Chester Cunningham
Dr. Chester R. Cunningham CM, LLD

Dr. Chester Cunningham is a humanitarian and educator whose personal convictions about justice and equality have improved the quality of life for Aboriginal Peoples in Alberta, across Canada and around the world.

Chester Raymond Cunningham was born in Slave Lake, Alberta in 1933, the third child in a fourth generation Métis family. Chester credits his parents for instilling in him the character and strength that helped him to embrace life in a non-aboriginal society. He attended school in Wayne and St. Albert, where he excelled in sports. In 1952, he left high school to play semi-professional baseball.

After retiring from his baseball career, Chester worked briefly in the Wayne coal mines and then spent several years working in the construction industry throughout northern Alberta. In 1964, he was hired by the Canadian Native Friendship Centre as a courtworker and program director, helping native peoples deal with the justice system. He immediately demonstrated leadership qualities that promoted him to executive director by 1965, setting in motion a long list of achievements.

In 1970, Chester launched his own personal mission to bring about change, communication and cultural understanding among the judicial and native communities. He was founder and executive director of Native Courtworker Services, later to be called Native Counselling Services of Alberta. From 1970 to 1997, this agency grew from four courtworkers to more than 150 employees serving all of Alberta. Within its first five years, the organization set new standards when the number of aboriginal provincial inmates dropped from 56 per cent to 28 per cent.

To create this remarkable success, he relied on traditional ways of the native community and involved elders whenever possible. A strong communicator, he negotiated fairly with both government bodies and native agencies, while maintaining the best interests of each group.

Under Native Counselling Services of Alberta, the pioneering programs of Chester changed the lives of thousands. He was the first in Canada to set up such programs as the Alcohol Education Program, Liaison Programs in both provincial and federal prisons, Family and Juvenile Courtwork Program, Family Life Improvement Program and many others in the criminal justice systems. The organization made history for a second time when it became the first non-government agency in the world to administer a correctional institution, the Stan Daniels Centre.

Chester is a founding member of the St. Albert Lion’s Breakfast Club and the Native Credit Union. He has shared his knowledge and spirit with the community by sitting on numerous boards and committees. Some of these include: National Parole Board, Boyle Street Co-op, John Howard Society, Alberta Native Communication Society, Canadian Native Friendship Centre, Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission, Consulting Committee on Young Offender’s Act, Canadian Advisory Committee – Justice and Corrections, and a committee for the Ministry of Children’s Services.

He was appointed a member of the Carson Committee examining management and operation of prisons and corrections in Canada and a delegate to the 7th United Nations Conference on Prevention of Crime and Treatment of the Offender in Milan, Italy. The governments of Australia, Japan and the Soviet Union, as well as many other countries around the world have benefited from his expertise and insight. Currently, Dr. Cunningham serves on the Provincial Court Nominating Committee; the Law Enforcement Review Board; and as treasurer and board member of the Aboriginal Multimedia Society.

In recognition of his devotion and determination, Chester Cunningham has received many awards and honours. A few of these include a Queen’s Medal for Achievement, Honourary Chief of the Peigan Tribe, the Aboriginal Achievement Award, the Alberta Achievement Award, a medallion from Prince Charles at Treaty 7 celebrations, and a lifetime membership for the Canadian Native Friendship Centre. The Aboriginal Students Council at the University of Alberta also recognized Dr. Cunningham for his contributions to the Native community and for his influence as a strong role model.

In 1989, he received an honourary doctor of laws degree from the University of Alberta recognizing his contributions to the correctional system. He was appointed a Member of the Order of Canada in 1993.

A belief in humankind and the value placed on family and community is reflected throughout Dr. Cunningham’s outstanding career. Members of his staff and the aboriginal community have gone on to become lawyers, social workers, police officers and doctoral candidates, as a result of his encouragement and faith in their abilities.

Chester and his wife Elzaida raised a family of seven — David, Calvin, Carola, Bill, Mark, Rosalie and Frank, along with countless unofficial foster children.