Canada takes new look at universities in its remote north

Indigenous peoples balance patience and autonomy with the lure of education and jobs

十一月 25, 2020
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The Canadian government is making a new push to expand higher education into its sparsely populated northern territories and an Indigenous population that has long been eager for the opportunity and wary of the intent.

The Trudeau administration, in what it envisages as a year-long process, has named a task force to provide ideas for cutting gaps in education and skills between the north and the rest of Canada.

The idea of improving education and boosting job prospects generally appears welcome in Canada’s three northern territories — the less autonomous and highly subsidised counterparts to the nation's 10 southern provinces.

But for those in the north – a resource-rich expanse bigger than India – such opportunities come with the fear of losing ever more of their culture and land.

“They know that they need to advance Inuit knowledge,” Patricia Gaviria, an Aboriginal education researcher at the University of Toronto, said of the region’s largest Indigenous people. “But they also know that there are practicalities in belonging to the rest of Canada.”

Of the three northern territories, Yukon is – from this year, after a three-decade slog – the only one to have its own university.

The other two, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, have college systems that are spread out both physically and functionally. Both consist of campuses in dozens of far-flung communities offering services from school and professional certificates to remote pathways to four-year degrees with domestic and international partner universities.

In that environment, the federal task force will confront questions of what exactly needs to change, and how. Histories of Indigenous treatment, including work by Dr Gaviria, have shown downsides of educational upscaling that include the loss of native languages and the normalisation of modern lifestyles that ease the exploitation of natural resources.

Yet on balance, Canada’s northern population appears ready to move ahead. A leading motivation for many Indigenous people, said Bert Rose, a former dean at the Nunavut Arctic College, was the reality of watching temporary workers from the southern provinces come up, take the best jobs then return home with swollen bank accounts.

Nunavut Arctic College does have partnerships with major institutions such as McGill and Dalhousie universities. Those, however, often require students to abandon their homes and families for long periods of time, and then graduate without the pride of a hometown diploma, Mr Rose said.

“People would like to have a university degree that says: the University of Nunavut,” he said.

Major hurdles to establishing universities in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories likely include structures for integrating Indigenous expertise into institutional practices, and for involving Indigenous peoples in research by outside scientists already taking place in the north.

The biggest point of contention at all levels of education, however, has been the persistent quest for native languages of instruction.

Anxieties over that question are just getting revived in Nunavut, the northern territory with the biggest share of Indigenous residents, at about 86 per cent. There, the local legislature this month passed a measure admitting that the goal of schools teaching primarily in Inuktut would not be met by 2020 as planned, and pushing it back another two decades to 2039.

That’s the scale of time that Yukon experienced getting its university, and which Nunavut and the Northwest Territories might now face in getting theirs, even with the appointment of the federal task force.

Such study commissions, after all, have been a recurring feature of life in the north, Dr Gaviria said. “There’s a task force, and then there’s consultations with elders,” she said. “And not much happens.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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