Bluesky’s Susan Smith parlays passion for politics into thriving Ottawa business

Family’s dinner-table debates set stage for entrepreneur’s rise to the top of capital’s public affairs industry
Susan Smith

Once a bit of a political junkie, always a bit of a political junkie. At least that’s the way it is with Ottawa-born-and-raised Susan Smith.

While a good chunk of her teen years was spent on the basketball and volleyball courts and organizing school dances, the member of Lester B. Pearson Catholic High School’s first graduating class of 1987 turned a lifelong interest in politics and people into a career merging both. In fact, she’s been busy keeping company with some of the most prominent political figures of our time.

Today, the 48-year-old Ottawa resident is an owner of Bluesky Strategy Group, a 10-person, full-service public affairs firm she co-founded in 2003 with her business partner, Tim Barber.

The way she explains it, the company helps its clients figure out the best way to deliver their message to the right audience.

“We act like a translator on Ottawa and government, and how to best represent people’s issues to effect the kind of policy change or kind of awareness that people are looking for,” says Ms. Smith during an interview in the boardroom of Bluesky’s office on O’Connor Street. It’s located so close to Parliament Hill you could almost hear the purrs of the stray cats on The Hill. That is, if the cats were still living on The Hill.

Bluesky works with a broad range of clients in fields such as aerospace and defence procurement, agri-food, telecommunications, food and beverage, oil and gas, health care and indigenous communities. The crowd favourite, however, is Bluesky’s work in arts and culture. For the past 10 years, the company has been organizing the popular Movie Nights on the Hill series to help showcase Canadian cinema.  

Ms. Smith is a registered lobbyist, but don’t let that scare you.

“Tim and I and the Bluesky team have worked really hard to build a reputation of integrity and trust. We follow the rules,” she says, noting that honest approach helped the firm land one of its newest clients, PayPal. “One of the reasons they chose us is that they liked our track record.”

Ms. Smith grew up in Blackburn Hamlet in Ottawa’s east end. Her dad, Doug, was a real estate lawyer and a native of Halifax. Her mom, Joan, came to Canada from Glasgow and volunteered in the community while running the home front for Susan and her younger brother and sister.

As a teen, Ms. Smith was a top student. She played sports. She held down part-time jobs at Shoppers Drug Mart and as a lifeguard.

“I did what was expected of me,” she explains of her squeaky-clean youth.

Ms. Smith grew up with an interest in politics, which was always a topic of conversation around the dinner table. Moreover, she benefitted from living in Canada’s political hub, where politician sightings are as common as tourists taking photos with the NAC’s Oscar Peterson statue.

“I was given a book of rhyming poems about Canada’s prime ministers when I was 10, and it kind of stuck,” she says.

Earning respect

Ms. Smith went on to study politics at Queen’s University, where she was actively involved in student life and eventually become manager of one of the campus pubs.

Her first real-world job was on Parliament Hill for a backbench MP before she moved on to public relations firm Hill+Knowlton. Once Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government came into power in 1993, she was hired as press secretary for then-transport minister Doug Young. On a personal level, she met a guy on The Hill and got married.

One of the best pieces of advice that ever came her way dates back to early in her career. She was told: They don’t have to like you, they just have to respect you.

“You had to be professional and do your job, and as long as you did that and treated people with respect, then you had the opportunity to earn respect."

“That was a loaded statement because it meant you had to do good work,” she notes. “You had to be professional and do your job, and as long as you did that and treated people with respect, then you had the opportunity to earn respect.

“And, of course, you have to be nice to people, but my mother taught me that from the time I was little.”

At age 27, Ms. Smith opened the Ottawa office for a Montreal-based consulting firm and served as general manager. She then did consulting work in Calgary after her husband got a job transfer there. Their next stop was New York City in 2000, where they had a son.

It was while in Manhattan that Ms. Smith realized her marriage was over. She packed up her belongings and her 13-month-old baby and quickly returned home.

“It was a very difficult time,” she says. “I had to start over.”

For the next seven years, she was a single mom, but as she succinctly puts it: “You do what you have to do.”

Ms. Smith was luckier than most. She had supportive parents and family who were able to help her when required, as well as a good education and a determination to provide a good life for her son.

She worked at Thornley Fallis Communications before leaving with her colleague Mr. Barber to start Bluesky Strategy Group in 2003, just as Paul Martin was beginning his tenure as prime minister.

It was a hectic time for Ms. Smith, who was juggling the new business with raising her son. There was the rushing to and from day care and then toting the little guy along to her after-work stints as a political pundit and commentator on CBC News. She’s now in a long-term relationship with her supportive partner Mike Kenney.

With her son Harrison now 17 years old, Ms. Smith is looking to continue to grow Bluesky while broadening her horizons and tackling some new challenges. First up for her this fall is the Directors Education Program at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, where she hopes to develop her leadership potential as a corporate director down the road.

“After 25 years in business, I think I have some perspective to offer, particularly in communications and public policy.”

Five things to know about Susan Smith

  1. One of her biggest inspirations is her sister, fellow entrepreneur Fiona Smith Bradley. She’s a mother of three busy children and co-owner of Modern OT occupational therapy services, which has offices in Ottawa, Kingston and Pembroke. “I don’t know how she finds the minutes in the day.”
  2. Her career highlight is connected to Canada 2020, an Ottawa-based think-tank that was co-founded in 2006 by Mr. Barber, Ms. Smith, Gene Lang and Tom Pitfield. It hosted a memorable party (The Weeknd was there!) and a policy lunch in Washington, D.C., in and around Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s state dinner with U.S. president Barack Obama in 2016. “All of the Canadians came home feeling the same thing: like you were part of something really special. It took weeks to come down from. You just rode the energy.”
  3. She had a backstage chat and shook hands with Mr. Obama this past September, when he spoke at a Canada 2020 event in Toronto. “It was electric,” she said of his presence in the room.
  4. She was a member of the Reach for the Top academic quiz team in high school. She also tried cheerleading, but since she’s five foot 10, the coaches suggested that basketball might be a better option.
  5. You can put her on a stage to speak anytime, but don’t ever ask her to do karaoke. “It’s my biggest fear!”