Arctic U: A, cautiously, good idea

Administrators should study the pitfalls of their predecessors to ensure mistakes aren’t repeated


Calls for a new university serving Canada’s north are growing. Approximately 50 academics gathered in Yellowknife this week and came away with renewed hope that such an institution could be established, and in the near future.

But we’ve heard these arguments before.

“As Northern peoples of Canada, we envision in our homelands a renowned institution centred on the teachings of the land, led by the wisdom of Indigenous peoples, fostering innovation, dialogue and inspired communities,” reads a statement from the group issued on Nov. 4.

Compare that with:

“First Nations University of Canada will acquire and expand its base of knowledge and understanding in the best interests of First Nations and for the benefit of society by providing opportunities of quality bi-lingual and bi-cultural education under the mandate of the First Nations of Saskatchewan,” reads the mission statement of the First Nations University of Canada.

Pretty similar, isn’t it?

But First Nations University of Canada demonstrated that special interest groups running a school with public money is fraught with problems. As recently as February, FNUC had its funding cut by the federal and provincial governments because of “long-standing, systemic problems related to governance and financial management.”

While the move sparked widespread criticism, inconsistent spending, sketchy expense accounts, that included trips to Vegas, and a desperate need to reform the board of governors, as demanded by both the province and the feds.

The funding cuts were just the icing on a cake that included staff dismissals, resignations in protest and accusations of infringement of academic freedom.

A university in Canada’s north is long overdue. Aside from Canada’s steady push for sovereignty in the north, which is greatly assisted by the presence of a well-educated local population, Canada’s north is an oft-neglected element of the Canadian landscape, and one that would be greatly assisted by the formation of a new school.

But given the recent precedent set by the formation of a similar special interest school, there are serious lessons to be learned. And administrators of this new institution should study the pitfalls of their predecessors carefully, lest they be doomed to repeat the same mistakes. A university in the Arctic should be about serving the needs of the region, with students as its number one priority. Independence will also be key. If it stays on this path, the university should succeed, and it will be a great thing for Canada’s north.

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Arctic U: A, cautiously, good idea

  1. While I welcome attention to the idea of a university in the Canadian Arctic, as the organizer and host of the event I want to clear up a number of errors and misconceptions in this article:

    – Of the approximately 50 people gathered, only 5 were academics. The vast majority were northerners – Inuit, Dene, Yukon First Nations, Metis and non-Aboriginal northerners – all with an interest and passion for the idea of a significantly more advanced post-secondary system in the north.

    – The Vision endorsed at this gathering is substantially different from that of the First Nations University of Canada. A northern institution would meet the needs of a wide array of northerners, including non-Aboriginal northerners as well as those from southern Canada and abroad. In fact, anyone interested in learning about the north IN THE NORTH. Moreover, the First Nation University’s woes stem not from its vision, but from its governance and – it then follows – its operations. What is envisioned in the north is a university that – like all credible universities globally – is led by a board of governors INDEPENDENT from the interference of any government or political authority (whether Aboriginal, territorial or federal).

    – The article draws a common thread between what is proposed in the northern university vision and the First Nations University as being a common concern for Indigenous values and teachings. It is then deeply offensive to imply that because of this we might now expect such folly as “inconsistent spending [and] sketchy expense accounts, [including] trips to Vegas”.

    – The notion that the indigenous peoples of the north, who are 85% of Nunavut, over 50% of the NWT and nearly 25% of Yukon residents are merely “special interest groups” displays a remarkable ignorance of Canada’s far north. Non-Aboriginal northerners know well that they are still guests in someone else’s homeland.

    – If indigenous values and worldviews seem either quaint or threatening, I urge anyone to look at the mottos and founding objects in the majority Canada’s older, mainstream universities, virtually all of which have overt Christian references. Despite this, academic freedom flourishes.

    – Canadian sovereignty in the north is a fact. The only thing that might present a credible challenge Canadian sovereignty is unsolved or inadequately implemented land claim agreements, which establish certainty of crown title and at the same time acknowledge the fact of Inuit, Dene and Metis rights and title on the ground. Implementation of these agreements – 19 of 22 such modern treaties being north of 60 – depends on a well-educated, highly skilled population. But no university in the south is equipped to develop a cadre of northerners prepared to deal with the future challenges and opportunities unique to that place. None even comes close.

    We could not agree more that “a university in the Arctic should be about serving the needs of the region, with students as its number one priority.” This is exactly what this gathering was about.

    Thanks again for helping draw attention to this glaring gap in the Canadian fabric.

    James Stauch
    Vice-President, Programs and Operations
    Walter & Duncan Gordon Foundation

  2. “Administrators of this new institution should study the pitfalls of their predecessors carefully, lest they be doomed to repeat the same mistakes.”

    True, but the road goes back way further than you might think:

    Amanda Graham. The university that wasn’t: the University of Canada North, 1970 – 1985. A Master of Arts thesis submitted to the Faculty of the Division of Arts and Science Department of History, Lakehead University, Degree granted 23 november 1994, Pdf version may 2000.