers, Mothers, Aunties, Nieces and Daughters and grand-daughters. The strength of the women is what holds the family and the community together. Indigenous matriarchy is power. Power within ourselves as Indigenous women, Power within our communities and Power within our future generations. I have hope that we will move past the colonial patriarchy system imposed on us and bring us back to the matriarchal system filled with compassion and healing.
How did you get to where you are? What is your foundation?
It was not an easy journey to get to where I am today. I am so glad my parents allowed me to, or shall I say gave me the opportunity to participate in so many extra curricular programs so I had the chance to make some lifelong friends, learn new skills through sports and dance and experience what many of us see today as Walking in both worlds. I am sure this is what gave me the strength and confidence to be able to attend a post-secondary institution with a colonial framework. When I pursued my undergraduate degree the idea of Reconciliation was not ever mentioned. There were times that I knew I was the “token” Indigenous student in the classroom. I am sure many of you reading this know what that means, for those of you who are asking what does “token” Indigenous person mean? Well, let’s just say, just because we are Indigenous does not mean that we want to or have the strength to answer or share on Indigenous issues when called upon.
I have spent my later years in life learning and growing through my culture and spiritual connection to the land and waters that surround this beautiful place called home. These teachings passed down from my elders are what grounds me in the work I do both professionally and on a volunteer basis. I thank my Grandmother for having the strength to continue these practices and passing them down to me so that I can continue the generational transfer of knowledge to my own daughter.
Who or what is/was your inspiration?
One inspiration in my life is hard to choose. I feel at different times of my life I had different inspirational people or moments that have contributed to me today. Of course my mom has and always will be one of my biggest inspirations in my life. She is my biggest supporter and has been no matter what path I choose. She inspires me to be a supportive and compassionate mom to my daughter which I can only hope my daughter feels I have done. My Grandma is my biggest cultural and spiritual inspiration in my life. Her perseverance and humbleness inspires me to continue through the tough times and face the barriers that try to slow me down with the strength of my ancestors behind me.
What words of wisdom do you have for your sector/industry?
Get the necessary education to understand Indigenous people in Canada and how they are involved in the sector you are working in. Learn about the history, the ongoing impacts of residential school. Understand the meaning of Reconciliation and take action to incorporate this into the work your organization is doing. Indigenous people have a deep rooted connection to the land and waters that encompasses all of Canada. We have been here since time immemorial and we are not going anywhere. We are finding our voice to share our knowledge and culture to protect the lands and waters of our traditional territories.
What is your vision for the next generation?
My vision for the next generation is to feel proud of who they are as Indigenous people and feel a sense of belonging in both worlds. Really, I don’t even want my grandchildren to have to walk in two worlds; I want them to feel proud to be Indigenous in mainstream society.
What words of wisdom do you have for the next generations?
Be proud, hold your head up high. Know your ancestors are standing behind you. Ask questions, talk to your elders. Stories are how we share our history, so listen to the stories being told.
Stay connected to your culture and be willing to continue learning throughout your life. There is no limit to what you can do.
Women in Leadership has been awarded a contract with the Government of Canada, for a project called "The Indigenous Leadership Circle", which is a continuation of the work that the foundation has done over the last 20-years of engaging with the Indigenous communities on Women's Leadership.
The Indigenous Leadership Circle Team will be conducting research aimed at Professional Indigenous Women, Indigenous Women in the Education System and Employer & Industry Stakeholders and value your input through a series of surveys and round-table meetings. The results from the findings through these surveys and meetings will be showcased at our Indigenous Leadership Virtual Forum, which will be held on March 8, 2022. Stay tuned for more details!
If you are interested in participating, we would value your input. Our surveys for each target category can be found here below:
Professional Indigenous Women Employees Survey
Indigenous Women in the Education System Survey
Employer and Industry Stakeholders Survey
To learn more about the Indigenous Leadership Circle, please go HERE.