Canada needs a university in the North

Only federal government can fund an Arctic university, academics say


Northerners have changed the map of Canada and the way their homeland is governed.

But these achievements are incomplete. Now, northerners must build a new society that can sustain the dreams embodied in the new institutions.

As Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami leader Mary Simon and Nunavut Premier Eva Arreak have stressed, education is the key. Besides continued major and creative investment in the kindergarten to Grade 12 school system and in the colleges, Canada needs a northern university.

A northern university would improve access to post-secondary education for students from the region and offer them the same choice that virtually all other Canadian students enjoy — to study reasonably close to home.

It would create jobs for highly trained professionals, including well-educated northerners who now struggle to find ways to build careers while serving their home region.

A northern university would be well positioned to develop scientific, engineering and technical research that responded directly to the needs of the rapidly developing northern economy. It would be well placed to develop a distinctive curriculum and research agenda that would be infused with the knowledge and ways of living of the North’s many cultures. 

Moreover, a northern university would benefit northern society in the way that all universities do:  by providing the means to share human knowledge, in all its glorious diversity.

Prime Minister Harper’s August announcement that Cambridge Bay would be the site of the new northern research centre was welcomed. Although the research centre will bring benefits to Cambridge Bay, it is being established for reasons to do with the country’s national interest.

Northern science will again serve public policy and economic development, as the northern “field stations” have done for decades. Michael Bravo documents this process in Northern Exposure: Peoples, Powers and Prospects in Canada’s North, published by the Institute for Research on Public Policy.

Of course, Canada has significant and enduring national interests in northern development and the stewardship of our northern boundaries. These matters are core responsibilities for any federal government. But where do northerners come in?

On present trends, not many of them will enter northern research by the front door. Greg Poelzer’s study of northern education documents a number of shortcomings in Canada’s approach to northern education. He concludes that Canada is at least four decades behind Alaska, Russia and the Nordic states.

A serous public discussion of this matter is needed, especially among northerners. Should a new northern university grow out of the existing colleges, or should these be supported to do what they are now doing well, while a new university is established to fulfil its very different mission?

It is not clear whether there should be one new university or three, considering that each territory faces different circumstances. Maybe there should be one new northern university with a number of campuses, on the model of the University of Alaska.

This would leave room for the recognition of regional differences while realizing certain economies of scale. Such a model would also create room for innovation based upon grassroots initiatives such as the Dechinta Bush University in the Northwest Territories.

A high-powered citizens group, using funding from the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation, successfully piloted the first semester of the Dechinta Bush University in spring 2010.

Under this initiative, university credit courses were delivered on the land, co-taught by university professors and Indigenous elders and authorities. In this context, there have been discussions in Nunavut about a possible bicultural university to serve Inuit, and other interested students, from the four jurisdictions where Inuit live: Labrador, Nunavut, Nunavik and the western Northwest Territories.

It is obvious that sorting through all of the possibilities will require wide public discussion and, ultimately, effective and adroit leadership willing to benefit from the imagination and initiative of northern residents.

While there is an essential role for aboriginal and territorial governments, federal participation will also be crucial, as it is the only government with the resources to launch a northern university system.

The government has suggested that the Cambridge Bay research centre’s opening in 2017 is intended to mark Canada’s 150th birthday. It would fitting, and even more laudable, if a northern university system could also be launched the same year.

Frances Abele and Leslie Seidle are co-editors of Northern Exposure: Peoples, Powers and Prospects in Canada’s North, published by the Institute for Research on Public Policy. Abele is a professor at Carleton University’s School of Public Policy and Administration and Academic Director of the Carleton Centre for Community Innovation. Seidle is a research director at IRPP.

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