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Dene Tha' chief champions aboriginal education

NAIT alumnus James Ahnassay sees higher learning as the key to prosperity for his First Nation community


At a clearing just outside Hay-Zama Lakes Wildland Park, a marshy patch of remote, northwestern Alberta, Chief James Ahnassay parks his late-model SUV and says, "This is where I was born."

Decommissioned power poles lean haphazardly in a line leading away from the vehicle. Along their path is a waist-high knoll roughly marking the location of the nursing station that in the fall of 1957 welcomed Ahnassay as the fourth of nine siblings.

There's no trace of the building now, just as there's nothing left of the rest of Habay, the community that occupied this part of the Hay Lake Indian Reserve, one of seven in the area belonging to the Dene Tha' First Nation.

Ahnassay, a calm, soft-spoken man now serving his fourth term as the band's chief, remembers the place well. But he's not nostalgic about it. He describes the past with a bare-bones practicality that seems to govern his approach to life.

Besides the nursing station, houses lined the banks of the Hay River, and there was a church, a Hudson's Bay Company trading post and a school. By the time he was school-aged, a residential school had opened in what was then known as Assumption, the new community a few kilometres south.

He remembers that school, too.

When floods finally forced the majority of Habay's residents out of these lowlands, Ahnassay's father took a chance on a new life in Assumption, moving his family - just five children then - by canoe in 1962. Ahnassay attended classes at the Roman Catholic-run Our Lady of Assumption from 1964 to 1968.

Other than to refer to himself as a "survivor of residential schools," he doesn't like to talk about that time with just anyone.

He starts the engine and heads back to what he and every other Dene Tha' now call Chateh - their name, taken from an early 20th century chief, for what's still on the maps as Assumption, a label charged with unsettling memories.

Ahnassay has a schedule to keep, ending the tour of the park. A few hundred people, mostly aboriginal, have gathered in Chateh for the First Nation's annual cultural and educational assembly.

Besides the workshops, sessions, drumming and dancing, teams' abilities to bluff and guess are being tested in a hand games tournament, a traditional contest. Ahnassay is expected as a participant.

More importantly, he's to preside over the annual graduation ceremony, honouring the educational achievements of any Dene Tha' with a new certificate to frame. This year the event celebrates a record 52 graduates.

Congratulate him and his community for this and the broad-shouldered, compact man breaks momentarily with the decorum of political life and beams with pride and gratitude.

Faced with community issues like substance abuse, 80 per cent unemployment and slumping income from diminishing local oil and gas, Ahnassay is seeking to set the Dene Tha' on the path to prosperity.

Regardless of any scars left by a bygone school system, he's convinced innovative education tailored to aboriginal needs is the key to young people's success, and therefore that of the community he leads.

There are jobs here aboriginals could fill, in health care, law, the trades, even in a new venture he's promoting in that rugged parkland around Habay. "Two million dollars in salary," says Ahnassay with certainty, "up for grabs."

He alternates between seeing this prize as "a pot of gold" and as basic self-reliance. Either way, the 2009 NAIT Alumni Award of Distinction recipient believes there's only one way for youth to seize the opportunity - and, here in particular, it's not easy. "To be independent," says the chief, "they have to realize they must have an education."

Learning the value of education

Dene Tha' Community SchoolAhnassay learned that early in his career. "While I was in high school," he says, "all we ever concentrated on was, What's the easiest way to get through this?"

As a result, when he started working as a fire prevention officer trainee in the engineering department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada in 1979, he soon realized his math and science skills were lacking.

"Everyone around me was a technician of some sort, so that inspired me to shoot for something that was going to promote me in the department."

No doubt, that attitude is one reason he was chosen as chief in 1993 in the first-ever Dene Tha' election by secret ballot (apart from losing the 2001 vote, he's held office ever since).

But in those early days of his career it also pushed him, despite the demands of having a young family, to upgrade by correspondence, as well as in High Level and Grande Prairie. He completed high school physics, chemistry and even calculus, positioning himself to enter NAIT's Civil Engineering Technology program, which he finished in 1988.

