Ask a Leader: Crystal Smith puts the health and safety of her community first

In the wake of COVID-19, the Haisla Nation chief councillor and her team have learned to get things done remotely.

Credit: Paul Joseph

In the wake of COVID-19, the Haisla Nation chief councillor and her team have learned to get things done remotely

We asked prominent members of the B.C. business community what they’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic—and how this crisis will change everything from work to leadership. Crystal Smith is chief councillor of the Haisla Nation, a key player in the $40-billion LNG Canada liquefied natural gas export facility under construction in Kitimat.

For B.C. businesses that have survived COVID-19, what’s the most important thing they can do right now to make themselves more resilient to future disruptions?

I think every organization has learned lessons from COVID, and some of them may have been pretty painful lessons. No one had been through anything remotely like this, and the speed with which it happened and how dramatically it changed the lives of everyone will stick with us for the rest of our lives. Our council is learning those lessons every day and making sure that we have the plans and tools in place so that if something like this happens again, we don’t have to learn all the lessons all over again.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from the pandemic?

The need to stick to the basics and to do things quickly. Our priority has been to focus on the health and safety of the 1,800 Haisla members. Everything else is secondary. We struck a COVID management committee to identify where our weaknesses were and to take action fast, like limiting access to the Kitamaat Village and instructing our people in social distancing and the other things we all need to do to stay safe. So far, we have had no COVID cases in the village, and we are doing everything we can to keep the community safe and healthy.  

Is there one aspect of your business, or business in general, that you think has changed for good or that you won’t be going back to doing the old way? 

I sure don’t miss all the travel I usually have to do in a “normal” year! Our organization, like so many others, has learned to get things done through video meetings and teleconferences, and it has worked out pretty well. Certainly the conferences and meetings on energy issues or LNG or Aboriginal business, in Vancouver or Calgary or Ottawa or Toronto, that seemed to be happening once or twice a month will happen less often, have fewer people involved and use remote technology to bring people together.  

Over the next few years, how do you expect work to change as a result of COVID?

We’re seeing changes already in video meetings and less travel, and a need to focus on core opportunities and problems. Remote technologies are great, but the interaction with people—members of our community or government officials or potential business partners—is something we all miss, and it is difficult for Zoom or teleconferences to emulate this.  

Looking ahead, what leadership qualities will be most in demand?

British Columbians are lucky that we have had a great example of leadership in front of us every day during COVID in Dr. Bonnie Henry. Not only have her decisions protected us from the far more serious outbreaks we see in Quebec, the U.S. and elsewhere, but her calmness has helped many of us see a way through COVID. Her calm, reassuring style is certainly something I would like to emulate.