Blog: Northern Canada doesn’t have a university … Does it need one?

A view of Iqaluit in Canada's eastern Arctic territory of Nunavut. What would a northern university mean to Canada's Arctic communities? (Robert Gillies/AP)
A view of Iqaluit in Canada’s eastern Arctic territory of Nunavut. What would a northern university mean to Canada’s Arctic communities? (Robert Gillies/AP)
Much ado has been made by the fact that northern Canada – specifically the territories – does not have a university, uniquely among the eight Arctic nations.

For critics, it symbolizes the neglect, stinginess, and shortsightedness of Canada’s northern nation-building efforts.

For my part, I think post-secondary learning, including university-level education, is key to the prosperity and development of northern Canada.  I agree with proponents who argue that a northern university would “provide access to teaching and learning; facilitate creation and sharing of knowledge; serve as independent sites of inquiry and critical engagement; act as engines of economic growth; and function as sites of social, linguistic, and cultural continuity and development.”  Investment in human capacity is necessary in our knowledge-based economy, and even the dominant extractive industries of the North need better skilled workforces in order to compete.

But I am not convinced that the creation of a new stand-alone northern university would be the best investment of public funds towards achieving these goals.  Education should be the overarching priority; a new university should not.

The Cheese Stands Alone

One would be right to ask why Canada is the only Arctic country to not have invested in a northern university.  The most obvious answer is population.  The three territories cover a geographic area roughly the size of Europe, but have a highly dispersed population of 115,000.  Aside from Greenland, other Arctic states have cities of 45,000 to 300,000+ people, and their research universities are located there.  Where we have a comparable population in Canada, we have established universities, but they are in the provincial north: University of Northern British Columbia (Prince George, BC) and Lakehead University (Thunder Bay, ON).  Yellowknife and Whitehorse hover around 20,000+ residents and Iqaluit stands at 6500, and their prospective catchment areas are small.

A single northern university – say one located in one of the territorial capitals – would do little in the way of improving access and relevancy for most northern residents. It would be far more expensive to move to a different territory than to a southern city, as housing availability and costs of living in the North can be prohibitive.  In addition the territories’ cultural and educational needs are diverse.  It’s pretty understandable why they would choose to funnel investment into their own institutions rather than one in a different territory.

And the funding is a sticky issue. Canada is a federation, and education is the responsibility of provinces and territories. However the territories have a limited tax base and high spending requirements needed to maintain an equivalent level of services.  There is little question that a new northern university would have to be funded, at least in part, by the federal government as none of the territories would have the resources independently.  But there is little policy rationale for this to occur as a one-off.  The solution would be to draw the federal government’s share from their existing federal transfers, which are exactly intended to support specific policy areas such as health care, post-secondary education, social assistance and social services, early childhood development and child care.  These are allocated based on Territorial Formula Financing, and currently amount to $40,452/person in Nunavut, $29,412/person in NWT and $24,901/person in Yukon, significant sums by any standard.  The choice for territories would then be to allocate funds for a northern university at the expense of other social programming.

Simply put, there are good reasons why Canada does not have a northern university.

The State of Northern Post-Secondary Education

It would be a mistake to conclude that there is no access to post-secondary education in northern Canada, including degree programming. Yukon is served by Yukon College (1223 credit students; $42 million budget), which in addition to many certificate and diploma programs brokers teacher education and social work degree programs from the University of Regina.  It is also engaged with the University of Alberta in a collaborative degree program in Environmental and Conservation Sciences and will also begin offering its own degree program for the first time in 2017: a 3 year Bachelor in Indigenous Governance.

NWT has Aurora College (1057 students; $51.7 million budget), and brokers a nursing degree through University of Victoria and teacher education through University of Saskatchewan; and Nunavut hosts Nunavut Arctic College (1238 students; $48.6 million budget), which brokers a nursing degree through Dalhousie University and teacher education through the University of Regina.

The need for more educational opportunities vary widely within and between the territories.  Yukon actually performs significantly better than the national average in terms of post-secondary attainment, with 24.4% (vs. 23.3% for Canada as a whole) of residents aged 25 and older having a university degree, and a whopping 65.2% having a tertiary qualification (certificate, diploma or degree).  That is compared to Canada’s proportion of 59.6%, which is the highest in the OECD, meaning Yukon has amongst the highest post-secondary attainment rates in the world, and I would venture, the highest in the Arctic – all without a University.