It was tough, he recalls, but necessary to break from the local cycle of hardship and to access opportunities being enjoyed elsewhere in Alberta.

The end of the fur trade significantly reduced a traditional source of income, explains Ahnassay, while at the same time the separation imposed by residential schools weakened families. Alcohol only complicated attempts at self-reliance.

"With the lack of education, we were basically isolated even more."

Chateh opened a new community school in 2001 within sight of the spot of the residential school, long since torn down.

It's as modern as any facility currently being built in Alberta, but nonetheless embodies tradition and history. Artifacts like the ancient canoes on display in the library serve as symbols of identity for approximately 160 kindergarten to Grade 10 students.

The decor suits the administration's approach to education. "It's up to us to fit with the kids," says principal Lori Aliche. "We see what they need and we make the programs fit the need."

With the proportion of aboriginals who don't complete high school roughly double that of non-aboriginals, Ahnassay's band council has allowed the school a generous measure of academic freedom to find ways to keep older students engaged.

Ahnassay in particular, Aliche adds, "is supportive. He understands the need for education."

Over the past year, the school has experimented with work experience.

Older students spend afternoons as either teacher assistants, serving as role models for youngsters, or working with other emerging Chateh role models: Dene Tha' contractors. Students shadow journeymen tradespeople and pick up real-world skills, modest pay and, maybe most importantly, self-esteem.

But there's a catch: If they don't attend morning classes, they don't work. About one in three follows through - that's considered a success.

In a school that not long ago was teaching Grade 5 students how to read, "We're producing real Grade 9 grads," says Aliche, proudly.

Identifying opportunities

Hay-Zama Lakes Wildland ParkAt Chateh's event grounds, just down the gravel road from the school, past new multiplex homes and aging bungalows on acreage lots, the assembly resembles a summer festival.

Men test their accuracy at a hatchet-throwing competition, kids buy candy and bannock burgers from concession tents, hand games drummers pound and sing, doing their best to distract opponents.

At the centre of all the activity is a wide, corral-like arena, the site of the graduation ceremony. A fire gently smolders at its centre. Family and friends sit ready with cameras.

Ahnassay, dressed in black despite the heat of the day, stands onstage with a microphone, acknowledging not just those Grade 9 students (most of them preparing to leave Chateh and their families for high school in Grande Prairie, High Level and Edmonton), but high school and post-secondary achievers with new degrees, certificates and diplomas.

First, he addresses the crowd in Dene, a breathy language spiked with hard consonance. When he switches to English, the event assumes the spirit of a rally.

"The students who are finishing their education are role models," says Ahnassay, also acknowledged today for completing NAIT's Project Management program last year. "We as the Dene Tha' people are just as capable of going through these different levels of education."

For now though, reality speaks to little more than the community's potential. "Because we lack the capacity in good education," he says, frankly, "all the jobs are being taken by those who are educated." In other words, more often than not, by those other than the Dene Tha'.

Existing jobs are an obvious and attainable starting point. Ahnassay is proof of that.

Al MacBride, a long-retired Indian and Northern Affairs Canada senior regional fire and safety officer, recalls meeting the chief in Chateh in the late 1970s. After inspecting the community fire hall and truck, MacBride offered the fire prevention officer trainee job to the young Dene Tha'.

"He was a good listener," he says. "He was very pleasant and you need a person like that to pull volunteers."

As Ahnassay travelled to various First Nations to teach fire safety, it was clear MacBride had chosen well.

Whether he was addressing classrooms or communities, "They liked James," says MacBride. "He'd lecture and they'd listen. And he was well-respected around different reserves in Alberta, from the south right to the north."

Today, Ahnassay and 1,200 residents of Chateh (and 800 others spread between the nearby villages of Meander River and the chief's hometown of Bushe River) see Dene Tha' being their own firefighters, health-care professionals, teachers, lawyers, social workers and so on.

