Chester R. Cunningham

It’s hard to believe, but there was once a time when Canada’s first Aboriginal court worker program almost went under because of a lack of money. Chester Cunningham took out loans against his own house and car to be sure the program wouldn’t disappear because of lack of funds. He took a risk because he saw the need. In the 27 years since, Aboriginal people across Canada have benefited from his gamble. And Dr. Cunningham still has the house. In Edmonton of the 1960s, Dr. Cunningham began work with the Native Friendship Centre. Part of his job was to assist Aboriginals dealing with the Canadian justice system. What he discovered shocked him. Often, Aboriginal people would plead guilty to charges they did not understand; others were convicted without any verbal communication between themselves and the judge; and, some would plead guilty when they weren’t. He talked to a few judges and created the Native Court Worker Services Association that later became the Native Counseling Services of Alberta (NCSA). Through it, Aboriginals had the justice system interpreted for them and vice-versa. He didn’t stop there. Soon the NCSA was sponsoring half-way houses, a young offender group home, homemaker program and a fine-option program. He 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 began in 1988. The Stan Daniels Centre has proved to be a model for the world. Dr. 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. He received a 1997 National Aboriginal Achievement Award in the category of law and justice for making Aboriginal court worker programs a reality.