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Lakehead University in Thunder Bay.

Professional education in Ontario is getting a northern makeover this week as Lakehead University in Thunder Bay and Laurentian University in Sudbury officially launch new schools teaching law and architecture respectively – the province's first such new programs in more than four decades.

The ribbon cuttings for Lakehead's faculty of law and Laurentian's school of architecture were held Wednesday, with Premier Kathleen Wynne among the assembled dignitaries. Classes start later this week for Laurentian's inaugural class of 70 undergraduate architecture majors, and the first 60 Lakehead law students are already meeting their professors.

The two new programs are designed to serve regional needs, focusing on everything from aboriginal law to the role of climate in sustainable design, and promoting employment in northern communities after graduation. While the province has limited approval for expansion plans at many universities, particularly in large urban centres, the north's educational ambitions appear to have momentum.

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"I think there's a realization, finally, that the north can support these professional schools," said Lee Stuesser, the founding dean of Lakehead's law faculty.

At Laurentian, such was the demand to build a new achitecture school in downtown Sudbury that nearby business owners funded the initial feasibility study. The university has opened the first phase of a two-stage development to house the school, to be completed in 2015, at a cost of $46.2-million, funded almost entirely by government.

The school's "vision was to focus on the north," said founding director Terrance Galvin, and to make the student experience "quite different than if you were studying in an urban centre." A third of the entering class hail from Northern Ontario, 9 per cent are aboriginal, and 19 per cent are francophone, while the curriculum is tailored to local issues, such as a focus on climate change and extra attention to building with wood tied to the nearby timber industry.

"We'll be doing a lot of hands-on design and build work with communities that invite us in, so it gets out of the studio, out of the ivory tower," Dr. Galvin said.

Danielle Kastelein, 24, was accepted to other architecture programs but had set her sights on Laurentian's. Raised in Burlington, she is of Métis and francophone heritage, with family near Sudbury, and considered the fact that the program is a startup a "huge advantage," not a deterrent.

"I would want to be a part of something that helps foster some kind of change in the world, rather than do something that's already been done," she said.

Lakehead's new law faculty plans to focus on issues faced in small practices and around aboriginal law, areas that are taught less frequently at other Ontario schools. Where courses in aboriginal law are concerned, they will go "beyond treaty rights," Mr. Stuesser said, exploring areas such as inheritance laws, or child and family protection laws.

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"Our program is plaintiff-oriented," he said. "It's there to assist the middle-class, the lower-class folks who need a lawyer to help them out with criminal issues, civil litigation issues, family law issues."

And as other universities have expanded law school enrolments rapidly, Lakehead's faculty plans to stay small, capped at 60 students. "I frankly think, to a certain extent, legal education in Canada needs a bit of a shakeup," Mr. Stuesser said. "So we're doing a little shaking."

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