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The shiny new university in Canada’s North

This May, Yukon College officially became Yukon University. The journey to becoming Canada’s first university north of the 60th parallel has been more than 45 years in the making.


Lisa Hutton will make history this summer when she graduates with her bachelor of arts degree in Indigenous governance. She’s part of the program’s first graduating class, as well as one of the first graduates of a shiny new institution: Yukon University.

Ms. Hutton, a member of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, based in Dawson City, works as a negotiator for the Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada in Whitehorse. She enrolled in the program in 2018, the year Yukon College, as it was known up until this spring, began offering what the school called its “first made-in-Yukon degree” – a bachelor’s program designed and delivered entirely in the Canadian territory.

Ms. Hutton could easily see how learning more about Indigenous governance – particularly that of the territory’s 14 First Nations, 11 of which have signed self-governing agreements with the federal government – would inform her work.

“I couldn’t be more proud to be an Indigenous person, a Yukoner and a Canadian to see this all happening at my own college here in the territory,” she says. “I think they’ve built some really great partnerships with all of the 14 First Nations to have that type of working relationship, with the whole focus on making sure that we can teach our kids here in the territory about where they’re from and just how we got to where we are today.”

The current main campus in Whitehorse, Yukon. Photo by Archbould Photography.

YukonU is Canada’s first university north of the 60th parallel and the message from its administration is quite clear: the school will not be trying to copy big universities down south. YukonU is first and foremost for northerners, offering academic programming that’s relevant to life in the territories, allowing students to study close to home, supporting research that asks questions about climate change, the environment and Indigenous self-determination, and working respectfully with Yukon First Nations.

The university flipped the switch on its new branding in May, and the community had planned to celebrate the transition along with spring convocation. However, with the in-person celebrations postponed due to COVID-19, the official launch has been more subdued than expected. But then, every milestone this institution has reached so far has been hard-won.

When Karen Barnes became president of Yukon College in 2011, she heard whispers from the school’s faculty and staff of a university in the works. That same year, the territorial government asked the college’s board of governors to determine what would be required to transition.

“I was the convincer,” Dr. Barnes says of her role in the years since then. “I think there are different presidents for different eras, and I was the one who was going to get out in the community and convince people” – convince them that a Yukon university could be uniquely northern, offering new degrees as well as the more technical programs the school’s history is rooted in.

“What I’ve seen is this incredible growth in confidence over the last eight or nine years in people thinking, ‘Yeah, we are the institution that can do that and yeah, the North actually has the capacity to build a university and populate a university with great thinkers,’” Dr. Barnes says.

The school already had some of the trappings of a university by the time Dr. Barnes arrived. Since the late 1980s and ’90s, it has offered degree programs in partnership with the University of Alberta and the University of Regina. The college also had invested in research, founding the Northern Research Institute in 1991, which became the Yukon Research Centre in 2009. But the notion of a university in the territory predates even these initiatives.

“There is this sense amongst the university community in Canada that the North needs a university.”

In 1973, a group of Yukon First Nations chiefs presented Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau with Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow, a document that would lead to the negotiation of land-claims and self-government agreements. It outlined the history of First Nations people in the Yukon and explained how colonial approaches to social programs, economic development and education had harmed them. As one means of correction, the chiefs called for a university to be built in the Yukon.

“At the present time the Yukon education system is designed to get students ready to go outside to university,” they wrote. “Very few of our students feel this is necessary.” They were right about that intent: since the ’60s through to today, Yukon students can apply for a grant from the territory to help them leave for postsecondary education.

“We thought that we couldn’t do things competently domestically so we should try to make sure that Yukon students had the best possible shot at the best possible education, hence the grant,” says Piers McDonald, who was the territory’s education minister from 1985 to 1992, and served as premier from 1996 to 2000. Today, he is YukonU’s chancellor.

Yukon Vocational and Technical Training Centre opened in 1963 in Whitehorse, offering courses in heavy equipment operation, building trades, office administration and practical nursing, among others. In part due to the demands of Together Today, but more so because of a can-do political attitude at the time, the territorial government began planning to transition the vocational school to a college, Mr. McDonald remembers.

