CLYDE RIVER, Nunavut — Michaelle Jean has delivered a sharp criticism of Canada’s record in delivering education in the Arctic, saying it lags 40 years behind other countries when it comes to higher learning in the North.
The Governor General said she’s undeterred by the lukewarm response from Ottawa to her call for a university in the Arctic, which the government has labelled a non-priority.
Jean said she would continue pressing politicians for an institution that would better serve the Inuit and attract non-aboriginal students and teachers to the North.
Jean has stepped up her campaign for such an institution after the government responded less than enthusiastically when she first floated the idea last week.
While her meal of seal heart at Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, on Monday has monopolized attention down south, Jean has actually spent much of her eight-day Arctic visit advocating a university for the region.
In an interview with The Canadian Press, she said she will “of course” continue peddling the idea to elected officials.
In the meantime, she described Canada as a laggard compared with other countries with Arctic populations.
“Canada is at least 40 years behind,” Jean said. “Canada is the only northern state that doesn’t have a university in the North. Canada is four decades behind Norway, Finland, Sweden, the United States.
“The United States has three universities in Alaska. There’s a university in Greenland. In northern Sweden. In the Norwegian Arctic.”
It was her recent visit to Tromso, Norway, that inspired the Governor General to speak up. That town on the 69th parallel has become an economic hub and major supplier of skilled labour for its region.
The website for the University of Tromso notes that its creation faced stiff public resistance in the 1960s and warnings that its remote location wouldn’t attract students – fears that were all quickly proven false.
But there are limits to the parallels between Norway and Nunavut. About 150,000 people live in Tromso’s surrounding county – roughly 50 per cent more than the entire population of Canada’s enormous northern territories.
Some might also considered a university an unaffordable luxury in a region with plenty of other pressing problems.
Only 25 per cent of Nunavut children finish high school, and those who head down south to university often require extra courses to catch up.
According to Statistics Canada, a mere 455 people in that territory – or three per cent of the total population aged 15 to 64 – had earned a university certificate, diploma or degree.
But Jean says that’s no excuse not to build a university closer to northern communities.
She points to the University of Greenland in Nuuk, which has only 120 students and 18 faculty but offers bachelors and masters programs. Other Arctic universities are bigger, notably Umea University in Sweden, which has 27,000 students.
She offers a few suggestions about how to overcome Canada’s demographic shortcomings.
The university should be open to everyone. Tromso, for instance, attracts students from across Norway and foreigners account for 10 per cent of its enrolment.
Second, she says, the school could be split into several satellite campuses at different spots in the Arctic instead of having one big facility.
Also, she believes the federal government and territories could get help with funding through royalties from businesses such as mining companies in the region.
Jean’s idea is far from new, having been raised for decades by various community leaders and politicians.
But the Governor General has earned ovations from audiences and plaudits from local leaders this week for her efforts to put it back on the public agenda.
If Jean’s rallying cry has ruffled any feathers in Ottawa, she’s making some efforts to smooth them over. Jean compliments the government for its “very precise strategy of development” in the north.
There has been an educational component to the Conservatives’ Arctic sovereignty push. Ottawa has doubled funding to $700,000 for the University of the Arctic, a consortium of more than 100 institutions around the world that share resources.
That project helps the three main colleges in Canada’s North offer some university-level programming. Now Jean wants to talk about training doctors, engineers and lawyers north of the 60th parallel.
And she says there’s nothing inappropriate about a vice-regal publicly lobbying the federal government to build a school.
“I’ve always believed that the institution of Governor General could … make sure people’s voices are heard,” she said. “This is exactly what I’m doing.”
– The Canadian Press