African progresses within Albertan First Nations

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SUCKER CREEK, Alberta - After stepping off the bus in northern Alberta, the
then-student admitted his surroundings in 1999 must have been odd. A decade
since leaving his native Ghana, George Addai arrived to become the manager
of Hilliard's Bay Provincial Park.

"It kind of looked strange that a black person would be standing here up
north," Addai said with a laugh when he thought about standing on the side
of the road with only a suitcase in hand.

His circumstances have since changed. Presently he finds himself as the
director of the newly developed Lesser Slave Lake Consultation Referral and
Coordination Centre (CRCC), a program designed to bridge the gap between
the local First Nations, government and private industry.

One of the reasons Addai occupies this position is his worldly background.
"How can I use my experience in dealing with cultural sensitivity and at
the same time [remain] neutral with what history has created here?" he
wondered.

Armed with the modern comforts of a computer, cell phone and SUV, these
workplace luxuries are a far cry from when he traveled - sight unseen - to
Grouard, 200 miles northwest of Edmonton. Before becoming the summer park
manager for the Sucker Creek First Nation, his early memories of the area
might have dissuaded other people from staying.

Ping-ponged around several communities while waiting for his rides and
contacts during his first few days, Addai was stunned as to how sparsely
populated northern Alberta was. Throughout his entire life, Addai was
accustomed to an urban environment that included nine years in Germany
before his first year in Canada studying at a British Columbian college.

His isolation in Alberta was instantly magnified when upon arriving at the
park, he watched as two black bears hovered around the shack that was to be
his office and home. He was neither equipped with a telephone nor armed
with any protection.

"I didn't know anything about bears but I was told to 'just watch,'" Addai
remembered. "Man, that was going to be interesting."

While enjoying this temporary job, it didn't take long to develop immediate
impressions of the surrounding reserves. The unpaved roads and poorer
economical conditions of Native life drew Addai back to his African roots.

"It reminded me of colonialism in Ghana and these people have been
marginalized," he said. "You could see a distinct difference between life
on reserve and life in High Prairie [the nearest town, population 2,000]
and these were two societies."

The distinction, however, between the repressed majorities in Africa, which
he knew, and these indigenous Canadians was that the First Nations had
access to resources.

After obtaining his master's degree, Addai was offered the position of
economic development officer in September 2000 for the adjacent Kapawe'no
First Nation.

His primary responsibility was the creation of the Narrows Cultural Resort
that incorporated the park. The goal of this remote retreat on the northern
shore of Lesser Slave Lake was to promote the teachings and philosophies of
the Cree Nation.

In a region of the province that has generally been under-promoted as a
destination center, Addai had to persuade the Kapawe'no chief of the
economic benefits of cultural tourism. Further, there was skepticism about
how to allay the fears of turning this resort into a place where visitors
might be tempted to stare and leer.

"'I don't want my people to be looked at as display objects,'" Addai said
of the Kapawe'no chief's initial thoughts. "It's more of sharing your
culture with different people," was Addai's reply.

With a relative success of the Narrows, Addai was promoted to band manager
two years later. Under him were a staff of 13 and an annual budget of $5
million ($4 million U.S.) for the reserve of 270.

Education Director Carla Halcrow worked with Addai and said she found his
leadership refreshing. She said the staff was allowed to do its job without
being micro-managed.

"For everybody's professional development, it was beneficial knowing our
reports would be read and we would sit down with George," Halcrow said,
adding how quarterly meetings were a new yet productive practice for
Kapawe'no.

Still, there were some doubts from band members about an outsider filling
an executive role. Besides being a non-Native, there were stereotypes that
needed to be quashed.

"Black people from Africa can't do much, so I had to prove through my
performance that I could deliver," said Addai. He added those prejudices
have been dispelled.

Upon his departure from Kapawe'no in the spring, Addai went to work for the
entire region at the Coordination Centre. The CRCC is a division of Lesser
Slave Lake Management Services, the financial arm of the Lesser Slave Lake
Indian Regional Council comprised of eight First Nation bands.

The center is designed to provide non-partisan and technical advice for
outside agencies that want to inquire and deal with the reserves. Two of
the largest economic entities are the developing oil and forestry sectors.

President of the Lesser Slave Lake Management Services Renzo Caron said
Addai was the most suitable candidate when the center opened this past May.
In addition to his experience with the local First Nations, Caron said
Addai offers an impartial perspective, a vital quality when dealing with
multiple parties and their differing interests.

"He has a realistic approach to what can and can't be done, and he's
learned that by working within the system," Caron said.