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Canada’s first northern university to open in the Yukon

BY Patrick Quinn Jan 17, 2020

When Yukon University officially opens in Whitehorse this spring, it will become Canada’s first university north of 60° latitude. As an institution for the North and by the North, it will also feature a mandate based upon a unique collaboration with local First Nations.

The Yukon legislature passed a bill last month enabling Yukon College to become a university, including provisions ensuring it reports annually to each of the territory’s 14 First Nations while integrating their worldviews and educational priorities.

“It’s about a shift in power so that the Yukon First Nations actually have the ability to navigate what is happening at the university,” said Tosh Southwick, the school’s associate vice-president of Indigenous engagement and reconciliation. “It actually anchors our accountability to Yukon First Nations the same way as we’re accountable to the territorial government. It’s ground-breaking in terms of reconciliation.”

By becoming a university, YukonU will offer degrees in its own name while creating more offerings based on issues such as sustainable resource development and environmental conservation. Courses and programs are transferable for both northern students seeking to pursue graduate degrees at other institutions and others who are interested in studying in the Yukon.

Having a university in the North has been a long-time dream for many in the territories, who are often unable to move south for education or training purposes. A local post-secondary destination is an important step to retaining the region’s brightest youth and developing future leaders who understand the territory.

“I grew up here and we had to leave to go to university,” recalled Southwick, a citizen of the nearby Kluane First Nation. “There’s something really empowering about being part of a movement where our Yukon students can stay home and get the same degree that’s perhaps even more relevant to their context rather than having to go to Alberta or BC to get a credential.”

Becoming a university is perceived as a natural evolution for Yukon College, which began as a vocational school in 1963. The transition started about 10 years ago with an institutional self-study, revealing students are seeking an education relevant to where they live and would prefer to earn a degree within the territory.

Research shows that Indigenous students in particular, who comprise about 30% of current credited students, are more successful with post-secondary studies when surrounded by their family, culture and communities. With Canada’s North on the frontline of critical issues like climate change, Yukon University will emphasize education and research that addresses northern issues. 

“There’s something really empowering about being part of a movement where our Yukon students can stay home and get the same degree that’s perhaps even more relevant to their context rather than having to go to Alberta or BC to get a credential.”

Tosh Southwick, YukonU Vice-president of Indigenous engagement and reconciliation

“Our vision is to be that first northern university that focuses on Indigenous governance, that focuses on sustainable natural resources, that focuses on northern climate, and everything that flows from that,” said Tom Ullyett, chairman of the board of governors.  

Yukon University is to be officially launched May 8 with a convocation ceremony for the graduating class of its first degree program – a Bachelor of Arts in Indigenous Governance. Developed in partnership with Yukon First Nations, this program is intended to build leadership and administrative capacity for public sector self-determination in the North and beyond.

“We really want them to experience what it looks like to work in a First Nations government, working in a reconciliation lens with implementing modern treaties and agreements with Indigenous rights,” Southwick told the Nation. “The entire last year is a capstone project, meant to give students hands-on experience, solving real problems in First Nations communities.”

A northernized business degree program was launched last fall, focused on entrepreneurial activities and northern economic development – such as “business functions you can do in a community of 400 people,” said Southwick. A BA in Northern Studies is anticipated to follow in 2021, similarly incorporating teachings relevant to the region.

While the hybrid institution will continue to offer a wide range of trades training, vocational diplomas and adult basic education, transitioning to a university implies an investment in infrastructure, staff and academic rigour. To the latter end, the territory has an agreement with Alberta’s quality assurance council who have reviewed and approved the initial made-in-Yukon degree programs. 

“We’re also working to build a new science building,” Southwick shared. “The intent behind it is to have both Indigenous worldviews about science and western traditional science, so you can imagine those are incredibly interesting conversations. We’re just starting that journey to decide what that building might look like.”

While most school activity occurs on the Ayamdigut campus in Whitehorse, there are also 12 other campuses throughout the Yukon. As some of these serve very small communities, the institution works closely with them to determine the programming offered and how courses are delivered. Sometimes lectures are downloaded onto hard drives and dropped off.

Colleges in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, that face similar challenges in meeting the education needs of remote communities, have announced plans to expand their post-secondary offerings. Like Yukon College, they have existing partnerships to offer courses towards degrees with southern institutions such as the University of Regina. 

Southwick notes there is also a growing curiosity from First Nations groups across the country.

“There’s always something exciting when First Nations groups from across the world get together to solve our common challenges,” she asserted. “It’s inspiring to see the solutions that other groups have. Yukon University has an important role to play in helping all Canadians understand how reconciliation works.”

As the only circumpolar northern country without a university north of 60, she believes it’s high time for a Canadian institution to meet the changing needs of the North. If education is the key to reconciliation, as Truth and Reconciliation Commission chairman Murray Sinclair stated, enabling northerners to achieve their potential without having to leave home represents significant progress.

“The exciting part is to show we have our own expertise in the North,” said Southwick. “We don’t need to rely on people coming up to our communities but instead need to empower our communities to make the solutions to their own northern problems and Yukon University is a big step towards that.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.