Sam Abouhassan fled civil war in Lebanon in 1976 and arrived in Edmonton at age 20 with just $14 in his pocket. Today, he is a respected businessman who has raised millions for charities supporting everything from children’s health to arthritis. “It’s the least I could do to give back to the community that gave me such a nice life,” he says.
Many know Abouhassan as the “tailor to the stars.” He’s been at it since age 12 when his school principal suggested that he take up a trade. “I liked clothes, so I walked into a tailor shop and asked if I could help. They handed me a broom and I stayed until I left the country.” Abouhassan opened his own shop at age 22 in the basement of Edmonton’s King Edward Hotel. But he didn’t know enough English. “So I took a tailoring course at NAIT just to learn the language.” He quickly ended up on the board of the program he was enrolled in and “I realized I was getting satisfaction just volunteering my time.” By age 25 he was on 3 boards in the city.
Fast forward to 2017. Abouhassan is celebrated for his philanthropic work across many areas. In 2000 he co-founded, with Kevin Lowe, Tee Up for Tots, a golf tournament that not only raised the profile of the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation to the number one foundation in Edmonton, but has raised more than $10 million since its inception. Just a few among the many organizations he has supported are ABC Headstart, Boys & Girls Clubs, Zebra Foundation, Alberta Lung Association, the University of Alberta Faculty of Arts and the Mennonite Centre for Newcomers. He has also been a mentor to others looking to support their community.
“I’ve always been a firm believer that if you don’t have the money you always have the time.”
Herb C. Belcourt, Orval M. Belcourt, Georges Brosseau, Q.C.
Cousins Herb Belcourt, a businessman, and Orval Belcourt, a social worker, and lawyer Georges Brosseau started Canative Housing Corporation to provide affordable housing for indigenous people living in or moving to Edmonton or Calgary. Their goal was life-altering for people living in deplorable conditions. The result, a non-profit housing corporation that has changed the lives of thousands.
Canative borrowed $3.1 million from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and a lesser amount from the Alberta Housing Corporation, bought 158 houses and turned them into homes for 1,220 indigenous people. More than a thousand of them children and many of whom had decent housing for the first time in their lives. The loans were paid off, with interest, within 15 years.
Canative was more than a housing rental company. It also had a social conscience. Many of the people who lived in its houses needed more than shelter; they needed a good foundation of general life skills; including how to live in a home and in a community. A landlord with a difference, Canative provided an eight-week course teaching skills such as cooking, nutrition, sewing and home maintenance. There was a day care centre and free bus service during the course.
The 3 men liquidated the housing corporation over a period of two or three years and gave people the opportunity to buy their houses in 2001. Assets totalling $12 million were invested with the Edmonton Community Foundation to create a permanent endowment for Métis students known as the Belcourt Brosseau Métis Awards. At $18 million the fund is unique in Canada and provides more than 140 awards each year between $2,000–$10,000 to support Métis students in more than 200 different post-secondary programs including university, apprenticeship and skill training. Over 96 per cent of recipients complete their program and several recipients are now donors themselves.
“We’re investing in our people and it’s proving we did the right thing. Canada will be proud of its native people. We were always leaders.”
Anne Fanning Binder
Anne Fanning Binder’s career in medicine—as a clinician, researcher, scholar, patient advocate, public health policy-maker and health sciences professional—can be considered historic in its own right.
Binder is a respected international authority on tuberculosis (TB) and has promoted treatment of infectious diseases in the context of social conditions.
She has advocated for culturally informed care nationally, is widely respected as a mentor and educator, has founded countless programs such as the Global Health curriculum, and served on or chaired committees too numerous to list.
Binder points to her mother, also a physician, as a major influence. “She believed you could do whatever you wanted to do. She was a wonderful person, totally committed to social justice issues. Both of my parents were concerned with social justice.”
TB became a lifelong career focus. The connection of TB to poverty fit Binder’s commitment to social justice, which itself is reflected in many of her professional activities.
When she was fired by the provincial government for being too outspoken, “It opened a door to many other things. My colleagues at the World Health Organization gave me a job with them, so I packed up and went to Geneva. It was full of people who have done interesting things all their lives. That was kind of a treat. Everyone should do that at 59!”
Now retired, she regularly lectures at the University of Alberta Hospital about TB and volunteers with community organizations. Her work has garnered numerous awards, among them Member of the Order of Canada, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, the Alberta Medical Association’s designation in 2005 as one of Alberta’s 100 Physicians of the Century and the Japanese Anti-Tuberculosis Association Princess Chichibu Memorial TB Global Award.
“The broader social issues were a highlight. How lucky can you be to be loving what you are doing while you are doing it. I’ve had a wonderful time, and that’s what I’m grateful for.”
Alfred A. Nikolai
When he retired after 32 years in government and post-secondary education in 2005, Alfred Nikolai committed to 2 years as President and CEO of Habitat for Humanity Edmonton. He is still with Habitat, “and I have no intention of stopping.” The organization has grown from building 3 homes a year into the largest Habitat affiliate in Canada, regularly building over 50 homes annually in Northern Alberta.
The son of German/Polish immigrants, Nikolai grew up on a subsistence farm near Edmonton. “We never had anything, but we had a strong family bond and a strong work ethic. I was sheltered from what the real world looked like. I didn’t understand there were people who struggled to keep clothes on their backs.”
As a teacher in Labrador, Nikolai developed programs to ensure all students had access to showers and learned how to wash their clothes. He started a ski club and partnered with the military to provide survival training, snowshoeing, skating and swimming. “These kids’ self-image went way up with just the simple things we take for granted. Having a decent home and environment to live in is most important. Those values have always been in the background of what I’ve done.”
In his work with Habitat, he’s shown an impressive ability to bring people together toward a common cause, evidenced by his success in partnering with all sectors of society–corporations, businesses, governments and volunteers – to transform life for families and communities.
In 2017, the Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter Work Project is in Edmonton July 9–14. “To get the Carter Work Project to come to your city is like winning the bid to host the Olympics!” Nikolai says. He adds, “They’re going to build 150 homes in Canada for our 150th anniversary and half of them will be built in Edmonton and Fort Saskatchewan.”
“I believe with every ounce of my being that the economic model for Habitat for Humanity works. People get the social benefit of stability and self-esteem in owning their home. That is transformational. We are changing lives for families in their communities, not only for their generation, but for generations to come.”