Susan Weeks remembers the moment of silence with vivid clarity. It was 1990, one year after a man in Montreal shot to death 14 female engineering students at École Polytechnique. Susan was among 40 members of the first-year chemical engineering program at TUNS (Technical University of Nova Scotia, now DalTech), half of them women.
In that moment she felt sadness for the victims and their families, heard every creak of the room and hallway beyond, but felt a sense of safety. The classroom was her domain; the field of engineering and male-majority workplaces, she had grown up with those, along with the mantra her father shared as he raised both his family and his company. “He said that to finish an engineering degree meant you could accomplish anything you wanted.”
More than 20 years after her graduation and her father’s passing, she holds and guards her memories closely, something learned in childhood as her family name evolved into a household name. Weeks Construction for more than 40 years has been a visible part of Nova Scotia’s construction industry, paving roads from Cape Breton through Hants County and working in sewer/water installation, crushing and concrete. As his company grew, founder Scott Weeks himself became a notable member of the construction industry and Pictou County community, taking an active role in local events and organizations, and generously supporting charitable causes. An annual golf tournament and the Weeks Crushers hockey teams continue to honour his name.
It is a legacy of which Susan is proud, but admits it took years for her to discover the connection uniquely hers.
Growing up in New Glasgow’s south end with her older brother and younger sister, Susan did well in school, from her days at Temperance Street Elementary through new Glasgow Junior High and High School, and played every sport available. After high school graduation she headed to Acadia University to earn her science degree and engineering diploma. Her future with the family business, however, was undecided until her graduation from TUNS.
“I wanted to come back home. It was a good place to raise a family, and there was a job waiting for me,” she reflects, curled on the couch, watching for a moment the gentle flames through the tempered glass of her wood stove. “It felt safe.”
Her initial work with the company, however, just made her feel confused. “My first job was inspecting gravel. The next day, (my father) sent me to watch how some piece of equipment worked. The next day, I was assigned somewhere else. It seemed like I was doing a whole bunch of nothing. Then he and I talked about it, and everything I learned suddenly all fit together.” She smiles at the recollection. “That is the way he was. He believed in learning by experience first, then having a conversation that let you figure it out for yourself.”
His sudden illness and death came just a year after she joined the company. As the community mourned the loss of a business leader and philanthropist, she was left to grieve not only the loss of her father but her career compass as well. “He would never say ‘do this’ or ‘don’t do that’, but he was my sounding board,” she says. “I went to my mom for many things, but for work, it was my dad.”
And because her father was so admired and renowned, she felt a pressure to maintain the image and operations that her father had so carefully crafted.
“I slowly began to realize that I was trying to fill the role of a man I didn’t know – yes, I knew him as my father, but I didn’t know him the way his colleagues or the public knew him.”
A turning point for her came when she accepted that she and her father were different and her contributions to company and community would need to be hers, not his, to be successful.
Susan is now Safety Supervisor for the company, inspecting all sites and recording activities to ensure the well-being of their 200 employees. It is far removed from chemical engineering yet she embraces her work, eager to impart knowledge and enact systems that supports workplace and personal safety. It is also a job that is demanding, both mentally and physically. Winters are spent in the office, completing stacks of paperwork for compliance to various industrial and government regulations. Summers are spent visiting paving and construction sites from Cape Breton to the central mainland. It’s a world of steel toes, big trucks and men. Yet being in the constant gender minority works for her because of her sense of belonging and the family feel, especially within her company.
“Our connections run deep. We have families whose grandfathers, fathers, nephews, and sons have all worked for us.” And while she is tasked with keeping this work family safe, she has found safety there was well. “At our 40th anniversary I was presenting a painting to my mom, and partway through the speech I started to cry. I figured everyone would be shocked. Afterward, though, several of our supervisors came up to say they were really moved, and felt like they were part of something really important.”
Authenticity, she discovered, was a powerful asset in the workplace and in life. In the years since she has embarked on a personal path to rediscover her spirit and her passions. “I realized I was saying ‘I can’t’ a lot of the time, making excuses that would keep me in my comfort zone.” Her continued involvement in sports and fitness, for example, allowed her to hide her secret love-hate relationship with food, which lead to years of yo-yo-dieting, fresh Monday starts and weekend binges. “When I’d walk home from school I’d stop in the Peter Pan Motel, buy a chocolate bar, and have it eaten by the time I got home, “ she said.
“I got very good at hiding, and it went on for years.” When her daughters were small she discovered the Beachbody system of clean eating and daily exercise. As she’d complete the daily routine a voice would whisper ‘I want to be a coach.’ Her outer voice disagreed. “I was doing the workouts but couldn’t stick to the eating plan. I kept telling myself I’d be no good as a coach.” Last year, she was reintroduced to the program by employees in her office, and the whisper became louder. She made contact with a friend and coach in Halifax, and her resolve strengthened. “I discovered that I didn’t have to be perfect to be a coach. I had to be passionate. And I’ve been passionate about health and fitness my whole life.”
As a Beachbody coach she leads home-based programs that combine clear direction for healthy food choices and daily 30-minute exercise with the motivation and accountability of her daily check-ins. A closed Facebook group allows participants to meet, chat and share with each other in private. As a coach, though, Susan is expected to post her photos and progress on her personal page for all her friends to see. That’s rattled her comfort zone, but she’s grateful.
“The entire program has normalized my relationship with food. I feel better when I eat well, my attitude is better, I have more energy, and I know if I want to keep feeling this way, this is what I have to do.” Coaching has the potential to earn income, but for now, her motivation is personal. “I was one of those people that looked fine from the outside, but everyone, no matter what they look like, has a struggle. This program is a way to help identify that struggle and put it out there so it can’t hurt any more.”
And her down time?
“I like my privacy,” she affirms, and her home reflects that. A new build 18 years ago on New Glasgow’s west side, the home felt too large to her at first. “It’s a lot to clean,” she observes, “but the location I wouldn’t trade for anything.” Located at the end of a town street, their lot is surrounded on three sides by thick stands of trees, giving home the best of both town and country living. Their gazebo is among her favourite summertime hangouts.
The interior, however spacious, is kept cozy and bright year-round, with a wood stove in the main floor living area and banks of windows that let in the peaceful forest view and sunlight while keeping out the chill. Orchids bloom above her kitchen sink, nourished by the home’s warmth and diffused light of the northwest corner window. The floor plan also allows her plenty of room for quiet time, even while sharing the house with daughters Ryan and Mackenzie, partner Jonathan MacLean and two rescue cats, Percy and Piper. “I never liked cats because they were so unpredictable,” she muses as Piper snoozes contentedly on the back of the couch, gaining energy for Susan’s early-morning wakeup call. Her favourite spaces? Her bedroom, where she likes to relax, read – Brene Brown and Jeff Olson are recent choices – or watch a movie with her girls. Her other spaces are the TV room (if no one else is in there) or the basement, where she does her daily workouts.
“I’m pretty boring,” she claims. Others would say she’s settled, in who she is and how she chooses to live her life. Her community involvement revolves around family activities, most recently school concerts and rugby games, as well as service through her coaching and conversations furthering her exploration of inner self. A great night is a night in, although she loves on occasion to dress up. “I have a closet full of heels and when I get to dress up, it feels really special,” she chuckles. “The walk isn’t the prettiest, though, after wearing workboots 90 per cent of the time.”
With both her daughters headed to university in September, her home will be a type of quiet that she is beginning to dread. With her discovery of safety within, however, (and her engineering degree), anything is indeed possible. “Turning can’t to can; it’s a lifelong process.”