And while the chief keeps an eye on jobs in nearby Rainbow Lake and Zama oil and gas fields, factors including economic and environmental sustainability have pushed him to explore other opportunities.

"Being a leader from here, part of my job is to promote access to different activities to derive income from," Ahnassay said early in the day.

One of those brings him full-circle: Hay-Zama Lakes Wildland Park, the 486-square-kilometre network of lakes, ponds and rivers just northwest of Chateh.

A herd of wood bison roams here, roughly 570-strong after being relocated from Elk Island National Park more than two decades ago, and which last year attracted around 100 big-game hunters in need of local guides and accommodations.

Also, the area lies along bird migratory paths, suggesting a major ecotourism venture to replace existing oil and gas activity once a moratorium takes effect in the area in 2017.

Out of a desire to protect the lakes and convinced of a future appetite for remote wilderness experiences, Ahnassay was instrumental in negotiating the end of extraction.

"We're hoping that nothing gets started ever again," he says. "It shouldn't have happened in the first place."

Like the elders before him

Dene Tha' hand games tournamentThat sentiment - vaguely resentful and entirely steadfast - might cause wonder regarding Ahnassay's future outlook.

True, barring new discoveries or extraction methods, local oil and gas revenues are headed for exhaustion.

But regarding the alternative of ecotourism, the remoteness of the area - more than 900 kilometres northwest of Edmonton - could prove as much obstacle as draw for the adventurous traveller, let alone the casual naturalist in need of infrastructure yet to be built.

Furthermore, a $25-million settlement won from the federal government in 2007 for failure to consult the Dene Tha' over the local impact of the Mackenzie Valley pipeline does nothing to guarantee the area will remain pristine enough to be marketed as such.

Unless he's hedging a bet that the long-delayed natural gas project remains mired in bureaucracy, that particular success seems, on the surface, contradictory.

Whatever the future brings, supporters remain convinced Ahnassay will raise the fortunes of his community.

Strater Crowfoot has worked alongside Ahnassay since the 1990s, when the former was chief of southern Alberta's Siksika Nation; today, that relationship continues with Ahnassay serving as a member of the co-management board of Indian Oil and Gas Canada, of which Crowfoot is executive director and CEO.

In Ahnassay, he sees a pragmatism he associates with revered generations of the past.

"In the old way, the elders really understood life as a whole. They respected nature and they respected people. They had a good sense of where they fit into the overall scope of the world," says Crowfoot.

"I see James as that kind of person. He's not caught up in the role of chief in terms of title, but in the role in terms of how to help people."

Crowfoot sees Ahnassay's focus on education in the same light. "Before contact, people prepared their communities, their families so they could live in the environment they were in.

"They had to attain certain skills: trapping, hunting, understanding the environment - understanding everything about their world so that they could survive and progress and benefit.

"James sees that today. The world today is knowledge, understanding, education; he's saying these are the new skills that his people need to be able to flourish in the environment they're in today."

By celebrating education and facilitating it inside and outside of the school (he put his band council and managers through the same project leadership training he took), Ahnassay insists, "We are doing something different."

He's convinced he's providing the means for independence to his own generation and, maybe more importantly, to an upcoming one. The youth, after all, already have the advantage.

The end of the residential school system offers the chance for stronger, united families. They have a better grasp of English than previous generations. And - if the growing popularity of hand games is any indication - a renaissance in aboriginal culture has emerged to help ground them.

After the graduation ceremony, the chief has little time to talk. The hand games have started again and he's being called to join his team for its turn in the tournament.

The drumming and the singing start and, sitting with his legs folded beneath him, Ahnassay watches members of the opposing team as they sway to the rhythm of the music and shuffle coins between hands concealed beneath a tarp.

The most cursory explanation of the contest is to call it a guessing game.

One team hides; the captain of other team tries to find. But it's not just a game of chance. A good guesser looks for signs, subtleties of expression or movement, and uses what information he can glean to predict a positive outcome.

So, like any good captain, Ahnassay will watch carefully, anticipate the future based on what's before him today, and choose as best he can.