Susan Thompson was many things: biologist, athlete, wildlife advocate, soccer coach, Yukoner and friend.
But to the people of Kakamega, Kenya, she was something more. She was “Momma Susan.”
Thompson was a Yukon fisheries biologist who, among her many projects and passions, felt a keen desire to help improve the lives of people far from the North’s frigid lakes and rivers.
In 2005, she helped create a training program in Kakamega called Fish4Kenya. So far the program has taught nearly 100 local farmers how to set up economically viable fish farms.
“The Kenyan farmers, they saw her as a gift from God,” recalls Doug Ayres, a local Rotarian who helped Thompson get funding for the project.
Ayres met Thompson 15 years ago, and visited her in Kenya in 2011 to tour the project for the Rotary Club, one of the major supporters of her project.
Watching Thompson interact with the farmers who clearly adored her, Ayres said it was easy to see why the project has been so successful.
“She didn’t just give people things. She tried to teach them to be self-sufficient so they could carry on after she was gone,” he said.
Along with providing tilapia or catfish fingerlings, Thompson also taught the basics of bookkeeping, fish biology, aquaculture and composting – everything that new farmers would need to run their own farms.
“She expected a lot from people, but she also expected a lot from herself,” Ayres said.
After moving to the Yukon from Alberta in 1982, Thompson got her start in fish biology as a technician working on a series of Department of Fisheries and Oceans weirs throughout northern B.C. and the Yukon.
Nick de Graff was part of that team as well. He remembers hearing Thompson’s voice well before he ever met her.
“We were young, and positioned on these weirs, and many were in remote locations. I’d hear her periodically on the radiophone as we talked between the weirs,” he said.
In the early days, radios provided not only a vital means of communication for the workers manning the remote fish weirs. They were also one of the only forms of entertainment.
“You’d sit with a cup of coffee or tea at the end of the day and listen to other people on the radio. It was a communication aspect in the North. There were all kinds of people out there,” said de Graff.
One of the voices crackling over the old SPX 11 radios, competing for airtime with trappers and outfitters and adventurers, was Thompson.
Thompson’s longtime friend and co-worker Jan McKenzie was also working the weirs in the ‘80s. She recalls meeting Thompson for the first time. She was wearing a ball cap and sweat pants.
“Thirty years later, it was still a ball cap and sweat pants,” McKenzie said, smiling. “She never really changed.”
“She sort of blazed the trail for women in that industry that was mostly dominated by men,” said de Graff.
“She was never daunted, no matter how remote it was. It was the same when she travelled the world alone, sometimes into remote areas of Africa. She told me stories about meeting pygmies in Uganda. She not only liked these remote locations and the physically demanding aspects of the job, she thrived on them.”
Thompson was also a passionate volunteer with organizations including the Yukon Development Education Center, Rotary International and Canadian Crossroads International. In 2010 Thompson was awarded the Rotary Peace Fellow Scholarship to study peace and conflict resolution at a university in Bangkok.
Through it all she stuck with fish biology work for more than 30 years, long after de Graff had resigned and taken up consulting work.
Thompson stuck it out because she was never one to be tied to a desk or confined by office walls, said de Graff.
“She did it because she loved the field work,” he said. “We’d be spending hours trapping and tagging fish on Tagish Lake in September. You’re always in a cold, wet boat at night. She did it because she loved it, and because she got a lot of overtime,” he recalls, laughing.
That overtime is part of what helped pave the way for her work in Africa, he said. When winter hit, Thompson would pack up and go travelling. She’d visited Kenya as a young woman and felt compelled to go back.
Two years ago – at aged 50 – she retired to pursue her work in Kenya full time.
Thompson died Oct. 25 after a long battle with cancer. She was 52. According to her McKenzie, even through chemotherapy Thompson was always trying to brighten the lives of her fellow patients and lay plans for her work in Kenya to continue after she was gone.
“She believed we all have a responsibility to make change in this world,” said McKenzie.
“She also just loved to travel. Her favourite quote was, ‘Life is a journey. Enjoy the ride.’”
Thompson leaves behind her parents Murray and Joan, her brother Richard, her sister Cheryl and an extended family that spans continents, communities and ethnicities.
A trust has been established in Thompson’s name to support Fish4Kenya. Donations can be made at the Scotia Bank branch in Whitehorse. A memorial is planned for this Sunday at 2 p.m. at the United Church in Whitehorse.
Contact Jesse Winter at