Dr. Chester Cunningham is a humanitarian and educator whose personal convictions about justice and equality have improved the quality of life for Indigenous peoples in Alberta, across Canada and around the world.
Dr. Chester Cunningham was born in Slave Lake, Alta, the third child in a fourth generation Métis family. He attended school in Wayne and St. Albert, where he excelled in sports. He left high school to play semi-professional baseball.
After retiring from his baseball career, Chester worked in the Wayne coal mines and then spent several years 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 people deal with the justice system. By 1965, he had been promoted to executive director.
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. The organization made history when it became the first non-government agency in the world to administer a correctional institution, the Stan Daniels Centre.
Chester was appointed a member of the Carson Committee, which examined management and operation of prisons and corrections in Canada. He was a delegate to the 7th United Nations Conference on Prevention of Crime and Treatment of the Offender in Milan, Italy.
Chester Cunningham has received many awards and honours, including 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, and Queen Elizabeth II Platinum Jubilee Medal. 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.
Chester and his wife Elzaida raised a family of seven — David, Calvin, Carola, Bill, Mark, Rosalie and Frank, along with countless unofficial foster children.
Chester has been a board member of the Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta for almost four decades.