African immigrants find careers — and kinship — with N.W.T. Indigenous organizations

'Having to deal with colonialism and rising above that and trying to empower yourself as a people, I think a lot of people back in Cameroon relate to that,' says Ambe Chenemu.

'Somebody's problem is everybody's problem,' and other reasons the North is like Africa

Ambe Chenemu at the snake pits in Fort Smith, N.W.T. Originally from Cameroon, Chenemu has forged a career working with Indigenous organizations. (submitted by Ambe Chenemu)

When Ambe Chenemu finished rousing the crowd at the Black Lives Matter protest in Yellowknife earlier this month, he handed the megaphone to his former employer: Chief Ernest Betsina of the Yellowknives Dene. 

Chenemu credits the First Nation with giving him his first real job. 

"They welcomed me and I could relate to a lot of the traditional lifestyle and the traditional way of life," Chenemu says.

Chenemu is one of a handful of African immigrants finding kinship, and connection, with Indigenous organizations in the N.W.T.

Chenemu at Little Buffalo River Falls in Fort Smith, N.W.T. (submitted by Ambe Chenemu)

The grandson of a chief in Cameroon, Chenemu moved to the N.W.T. in 2013 to study environmental resources and technology at Aurora College in Fort Smith. He's now a land use planner with the Tlicho Government in Behchoko, and says it's the right career for him. 

"Having to deal with colonialism and rising above that and trying to empower yourself as a people, I think a lot of people back in Cameroon relate to that." 

Chenemu is not the only one to make the connection. 

Godlove Ngeh also grew up in Cameroon. He first encountered Indigenous communities in Canada while working for the Alberta government. He eventually specialized in Indigenous consultation, working with First Nations throughout northern Alberta. When his job was cut after a new government took power in the province, Ngeh looked north for opportunity. 

He's now the director of lands and resources with the Gwich'in Tribal Council in Inuvik

"The Indigenous way of life very much relates to my culture back home," Ngeh says. "They also want to protect the land because all life flows from the land." 

In Cameroon, Ngeh says, "land is a critical part of people's lives because even if you don't have a professional job, just on the family land, you can live." 

Kanda Kola Gnama works for the Gwich'in Tribal Council in Inuvik. (submitted by Kanda Kola Gnama)

Kanda Kola Gnama grew up in Togo. He first came north to work as a French interpreter at the Inuvik Hospital.

He liked it right away.

"You see the respect of the elders and how they are cared for. It's something that I noticed because we have that same, almost the same, situation in Africa." 

Gnama now works as a transboundary specialist for the Gwich'in Tribal Council, a job similar to one he once held with the Togo government. 

For Gnama, there's also some history in common. He points to parallels between slavery and colonialism in Africa and Canada's residential schools. 

"The fact that northern communities are protesting for Black Lives Matter," he says, "shows that we are two communities that are bonded with so many things." 

'Somebody’s problem is everybody’s problem,' says Emmanuel Onomonu. He works for the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation in Tuktoyaktuk. (submitted by Emmanuel Onumonu)

Emmanuel Onumonu grew up in Nigeria. He now works as an environmental management coordinator for the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation in Tuktoyaktuk. 

His move north was something that "just kind of happened." He views working for an Indigenous government is the same as working for any government. 

But he sees reminders of home in the community he lives in. 

Onumonu says people in Nigeria also tend to identify "tribally, if I may put it that way." For example, he grew up in the city of Warri, but spent important family holidays in his father's village of Oguta, the Nigerian village he identifies as home.

"In this part of the world, it is a bit more pronounced than back home, but the cultures are quite similar." 

Onumonu also says people in Tuktoyaktuk look after one another in a way that he can understand. 

"We believe in extended family and that's exactly what they believe here. Somebody's problem is everybody's problem."