James Ahnassay

Civil Engineering Technology '88

Published on January 31, 2019

Alumni Award of Distinction '09


This summer, wildfires roared within 17 kilometres of Meander River, one of three communities of the Dene Tha’ First Nation in northwestern Alberta.

As a blanket of smoke drifted in, Chief James Ahnassay and his council ordered an evacuation, sending nearly 400 people to High Level, nearly 75 kilometres south. The air quality became bad enough to aggravate Ahnassay’s mild case of asthma.

“For people who have more severe conditions. I can’t imagine what it must have been like.”

During four terms, that kind of focus on the well-being of others has defined Ahnassay’s approach to leadership. And it extends far beyond health and safety.

Since taking office in 1993, he has promoted education as a path to personal success as well as a way to improve local services. He also remains dedicated to economic diversification in the region, including ecotourism possibilities in surrounding wetlands – which has meant advocating for the conservation of these and other parts of Dene Tha’ territory of interest to the oil and gas industry.

The remoteness of the Dene Tha’ communities, home to roughly 1,800 people, will always present logistical challenges. But Ahnassay, now thinking over a campaign for re-election next fall, sees progress. Employment and education are on the rise, budgets are balanced and, as with the recent wildfire, they’ve proven themselves capable of overcoming extreme adversity.

“We’re making improvements,” he says, “slowly but surely.”

– Scott Messenger