Canada is set to get its first northern university

Yukon College is on track to become Yukon University, the first such institution in northern Canada.

By Mieke Coppes, High North News - May 1, 2018
The current main campus of Yukon College in Whitehorse, Yukon. (Archbould Photography via High North News)

Canada is currently the only Arctic nation without a university in its North, but that’s about to change.

Although it doesn’t yet have a northern university in, Canada does boast three colleges in the region, one in each of its northern territories: Yukon College, Aurora College and Nunavut Arctic College. Now, if all goes according to plan, by the spring of 2020, Whitehorse will become the host of the first northern Canadian university when Yukon College completes a transition into a full university.

Current Yukon College

Yukon College was originally created as a vocational training centre in 1963, but was granted college status in 1983 and has been teaching students from across the territory and Canada ever since. The main campus is in the territorial capital of Whitehorse with 11 campuses in various smaller communities. The transition of the college into a university has been in the works for many years. In fact, it was first placed in the strategic plan for the College in 2013 and is once again in the most recent strategic plan.

The College currently offers various tools, which focus on community in the North. This includes the Yukon Research Centre which as Lacia Kinnear, the Director of Governance and Strategic Initiatives told the High North News, “focuses on applied research in areas of mine remediation, renewable energy, climate change, and a variety of other topics. The centre is connected to Yukon communities, to identify community needs and then be able to develop research projects that are truly grounded in northern needs and northern solutions.”

Yukon College does not only focus on building trade skills, but has been giving out various degrees for years. Andrew Richardson, the Dean of the Applied Arts Division told High North News that, “the College actually delivered degree programs back to the early 1990s. We delivered a Bachelor of Education and a Bachelor of Social Work degree which are both credentialed by the University of Regina.”

Other Types of Learning

Yukon College has already included various types of learning into its curriculum, including online learning and various on-the-land programming. The plan is to continue using these methods to help educate students who are not able to attend classes in Whitehorse. The Yukon has various remote communities, including the fly-in village of Old Crow, making attendance difficult for many.

As for connectivity issues, Kinnear said, “internet issues and connectivity is always something that people struggle with,” but also noted that there has been an, “increase in the level of support and development,” including a large push for internet infrastructure, helping secure 4G in various locations in the territory.

Transition to University

The transition into a full university will still take several years and the structure of the final institution will be a hybrid model of education. “What a hybrid model means for us is that it will continue to have all the college programming that we have right now — certificates, diplomas, trades, adult basic education, but also to include degree offerings through the institutions,” Kinnear said.

Some ideas for the design of the university came from other circumpolar nations and their educational structures.

“We did look and travel to circumpolar north to visit their institutions,” Kinnear said.

However the end product is designed to not only be a university, but a place that fits the realities of its location. That meant the focus was to, “do something that is uniquely relevant for the Yukon and the North, but in ways that are innovative and forward looking,” said Kinnear.

Over the next five years there are plans to create three degree programs for the university, including a Bachelor of Arts in Indigenous Governance, a Bachelor of Business Administration, and a third degree which has yet been determined.

The choice of these three degrees emphasize that, “We won’t be a university that offers everything to everybody,” said Kinnear. Instead, the school will work within three specific areas of focus: climate change, the society and the environment; sustainable resource development and innovation; and Indigenous self-determination and governance. “We recognize that those are three areas that are specifically really relevant to populations in the North,” said Kinnear.

Indigenous Governance Degree

The Bachelor of Arts in Indigenous Governance will be, as Mr. Richardson said the, “first degree we will be independently credentialing.” This three-year degree will focus on a, “broad overview or introduction to a range of issues and options when it comes to Indigenous self-governance” and will be geared towards First Nations students who are currently working within their own Nations or who have already completed the First Nations Governance and Public Administration diploma currently offered at Yukon College.

Richardson added that the, “value, in some ways, of this degree is that students will be doing it in the midst of a living laboratory when it comes to Indigenous self-government. A lot of the history of what has been going on in the Yukon for the last 30-35 years will inform the degree even to the point of some guest speakers in their course will be ideally individuals who were part of the negotiation process in the 1980s and 1990s.” There is a definite benefit to being able to study in a northern community and learning directly from those who have negotiated agreements.

The new program was “developed with a partnership with Yukon First Nations, that I think, is still fairly unique when it comes to the way academic programs get developed in Canada, and I would say, outside of Canada. In that, the First Nations, through President’s Advisory Committee on First Nations Initiative, were directly involved in the curriculum development as full partners not as a body of stakeholders,” said Richardson.

The Bachelor of Arts in Indigenous Governance is slated to start in September of 2018. The long-term hope of this degree, Richardson emphasized, is that the students will be able to help implement the realities and terms of the land claims and self-government agreements that have been signed in the last 30-35 years in the Yukon.

Next Steps

What about further degrees? As Yukon College becomes a university, there will likely be further opportunities including the potential for Masters and PhD programs. In the short term, the soon-to-be university will, “start with the bachelors’ degrees and we will see where the future goes,” said Kinnear. For now, she said, Yukon College is simply excited for the “opportunity to be Canada’s first Northern university.”