A chancellor emeritus at the University of Alberta has been recognized by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business for his work in Aboriginal relations.
Eric Newell, former CEO of oil company Syncrude, is receiving the Award for Excellence in Aboriginal Relations for his advocacy of Aboriginal business and education during and after his time with Syncrude.
Newell says that his time with Syncrude generated his passion for working with Aboriginal people.
“The real genesis would be when I went to Syncrude — I went there in 1986 as Vice President, and I became CEO in 1989,” he said.
When Newell arrived at Syncrude, the percentage of Aboriginal people in the workplace was much lower than that of the broader community, despite what Newell called a commitment by his predecessors that local people would benefit from oil sands development.
“We increased employment to the point where Syncrude was the largest industrial employer of Aboriginal people in Canada,” Newell said.
Newell started at Syncrude with the goal of creating enough Aboriginal companies to generate $30 million a year in business.
“We were doing it because we were trying to help the Aboriginal communities become more self-sustaining, and nobody had done it. I don’t know how much Syncrude does today — it’s probably over $150 million a year of business with Aboriginal companies,” Newell explained, joking that their original goal of $30 million proved them “un-visionary.”
Newell retired as CEO of Syncrude at the end of 2003, but still pursues his interests in Aboriginal affairs.
“I want to be very quick to point out that I share this award with my Syncrude management team, and also my many Aboriginal friends who are entrepreneurs and business people,” he said.
Newell added that, by working on Aboriginal programs, Syncrude was put in a win-win situation.
“It’s not just pure altruism, but it is the right thing to do. It certainly works to the company’s advantage to work hard at their aboriginal programs,” he said.
“One of the top areas I wanted to work on when I came in as chancellor at the University of Alberta was to get a lot more going ... in terms of developing post-secondary opportunities for Aboriginal youth.”
Newell formed an Aboriginal working group in order to generate interest in Aboriginal education and get a profile about getting more Aboriginal initiatives started at the University.
“One of the things we’re still working on is the Aboriginal Gathering Place at the U of A,” Newell said.
“Again, the whole idea here is that the key to improving the quality of life and standard of living for our (Aboriginal) people is really education, first and foremost, and economic development.”
Newell and his wife Kathy donated $1 million to the Gathering Place in 2008, and also donate money to scholarships and bursaries for Aboriginal people.
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