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Canada to see first Arctic university studies this fall, with more likely to follow

The world’s only northern country without some form of Arctic university may soon have three of them.

There are plans in all three of Canada’s territories to give their residents a better shot at higher education. Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut all have different approaches but similar goals.

All want to give their youth a chance to learn without having to travel thousands of kilometres. All want to focus on the needs of their particular jurisdictions.

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And all believe the North has characteristics – from language diversity to climate change – that could make an Arctic university a draw for students and researchers from around the globe.

“We have a lot to offer,” said Caroline Cochrane, the N.W.T’s minister of education.

The idea of a northern university has been kicking around since at least 2007, when a pan-territorial survey found residents wanted more influence over Arctic research. Northern First Nations have been asking for one for 50 years.

Arctic colleges offer northern students degree programs such as education and nursing. But the programs are run and degrees awarded by southern institutions.

Now, northerners are taking control of their own postsecondary education. Yukon is likely to be first out of the academic gate.

“We’ve got three degrees lined up,” said Karen Barnes, president of Yukon College, soon to be Yukon University.

This September, the institution will offer its first three bachelor’s programs under its own name instead of those brokered through another university.

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One will be in Indigenous governance, taking advantage of expertise in Yukon’s 11 self-governing First Nations. The second will be a business degree focused on operating in remote communities.

The third will be in northern studies – traditional knowledge, culture, history and current situation of northerners.

“A lot of universities have offered degrees in northern studies, but this will be the first one actually offered in the North,” said Ms. Barnes.

Also this fall, the N.W.T. legislature will consider an extensive report on the territory’s Aurora College that recommends a Northern Canada Polytechnic University that would combine bachelor’s and applied studies with a community college to support secondary schools. A search is on for someone to lead that transition, said Ms. Cochrane.

“I think a university is needed within the N.W.T.,” she said.

The Eastern Arctic is also moving ahead.

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By October, Nunavut Arctic College hopes to announce a partnership with a southern institution. It wants to broaden the college’s current offerings with a view toward the administrative needs of government and the technical requirements of the resource industry.

Eleven southern universities have applied to be that partner, said Jesse Jacobs, the college’s director of planning.

“What we’re really looking for in a partner institution is to take Inuit traditional knowledge and ensure that we are able to put it into credentials that are recognized nationally,” he said.

Cultural relevance is prominent in the plans of all three institutions. Often, southern course materials just don’t work in the North.

When Ms. Cochrane took her social-work degree in the south, she was taught that privacy concerns meant she shouldn’t get personal with her clients or acknowledge them on the street.

“You go into a community of 100 people and you don’t shake hands in the store, you don’t have a job pretty soon,” she said.

Language will be a big part. Mr. Jacobs said his college’s partnered programs will be taught in Inuktut, the term used for all dialects spoken by the Inuit.

Just offering postsecondary courses in the North is a big deal. Travel to study elsewhere is a major cost and cultural disincentive for potential students, Ms. Cochrane said.

“A lot are intimidated by southern universities. It’s hard when you come from a (tiny) community to all of a sudden walk into a community of millions.”

Universities, however, are expensive. Financing the territories’ postsecondary plans remains unsettled, although Ms. Cochrane said one source of income could come from research partnerships in areas such as climate change.

The Yukon government has topped up its annual $27-million grant to its Yukon College by $1.5-million to help with the transition to a university. The college is also about to begin a campaign to raise about $65-million over the next 10 years, Ms. Barnes said.

Things are starting to happen, said Mr. Jacobs.

“It’s an exciting time to be in postsecondary education in the Arctic.”

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