“I think the big push was to realize that we could [do things competently] and to start delivering programs ourselves here,” he says. The school became a college in 1983 with the signing of the Yukon College Act, and through the ’80s, several satellite campuses opened up in communities outside of Whitehorse. (Today, there are 13 campuses in total, including locations in Dawson City and Old Crow, the territory’s only fly-in community.) Back then, there was an understanding that one day, the school would become a university, Mr. McDonald says. It would just take time.

“We’re not going to be a large liberal arts institution. … I don’t see this as being a copycat approach to the delivery of higher learning.”

During her time at Yukon College, Kayla Arey went on several field trips, including a seven-day canoe trip on the Stewart and Yukon rivers. She and the other students learned about ecological monitoring through vegetation sampling, small-mammal capture and telemetry. Last year, Ms. Arey graduated with a bachelor’s degree in northern environmental and conservation sciences, a partnership with U of A – something that didn’t require her to go down south at all.

Ms. Arey is Inuvialuit from Aklavik, Northwest Territories, and moved some 800 kilometres south to Whitehorse to study. “It was a really nice opportunity to stay more in the North and closer to home while still getting a full degree,” she says.

This was what the college became known for in the years since its transition from a vocational school to college: it was a place where northerners could build on existing education or prepare for a new career, while not having to go too far from home. Building upon its trade-school legacy, it offered new programming with northern relevance and hands-on experience – students could, for example, take courses in Indigenous-language instruction, northern justice, home care, tourism or earn credit towards teacher certification.

The school has “been an amazing contributor to our community,” says Education Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee, describing the college’s evolution to a university. Not everyone was immediately excited about the idea, though.

“There’s been, I think, some trepidation about a shiny new university and how we might lose some of the things that Yukon College has been so successful at,” Ms. McPhee says. This is why YukonU has been established as a hybrid institution, offering made-in-Yukon degrees on its own parchment while also maintaining the partnership degrees, certificates, diplomas and trades programs it’s long offered.

“We’re going to really make sure that we’re connecting to the needs of the North, listening to the needs of the North,” says Dr. Barnes. Mr. McDonald echoes this: “We’re not going to be a large liberal arts institution. … I don’t see this as being a copycat approach to the delivery of higher learning.”

Getting the community on board was one thing. The other key step was more bureaucratic: the government had to pass the Yukon University Act to replace the college legislation. The new law, which passed in the Yukon Legislative Assembly last November, sets out the university’s bicameral governance structure: a senate that takes the place of the college’s academic council, plus a new board of governors.

The act also requires the university to “honour and support reconciliation with Yukon First Nations, the jurisdiction of Yukon First Nations under final agreements and self-government agreements, and the implementation of those agreements by building capacity through education and research for and with Yukon First Nations,” as well as respect their knowledge, worldviews and traditional practices in the institution’s educational programming, policies and research.

At least 30 percent of the senate must be made up of Indigenous people from the Yukon or from elsewhere in Canada. At least three people nominated by Yukon First Nations must be appointed to the board of governors, as well as three people who live outside Whitehorse.

“I think, for me, the thing that I’m the most proud of is really the work that we’ve done on reconciliation,” says Dr. Barnes of the legislation. “At every major decision point, First Nations’ voice has to be there.”

Consultation has been built into the act, too, through the establishment of “community campus committees” for each of the university’s locations – a holdover from the college days. According to the act, these committees will serve a few functions, but their main role is to advise the board and senate on local programming, services and activities to suit their community’s particular needs.

The school has a history of working in partnership with First Nations on both academic programming and research. Since 2015, the college has required all credit-course students to pass a competency test about the territory’s First Nations. In 2018, upon the recommendation of an employee committee, the school created a new position: associate vice-president of Indigenous engagement and reconciliation. Both this person, as well as the director of First Nations initiatives, sit on the school’s senior executive committee.

