The friendliness of folks in Jasper has endeared Mabaye Dia and his wife, France Ruel-Dia, to the community since they moved here in November 2012.
Dia, Senior Environmental Assessment Scientist with Parks Canada, took a roundabout journey that eventually led to Jasper.
He was born in Mauritania, West Africa on Nov. 15, 1963, and spent his youth there.
“Growing up in Mauritania, I recall playing soccer with no shoes all day long with my friends and travelling with my mom from village to village to visit relatives,” Dia shared in an email. “I was also a boy scout and had a chance to compete nationally and internationally with other troops in Africa, in the Middle East and in Europe.”
Dia’s graduation from high school in 1984 was one of many milestones in his life.
That year, he started studies in Morocco at the National School of Forestry Engineering and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1988.
With an abundance of knowledge under his belt, Dia returned to Mauritania where he worked in the Ministry of Rural Development and Environment, the head of the Monitoring and Evaluation Division.
Three years later, Dia went to Alexandria, Egypt, on a scholarship and in 1993 came out with a Masters Degree in Environmental Management from Senghor University.
“Then I was lucky enough to get another scholarship,” Dia said.
And to Quebec City he went, where he graduated with a postgraduate degree in Integrated Rural Development from Laval University in 1995.
That year was a milestone for another reason. Quebec City is where Dia met France and they were married on Oct. 14 that year.
“While I’m Muslim and France is Catholic, religion has never been a barrier,” Dia said.
Together for a quarter of a century, he and France raised their sons David, Mabaye Junior and Ousseynou.
Dia continued on his educational pathway. Starting in 1995, he pursued a PhD in Environmental Geography at Laval University, completing it in 2000.
He and Frances then moved to Washington, D.C, where Dia attained a post doctorate degree in Sustainability through the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Dia’s broad base of knowledge was clearly noticeable. In 2001, he was hired at Winthrop University as the Assistant Professor of Environmental Geography.
His connection with Parks Canada started in 2004, when he attended a conference in Bangkok, Thailand.
When he discovered what Parks Canada was all about, Dia remembers thinking, “‘Wow!’ Parks Canada is an institution I can work with as a Canadian. After five years in the U.S.A., it was about time to come back home. Parks Canada was on my radar.”
About two weeks or so later, Dia saw a position posted: Environmental Assessment Professional with Parks Canada, in Halifax.
He remembers the day he did an interview for the position in January 2005 as a stormy one. Dia checked out other options too and did an interview with Northern Michigan University for an assistant professor position in Environmental Management.
April turned out to be the month for decision making. That first week, Dia received a job offer from both Parks Canada and Northern Michigan University. He leaned toward Parks Canada because there were good terms with the position, but he said the tipping point was that “Canada was home for both of us.”
“It was just good to come back.”
Dia started working in Halifax on Aug. 1, 2005. Two years later, he was promoted to the position of Senior Environmental Advisor, which he held for a couple of years. In 2009, Dia got a position as Acting Resource Conservation Manager, for the Atlantic Region, based in Halifax too.
But when 2012 rolled around, life changed.
“Around that time the federal government was making financial adjustments,” Dia said. “Each department had to make some decisions. My position was eliminated.”
A door quickly opened for Dia though. He was offered a position in Jasper as Senior Environmental Assessment Scientist.
“I remember when we decided to take the job in Jasper,” Dia said. “We came here in October to go house-hunting. What really, really impressed us was the people were friendly and smiling.”
A month later, he and France settled into life in Jasper.
Dia decided to take a 15-month sabbatical from work in 2018. He and Frances moved to Africa where he worked as the managing director of Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of Congo for African Parks for the first five months.
Cameroon was next, but it was more than a simple goodbye before Dia left. (France was in Montreal at the time and returned later after Dia went to Cameroon.)
Dia said when the villagers realized he was leaving, “they weren’t happy about that.” In the nicest possible way, they held him hostage. That meant they converged on his house and filled the next four days with visiting and delicious meals.
“The chief of the village was telling me, ‘We thank you for your open mindedness’,” Dia said. “I was the very first black director of this park. That was unbelievable for them. I was a role model for them.”
After the pleasant hostage taking was over, Dia left for Cameroon where he was based for the duration of his sabbatical. Through the United Nations Development Program, Dia worked as technical advisor for Sustainable Financing for Congo Basin Protected Areas. That included the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Republic of Congo and Central African Republic.
“I was co-ordinating and travelling in each of those countries,” he said. “I helped them develop a national strategy and an action plan. He was assisted with writing the national strategy by two national consultants in each of the countries.”
Dia is grateful for the opportunity to work in his country of origin.
“Going to Africa was a way to give back to the motherland,” he said, noting how being able to explore more opportunities there “was a way to bring back some knowledge I gained internationally.”
Added to his vast base of knowledge about the environment and development and implementation of related programs is Dia’s fluency in six languages. He speaks Fulani (his mother tongue), Wolof, Hassania, Arabic, French and English.
Dia and France returned to Jasper from Africa in November 2019.
When they arrived, Dia said it was a feeling of ‘Home Sweet Home.’
“I still have the image of the smiles,” he added. “Jasper is home. People are very, very open-minded, but more importantly, people are welcoming. It may feel isolated here, but any time we have a visitor, we are 100-per-cent sure they love it here.”
In their off time, Dia noted, “France and I like walking around, bicycling and picnicking.
“It is also when we connect with relatives and friends in Quebec and in Africa. I have been coaching soccer for a couple of years.
“As the Parks Canada Senior Environmental Assessment Scientist,” he continued, “I am privileged to contribute to how we reconcile economy and environment through the assessment of 70 to 80 projects per year, including small, medium and large projects in Jasper National Park.”
Joanne McQuarrie, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Jasper Fitzhugh