Published on September 25, 2020
Bursary donor honours his life’s work as a surveyor and entrepreneur by supporting geomatics students
When Walter (Wally) Kiriak earned a scholarship attending post-secondary in the mid-1950s, the monetary value was $150. Although it might seem small by today’s standards, to Wally that scholarship was priceless.
For one thing, scholarships were scarce for his program – survey and drafting at the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art, now known as SAIT, in Calgary.
“It was the only one and it was for the best marks,” he says. “That meant quite a bit to me.”
Half the scholarship paid for his books and supplies. The other half, Wally recounts, was provided as a monthly $10 stipend – a much-needed boost to his dollar a day budget.
“A glass of beer was only 10 cents back then,” he jokes.
Nearly 60 years later, Wally chose to pay that generosity forward to NAIT’s Geomatics Engineering Technology students. The bursary, says Wally, is also a way to honour his career as a surveyor and Edmonton business owner.
A budding career as a surveyor
After graduating from Redwater High School in 1953, Wally got a job working with a contract surveying company. Oil had been discovered in the area 5 years earlier, and the industry was just starting to boom.
Although Wally lacked experience, he had a knack for geometry and a thirst to learn all he could about the surveying field. He remembers asking one of the surveyors how to measure the area of a lake. The surveyor couldn’t say.
“I decided right then, if I was going to be a surveyor, I was going to be a good surveyor,” he says.
In the survey and drafting program, Wally learned how to conduct surveys, take measurements and create mapping for the construction, energy, environment and government sectors.
“It’s one job I’ll never forget."
After graduating in 1955, one of Wally’s first jobs – and perhaps most memorable – was as a survey party chief, providing access and locating well sites to do testing on a property at Bitumount oil sands (later designated as an Alberta historical site in 1974 for its extraction research and technology). Located 89 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, the crew could only access the site by an hour-and-a-half boat ride up the Athabasca River.
“It’s one job I’ll never forget,” says Wally. “We got there and we had to stay in a tent. The mosquitos were so bad, it was horrible. You had to wear a mosquito net just to work.”
Despite the conditions, Wally found the work rewarding. The testing he and the crew did helped determine how much bitumen was available on the property and whether the Alberta Government would invest in it.
For Wally, that first gig as a skilled surveyor was the beginning of a 45-year-long career in a province poised for economic and industrial change.
A resilient entrepreneur
For several years, Wally (pictured right with his wife Pauline) continued to work for Canadian Engineering Surveys before briefly starting his own contracting business with partner Bernie Rachansky, and then subsequently joining Francl and Associates Consulting Engineers in 1965. Just 5 years later, he had the opportunity to purchase a municipal land survey firm, which he later renamed Kiriak and Associates.
Wally’s company focused on surveying for subdivisions and housing within the city of Edmonton and the surrounding area. It wasn’t long before his company built a reputation for the quality of their work.
Over the next decade, they earned up to 20% of surveying contracts in the Edmonton area and grew to about 50 staff. Then the economic downturn of the 1980s hit.
“We had very little work – just like everybody else in Alberta back then,” says Wally.
He had to face the difficult decision of laying off some employees. The company’s saving grace was the parcel mapping program for the Alberta Government – work that would eventually help digitize Alberta’s land surveys into a global positioning system (GPS).
Supporting future surveyors
After retiring in 2000, Wally never forgot the power of education on his life. When his grandchildren attended post-secondary, they received scholarships and bursaries. That got him thinking about how student expenses have increased since he received a scholarship all those years ago.
With an education, Wally believes, individuals have access to better job opportunities and quality of life. So, he established the Walter Kiriak Bursary for NAIT’s Geomatics Engineering Technology students, as well as a legacy through a bequest. By doing so, he’s ensuring his family will be cared for, but also that students will continue receiving bursary support in the future.
“Without bursaries, some students might not have a chance to attend, so this will help them continue their education with confidence.”
Pauline Kiriak says she is proud of her husband’s generosity.
“I thought it was really important because he always talked about how the scholarship made a difference in his life,” she says. “Without bursaries, some students might not have a chance to attend, so this will help them continue their education with confidence.”
Wally’s gift is partly about progressing the industry by providing skilled workers for the geomatics and survey field. He recalls when planning to retire, GPS was being adopted. Although his company did not use the technology at the time, he knew it would be a significant shift in how technologists would work and be trained in the future.
“When I started survey, a crew was a 3 or 4 person crew. Today, with GPS, one person does the job,” he says. “It was quite a transition from what I learned.”
He wants students to continue learning and access a rewarding career, much like he did. Remembering his journey – both the ups and the downs – he shares words of encouragement to future graduates as they navigate any potential challenges in finding employment.
“Don’t become discouraged if you don’t find work right away,” he says. “Volunteer or take on a job to start working. Don’t just look for the money. You have to start somewhere.”
The President's Society
In 2019, 117 donors, including Walter Kiriak, were part of the President's Society. As members, individuals are recognized for generously supporting NAIT and its students.
The President's Society includes:
See more about the President's Society
- 50 alumni
- 33 staff members
- More than $500,000 in total donations