On Campus

Gov. Gen. pushes university for Inuit

In unprecedented move, GG calls for change in government policy.

Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean is making a rare break from ceremonial circumspection to publicly urge the government to build a university for Canada’s Inuit.

In a vice-regal plunge into policy advocacy, Jean proposes a university in the Arctic so Inuit youth can get a degree close to home and benefit from economic activity expected in their region.

Canada’s claims to sovereignty over the North will be, she says, nothing but an “empty shell” unless the area’s inhabitants participate in northern development.

The Governor General has begun promoting the idea with government officials, and sources say they expect her to raise it with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Jean was inspired by an experiment in Norway and plans to use what could be her final year in office – and her time after leaving Rideau Hall – to champion the idea that Canada can do it too.

Jean says an Arctic university could help produce the engineers that mining companies will need, and inspire young Inuit who might otherwise abandon dreams of a career in other fields such as medicine or law.

She says industry could also be conscripted in the effort – and suggests that mining firms, for instance, could be required to devote a slice of their resource revenues to building a new school.

None of this is government policy, but the Queen’s representative offered a series of arguments for an Arctic university in an interview with The Canadian Press.

“So all of Canada is now looking to the North and saying, ‘It’s important to defend our sovereignty in the North, it’s important to deal with changes from climate change, the Northwest Passage will soon be a maritime highway, it’s important to explore the abundant natural resources – gas, uranium, diamonds, gold,’ ” Jean said at Rideau Hall.

“That’s all very good – but at the same time we absolutely cannot forget that this sovereignty is an empty shell, the development of the North will be an empty shell, if it happens without the participation of northern people . . . .

“We need to build viable, healthy, durable communities there.”

The Governor General leaves Monday for a one-week trip to Nunavut, where the range of social problems includes the lowest high-school graduation rate in Canada: a mere 25 per cent get a diploma.

Such a minuscule pool of potential students would certainly be one argument against the idea of spending money to build a university campus in the North.

But Jean has a couple of suggestions for overcoming that demographic challenge.

One is to consider building satellite campuses, instead of one big facility in one place, and to have different faculties in different communities. Another solution is opening up the university to students from Canada’s south, so that they can discover the Arctic and Inuit culture.

The government has no such intention for now.

The Conservatives say they’ve committed $156 million over six years for northern research and training.

That’s on top of $500,000 spent this year on the University of the Arctic, an international network of schools that share resources. Canadian members include Nunavut Arctic College, which offers a variety of programs, including nursing, jewelry-making and computer technology.

“There are no plans to build a bricks-and-mortar university in the near future,” said Patricia Valladao, a departmental spokeswoman at Indian and Norhern Affairs Canada.

“(Canada’s) three territorial colleges are currently working to strengthen their ability to deliver University of the Arctic programming, which would allow a greater number of northerners to access post-secondary education than really a traditional brick university in the North could do.”

The Governor General begs to differ.

Jean says she was struck by what she saw at the University of Tromso, the world’s northernmost university which sits on the 69th parallel and serves Norway’s Sami indigenous people.

The school offers an impressive roster of programs, has 9,000 students, employs 2,400 staff, and has become a key hub of economic development in its region since being founded in 1968.

Building such an institution could be far trickier in Canada for various reasons – starting with the country’s vast geography and its thin population density.

This university would serve three northern territories with a population of barely 100,000 people, sprinkled over a land mass comparable in size to Europe.

That’s why Jean likes the idea of satellite campuses and opening up the institution to the rest of Canada’s 33 million people.

She says Inuit youth need to see a higher education as attainable, and she fears too many are discouraged by things like a 4,000-kilometre move from frosty Tuktoyaktuk to bustling Toronto.

So Jean will continue peddling the idea – and pointing to the 69th parallel of Norway as an example for Canadians.

“Imagine that, a university in the Norwegian Arctic that has all the faculties: medicine, law, geology, there was even a music department, and this played a determining role in the development of Norway’s North,” Jean said.

“The idea met with some resistance at first. But now it’s recognized as one of Norway’s greatest successes – and it changed the face of development there.

“That inspired me a lot. And if it’s possible in Norway why wouldn’t it be possible in Canada?”

The Canadian Press

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