Alfred Nikolai’s parents gave him no choice about going to university. Like many post-WWII new Canadian immigrants, the Nikolais placed a high value on education because it could never be lost, stolen or taken away.
Nikolai recalls that, “I was always good at sports, so I chose physical education because it made sense to me. My parents never understood my choice, but as long as it was a University degree it was okay with them. “ Nikolai worked driving dairy trucks, pounding nails as an apprentice carpenter while he attended school. Once the degree was completed, Nikolai faced another choice—what to do next? “I always wanted to teach, so instead of completing an after-degree in education, I applied for teaching positions across Canada and ended up in Labrador.”
So, at 21 years of age, and never having left home, Nikolai accepted a position teaching in one of Canada’s poorest communities, Happy Valley Labrador. Looking back at where his career started, it’s not hard to see how Nikolai arrived at his current position, as CEO of Habitat for Humanity Edmonton.
Happy Valley, now Happy Valley-Goose Bay was one of the poorest communities in Canada. Nikolai realized very quickly that teaching volleyball or basketball to children, some of whose families were still nomadic, and/or who were living in extreme poverty made no sense. “These kids needed basic health information and survival skills.” So, Nikolai threw out the curriculum and looked around him to see what he could do.
At that time, Happy Valley was a home to American and Canadian military personnel, as a strategic NORAD base. “The Americans had a pool, and the Canadians had a rink.” Nikolai enlisted base personnel to teach swimming and skating, and used the community curling rink as a resource as well. Adding “the great outdoors” to his list of resources Nikolai added x-country, downhill skiing and outdoor education to the mix. His work in Labrador was recognized by the Kings County School Board in the Annapolis Valley and they hired him for a teaching position in Nova Scotia. Eventually, by tossing out his volleyball coaching and playmaking skills for his skills in fundraising, finding good people, leveraging existing resources and creating partnerships, Nikolai established an outdoor education mentorship program that made sense, made a positive difference for the children in his community and to his knowledge, is still used today.
“We had the time of our lives,” recalls Nikolai, of his time in Happy Valley. “We worked hard, played hard and made a real difference.”
Nikolai returned to Alberta in the early-eighties. Wanting to move ahead in his career, Nikolai began a Masters Degree at the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation part time, and supported his family by taking a job with the Alberta Government, overseeing a new organization Shape-Up Alberta and establishing Canada’s first Fitness Assessment Centre.
His 20 years with Alberta Sport and Recreation (Now the Recreation and Physical Activity Division of Alberta Culture) formed the foundation of what is now the Alberta Active Living Partnership, which includes organizations such as the Alberta Fitness Leadership Certification Association, Alberta Centre for Active Living, Be Fit For Life Network, and the Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute (CFLRI) “We wanted to create a catalyst—partnerships that could impact the community. We were way ahead of our time.” These organizations continue to provide information, education and programming in physical activity throughout Alberta and Canada.
After his many years with the government Nikolai was approached by a colleague to step into a leadership role with Habitat for Humanity Edmonton. Listening to his wife, who told him he was too young to retire, Nikolai agreed to take on the position of CEO for five years. “That was in 2005,” he says. “It’s been ten great years.”
Providing families a decent place to live, making a difference and providing hope reminds Nikolai of his early years in Happy Valley. Nikolai notes that harsh poverty is a reality for too many people in Canada, and his work with Habitat is as heartwarming as his early days. “It takes me back, to be able to help kids in such a positive way,” he says.
Reflecting on his experience and the value of the degree he chose so long ago, Nikolai says that Physical Education is more about learning people skills than learning how to coach a specific sport or teach a skill. “Whether you are building a house or teaching kids how to skate, you have an impact on people’s lives. People skills—that’s the secret.”
Recently recognized as a distinguished alumnus of the University of Alberta Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation, Nikolai has been a little busy changing lives over the last forty years, and is still two courses short of his Masters degree, which he plans to complete soon.
Written by Zanne Cameron