Peter Johnston, grand chief of the Council of Yukon First Nations and a member of the Teslin Tlingit Council, says he’s pleased about the new university and its approach. “The whole idea of this going forward is based on respect,” he says. “It’s about allowing us to have our place in society now … I think the university will be a conduit to our future as much as it will be to our past.”

“I think we’ve come a long ways in regards to now having a generation of our citizens grow up within the self-government reality. We’re part of the economy, we’re part of the fabric of the territory now, after 25 years of implementation of our agreements,” Mr. Johnston says. “Someday I strongly believe we’ll run this territory.”

A lecture being given by Dënesųtiné Elder and Indigenous rights activist François Paulette at the Ayamdigut Campus. Photo courtesy of Yukon University.

Building northern leaders was certainly the idea behind the bachelor of arts of Indigenous governance degree created by the college in 2018. It evolved out of a certificate in First Nations governance and public administration, which itself started as an executive development program organized by the college, the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, and the Yukon government in hopes of building capacity in local First Nations governments. The Indigenous governance courses are offered in-person and online, so people studying in their home communities don’t have to move to Whitehorse for classes.

While the university will continue to offer partnership degrees, Mr. McDonald says the school wanted to develop this program as its first in-house degree because of the Yukon’s progressive relationship with First Nations, and because southern universities don’t offer comparable programs tailored to this region. “We realized that in this area, we’re really one of the leaders, if not the leader, in the country in identifying this as a need and wanting to fill it,” he says.

The college launched its second made-in-Yukon degree in 2019, a bachelor of business administration. In both cases, the Yukon government partnered with Campus Alberta Quality Council, an organization that assesses new postsecondary degree programs on behalf of the Alberta government. It’s one of just a few quality-assurance agencies in Canada that verify whether university degree programs meet a certain academic standard, both within the province or region and compared against other institutions across the country.

“One of the things that I wanted to do as president was make sure that when we launched our first degrees, they would have met the same standards that other degrees in Canada have, so people could say confidently that they meet the standard,” says Dr. Barnes.

And there’s now a third degree in the works: a bachelor of arts in northern studies. But aside from that, little about the university’s programming and outward appearance will change immediately after the transition. That’s partly because the school is small, with some 6,000 students (about 700 of whom are in full-time, for-credit programs), and because a dramatic transformation isn’t really what YukonU is about.

“It’s about slow, incremental growth,” says Dr. Barnes. She retired in June but expects a new academic plan for the university will be released in 2021, some time after Mike DeGagné begins his tenure as university president this July. Dr. DeGagné, who hails from Northern Ontario, most recently served as president of Nipissing University. Meanwhile, the university’s associate vice-president of research development, Bronwyn Hancock, is writing a research plan – something the college never had – to position the institution in the northern research world and to outline objectives for future projects. And the university will soon apply for membership to Universities Canada (publisher of University Affairs).

“There is this sense amongst the university community in Canada that the North needs a university,” Dr. Barnes says. “There are a lot of academics who work in northern environment, both on the science side and on the health and humanities side, and everyone has been saying that right from the start. … It’s just time.”

Rhiannon Russell
Rhiannon Russell is a freelance journalist and fact-checker who lives in Whitehorse.
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  1. Dr. Patricia Doyle-Baker / June 17, 2020 at 15:38

    This is such a good story and outcome from so many different perspectives. The timing of this is special, given the turmoil of what is happening in the world today.
    Congrats toYukon University and all those who contributed to ensuring this could and did happen.
    I hope that the research plan is able to include areas that have not been studied before.

  2. Hugh M. Russell / June 18, 2020 at 11:13

    Full disclosure up front, Rhiannon is my daughter.

    This is such a beautiful story not just for the North, but for Canada. It may have taken some time to get to this point, but I’m very impressed at how deliberate the thought process has been through each stage in the process, with the end result being Yukon University is very reflective of the North’s inhabitants and their communities.

    I believe grand chief Paul Johnston’s comments are very perceptive, particularly-
    “I think the university will be a conduit to our future as much as it will be to our past.”

    The future indeed looks bright for our neighbours north of the 60th parallel!