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Three Albertans given National Aboriginal Achievement Awards

R John Hayes, Sweetgrass Writer, Calgary


When the Canadian Native Arts Foundation announced the 14 recipients of the 1997 National Aboriginal Achievement Awards, three Albertans were included in the list. It is a fitting achievement for the first version of the four-year-old awards to be held in Alberta.

Heading the honorees at the Feb. 7 ceremony at Calgary's Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium will be historian, writer and journalist Olive Dickason, who will receive the lifetime achievement award for her work as a chronicler of Canada's Aboriginal history. Dickason, who was a professor of history at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and still lives in the Alberta capital, revised the written history to include the Native contribution with such essential works as Canada's First Nations, now considered to be a standard text for those studying Canadian history.

Dickason came to history later in life, after a distinguished career as a journalist. When she began to study Canada's past, she discovered that the Aboriginal heritage, including her past, was barely touched on in the process. Rather than accepting the status quo, Dickason questioned it and, eventually, changed it. Her other books include Indian Arts in Canada and The Myth of the Savage and the Beginnings of French Colonialism in the Americas.

She has already been awarded the Order of Canada and the Macdonald Prize, one of Canadian history's most prestigious awards.

The two other Albertan nominees are film and television director and producer Gil Cardinal and Aboriginal justice reform worker Chester Cunningham.

Cardinal grew up as an Aboriginal foster child, and grew more and more isolated as he got older. He began to cut classes as he became more withdrawn, but a social worker suggested that he enroll in Edmonton's Northern Alberta Institute of Technology radio and television arts program. He found his calling and, upon graduation, his career took off.

From work in the early 1970s as a cameraman, Cardinal made his first documentary, a portrait of pianist Mark Jablonski. Based on that work, he was taken on to direct the television series Come Alive. By 1980, Cardinal was freelancing for the National Film Board and his subjects began to touch on Aboriginal concerns. His documentaries included Children of Alcohol, about kids from alcoholic families, and one on Aboriginal spirituality in prisons.

In the 1980s, he made Foster Child, for which he was given the Gemini Award for best director. The story was his discovery and contact with his birth family, and it awoke an interest in Aboriginal self-discovery.

Since then, Cardinal's work has been dominated by Aboriginal themes and issues, he's directed episodes of North of 60, worked with the BBC, CBC and Atlantis Films, and been featured at numerous international film festivals.

Chester Cunningham was the founder of a program, the Native Court worker Services Association, that has interpreted the justice system for Aboriginal people and vice-versa. It has developed in the quarter century since into the Native Counseling Services of Alberta, Canada's first Aboriginal court worker program.

Before Cunningham began the association, he worked with the Canadian Native Friendship Centre, and spent some of his time assisting Native people dealing with the justice system. What he saw shocked him. Often, Aboriginal people would plead guilty to charges they did not understand, while others were convicted without any verbal communication at all between them and the judge. Some would plead guilty when they weren't.

Native Counseling Services of Alberta hasn't just stopped there. They have sponsored half-way houses, a young offender group home, a homemaker program and a fine-option program. Cunningham also developed one of the first educational programs that informed Aboriginal people about alcoholism and its treatment. Under his leadership, Canada's first Aboriginal-operated prison-healing centre, the Stan Daniels Centre, began in 1988, and it has proved to be a modl for the world.

Cunningham has been awarded the Order of Canada, been made an honorary chief of the Peigan Band and received an honorary doctorate of laws from the University of Alberta.

The three Albertans, as well as 11 other award recipients, will receive their awards on Feb. 7, and the ceremony will be televised nationally on CBC on Feb. 13. Since the awards were established in 1993, 55 outstanding individuals have received National Aboriginal Achievement Awards. The award recipients were selected by an all-Aboriginal jury that included many previous winners.

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