Victor Buffalo is a respected Alberta leader and entrepreneur. His pioneering work has helped First Nation businesses across Canada to thrive. His passion for education has opened new doors for Samson Cree First Nation members.
Victor Buffalo was born in Hobbema, Alberta on December 7, 1941. He had little time to enjoy family life with parents, Edgar and Helen, and his siblings. At the age of seven, Victor was sent to residential school and, although he was only miles from his home, he was worlds away from a loving family. Victor lived an isolated life, lonely and disconnected from his Aboriginal heritage. He found solace in reading and developed considerable discipline and independence due to the strict routine of the school. At 20, Victor left residential school profoundly affected by the experience and carrying a fierce determination that would shape his life.
In 1964, Victor earned a Diploma in Chemical Technology from SAIT and began working in the field, first for Canada Tungsten Mining and then Canadian Celanese. Two years later, Victor met and married his wife, Rema. In her, Victor found a life partner who would provide him with the love and support he had sorely missed in his early years. They had a traditional ceremony, which elders said would produce a lasting marriage. The elders were right. Over the years, Victor and Rema’s family grew to include four children: Heather, Steven, Brenda and Kevin.
After working in mining for a number of years, Victor began to serve as a community development officer for the Indian Association of Alberta. Victor and Rema moved their family from Edmonton back home to Hobbema where Victor served as a land administrator for the reserve. With George Manuel of the National Indian Brotherhood as his mentor, Victor became increasingly involved in band politics. He served twice as a band councillor before being elected Chief of the Samson Cree Nation in 1980.
In the early 1980’s, Victor took on a landmark project for Canadian Aboriginal communities. As one of the guiding forces behind Peace Hills Trust, he led the creation of Canada’s first Aboriginal-owned financial institution. Victor faced obstacles as the Trust developed, including disbelief on many fronts that a First Nation could or should run a bank. The lack of trained Aboriginal managers and staff was another obstacle. Victor met both challenges with characteristic determination.
Peace Hills Trust opened its doors in 1981. The institution began offering personal and business loans and investing in Aboriginal projects. Meanwhile, Victor set about training Aboriginal staff and building the management capacity of the Trust’s board of directors. By the time Peace Hills Trust celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2006, the institution had grown to include eight branches and some $400 million in assets, as well as a 70% Aboriginal workforce. Countless Aboriginal businesses startups and expansions across the country, from farming and ranching operations to business and tourism operations, can trace their success to support from Peace Hills Trust.
Chief Buffalo’s determination has led to the development of other economic development opportunities for the Samson Cree, from Samson Oil and Gas to the Samson Lake Louise Mall. His business acumen has also been put to good use as a member of numerous boards of directors, including Western Lakota Energy Services, the Aboriginal Program Advisory Committee at the Banff Centre for Management, the National Aboriginal Industries Committee and the National Aboriginal Diabetes Association.
While his economic development contributions have been considerable, Victor’s greatest passion has arguably been to expand educational opportunities for all Samson Cree First Nation members. In the 1980’s, he established the Samson Education Trust Fund. The Fund took Hobbema from having no schools on reserve to four state-of-the art schools covering kindergarten to Grade 12. The Fund also encourages Samson Nation members to complete university degrees and trades training. As more people pursue these opportunities, Chief Buffalo has enjoyed the pleasure of seeing his people graduate in a range of disciplines from technical diplomas to Master’s degrees and Doctorates.
Chief Buffalo opened another important door for the Samson, and all Canadian Aboriginal people, with a 2005 landmark lawsuit that allowed the Samson Cree to gain control of the $340 million in oil and gas revenues that had been managed by the federal government. The dollars were placed in a trust fund which will contribute to the First Nation’s continued journey toward economic independence. In 2006, Victor Buffalo was inducted into the Aboriginal Business Hall of Fame by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business. In 2005, he received an Alberta Centennial Medal in recognition of his many contributions to the province.
Victor lost his life partner when Rema passed away in 2007. He describes her as the guiding force in his life and takes great pride in the accomplishments of their children, who have all pursued post secondary education and taken on leadership roles within the Aboriginal community. Chief Buffalo continues to honour his own lifelong commitment to learning by pursuing a Bachelor or General Studies degree from Athabasca University, with a focus on Psychology. He is also working to build up social structures on the reserve and develop a strategic plan that will ensure increased stability and opportunities for the Nation well into the future.