Heather Paul started the role of Executive Director at the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre in Whistler on Mar. 9 of 2020, days before world borders closed. “There was no playbook for this. I had to stick to my instincts and remember that even the most seasoned leaders didn’t know what tomorrow looked like.”
By day four at her new position, Paul was faced with shutting down the business, “this is a charitable organization and we were preparing to lose millions in sales, deeply affecting the mission of providing meaningful employment, a daily connection to uplifting and sharing their cultural ways.” The SLCC’s major revenue source disappeared as travel trade and events were no more.
Most SLCC staff are Indigenous, travelling up to four hours a day from Squamish and Lil’wat territories between Mount Seymour and Mount Currie. When the building opened up again in June 2020, drums came back to life and Cultural Ambassadors were singing and dancing, waking up their Whistler home. “We took the time during the pandemic to look at how we could build back stronger,” Paul says.
The emotional health of staff became a priority for the SLCC leadership team during COVID-19. “We leaned into our values, looked at how to empower Indigenous youth into everything the business offers, and worked hard to get counselling and Indigenous-led cultural tools and connections for our staff.” Paul witnesses the Ambassador’s work as “a calling, not a job. They are the voice of their ancestors. I may be the woman at the top, but they have guided my hand, changing how I move around the world and work as a leader.”
“Before the pandemic, Whistler had 3 million visitors annually, and 90,000 came to the SLCC. My dream would be to see a bigger part of that visitation walk through our doors,” Paul says, targeting every traveller coming to experience this territory. “The conscious person who seeks a deeper connection to the beauty around them. Learning about the original stewards of this land, their culture, history, and language. I want that dream to expand outside of our building, hearing Ucwalmícwts (Lil’wat) and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim (Squamish) words coming from workers in line at the local coffee shop or ancient stories like the great thunderbird on top of Black Tusk being shared by everyone."
With the SLCC’s priority in sharing, celebrating, reconciling, and reclaiming, Paul has high hopes for 2022. Two years into the role, as the world hints at normalizing, she can finally focus less on crisis management and more on continuing to lead empowered growth, with the passion and authenticity of the Ambassadors, traits she so wholeheartedly learns from. She laughs, “I think I am about to start the job I was hired for.”
For more information, visit the website at www.slcc.ca.