As a student pursuing a Master of Science, Ilyanna Janvier understands how to honour her commitments. However, she has one commitment that other students on campus don’t—she’s committed to carrying a ceremonial Blackfoot pipe.

Ilyanna, a member of the Chipewyan Prairie First Nation in Treaty 8, is a co-pipe carrier on Suncor’s Indigenous Youth Advisory Council (IYAC). She’s been on the council since its early days in 2019, but recently moved into the co-pipe carrier role along with Suncor’s General Counsel and Corporate Secretary, Jacquie Moore.

“When other members of the council suggested I take on the role of co-pipe carrier, it took me a while to decide if it was the right thing for me to do,” says Ilyana. “It is a big step, and I think that’s why I was hesitant to accept the role because of how special and meaningful it is to be a pipe carrier.”

A person with long hair wearing a dark sweater, standing outside with mountains in the background.
Ilyanna became a co-pipe carrier for the Indigenous Youth Advisory Council in 2023.

As a co-pipe carrier, Ilyanna’s primary responsibility is to uphold the relationship between IYAC, the Suncor Energy Foundation (SEF) and Suncor. Ilyanna explains that the three entities have entered into ceremony together, which means they have a commitment to hold each other accountable, much like a contract. She is a literal and spiritual pipe carrier, which means she physically carries the pipe to IYAC meetings, while also supporting and advocating for her fellow council members by smoking the pipe, if requested, smudging it with traditional medicines like sweetgrass, tobacco and sage, feeding it with energy and connecting with the ancestors through it.

“As I’ve matured and learned more, I’m realizing the importance of the relationships within IYAC, how far we’ve come as a council and the difference we’ve made,” says Ilyanna. “It’s extraordinary, and while hard at times, being part of the conversations and seeing that we’ve inspired change makes it worth it.”

The idea for IYAC was born out of Suncor’s first Indigenous Youth Engagement Strategy by Michael Lickers, Specialist, Indigenous Relations Advisor, Indigenous & Community Relations, and discussions with several Indigenous youth, including attendees of SEF events and participants in Suncor’s Indigenous Student Program.

“We wanted to hear from the fastest growing population in Canada—Indigenous youth,” explains Michael. “There are many examples of how the council has brought about change within Suncor by meeting with leaders to discuss their concerns, from protecting water and reducing plastic water bottle use at some of our locations, to the installation of a smudge room in Suncor’s corporate headquarters in Calgary. In turn, council members share what they learn about Suncor with their community. It’s about working together on issues that we all care about.”

In 2023, the first co-pipe carriers, Janelle Nahmabin and Arlene Strom, either stepped down from their roles on IYAC or retired from Suncor, making space for Ilyanna and Jacquie.

“I did a lot of reflecting and sought guidance from Michael and IYAC Elders before taking on the role because I recognize the importance, the responsibility, and the honour of being a co-pipe carrier,” explains Jacquie. “It’s both a privilege and responsibility to carry the messages and the conversations with IYAC into other parts of my life, whether it’s within the organization or in my personal life.”

Two people at a table reading a menu.
Ilyanna and Jacquie during an IYAC gathering.

The pipe ceremony in which both Ilyanna and Jacquie were transferred into co-pipe carriers took place in Montreal, Que., and was led by Michael, a pipe-carrier himself, at the request of Blackfoot Elder Casey Eagle Speaker. Elder Casey, who was commissioned to make the ceremonial pipe in 2019, is also an IYAC member and led the first co-pipe carrier ceremony for the original co-pipe carriers, Janelle and Arlene.

During the ceremony, Michael lights the pipe, which contains his own blend of traditional herbs and medicines and gives a blessing before passing the pipe and its cleansing smoke around to each person in the ceremony as they commit to upholding their responsibility to the council. Both Ilyanna and Jacquie described the ceremony as being emotional and spiritual.

Pipe ceremonies are sacred events in Indigenous cultures, used to open and solidify relationships between nations, compel truth and respect by those taking part in the ceremony, and are often used when making decisions and agreements.

“Being on the council has helped me re-connect with my culture,” says Ilyanna. “It’s also helped me learn about other Indigenous cultures through the other members.”

IYAC meets virtually monthly and once a year in person. Each meeting opens with a smudge to ensure the members are grounded and their intensions and conversations are clear, respectful and rooted in goodness.