The picture is not as rosy elsewhere. NWT is moderately lower than the national average, but better than some provinces on educational attainment, with 24.5% (vs. 17.3% for Canada as a whole) of those aged 25 years and older not having obtained even a high school diploma, 57.2% having a post-secondary qualification, and 21.7% having a university degree.  Nunavut, unfortunately, sits at the bottom.  There, almost half (48.1%) have not obtained a high school diploma, and only 40.2% have a post-secondary qualification, with 12.6% having a university degree (2011 National Household Survey Focus on Geography Series). These are disappointing numbers, but not surprising, given that the high school dropout rate in that territory hovers around 50%.


Many advocates of a northern university would seek not only more accessible educational opportunities, but also the research and learning that comes from such institutions.  While I would be the first to agree that further research is needed, in this domain there is not a total vacuum.  All three territories have research institutions that do high quality work with an applied focus, often with Master’s or PhD prepared researchers, and frequently in partnership with southern institutions. They include the Aurora Research Institute, Nunavut Research Institute, and the Yukon Research Centre.


None of this is sufficient for proponents of an Inuit Nunangat University, who met in March to discuss the prospects of such an institution, bolstered by the promise of Agnico Eagle Mines to donate $5 million towards its establishment.  They seek not just research and education, but research and education approached through an Inuit worldview.  They cite First Nations University of Canada (FNUC) as a potential model for incorporating indigenous culture, language and knowledge in the philosophical foundations of the university.

FNUC is an innovative institution that has provided an important option for many Aboriginal students who would not have otherwise have sought or succeeded in a university education.   But it also demonstrates the many challenges that come with trying to combine academic and indigenous paradigms.  It went through a severe institutional crises in the late 2000s amidst questions regarding its governance, and temporarily had its funding frozen.  It has gone through five Presidents (acting and appointed) in six years.  It is further worth noting that FNUC is not a stand-alone university but rather a federated college of the University of Regina.  While its colourful logo adorns its graduates’ diplomas, its admissions are handled by the University of Regina and all of its programs are accredited by them.

Still, there is value in the claim that an Inuit Nunangat University would provide a necessary space in which to transmit and advance Inuit knowledge.  Accordingly it is pursuing a small number of programs of particular need and relevance where there is already Inuit expertise, including Inuit Studies, Linguistics, and Indigenous Governance.  A modest offering of social science and humanities programs seems realistic, as evidenced by Ilisimatusarfik in Greenland, with 14 or so academic staff and around 150 students.   But it would be a different beast altogether to offer professional programs, as was mused by the working committee, in law, accounting, engineering, medicine, nursing, and journalism, on a rotational basis. Accreditation standards would make this impossible.  Consider, for example that the medical school at McGill University, with all of its resources, capacity and access, is currently on probation from its accrediting body for failings in several areas.  Accreditation is consuming and difficult in any number of professional designations and even U15 universities occasionally struggle to achieve it. The current practice of brokering degrees through southern institutions is much more realistic.

It is also worth noting that a northern Canadian university would be a university in name only.  Universities Canada, the national association representing Canada’s 97 universities (formerly the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada), requires members – ie. those institutions recognized as a university in the country – to have 500 full time degree level students.  The three territorial colleges currently graduate around one or two dozen degree-level students each.

Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bath Water

With all of that said, there is no denying we need to work harder and smarter to build the educational capacity of Northern Canadians, in particular those from rural and indigenous communities.  A better return on investment will likely come from improving primary and secondary school quality, attendance and achievement, including science and math proficiency; and providing better access to post-secondary opportunities outside of the territorial capitals through decentralized and distributed education opportunities.  Slowly expanding the degree offerings at the Colleges and moving towards a University College model seems feasible and beneficial.

In the long run, I think it would be wonderful if northern Canada had a bonafide, research-oriented, contextually relevant university.  In the short and medium term, any additional funds would be best directed at expanding geographic access of existing programs, and perhaps most importantly improving high school graduation rates among First Nations, Inuit and Métis youth.  A precondition for post-secondary educational attainment, after all, is secondary educational attainment.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada:  Nunavut game company offers tech scholarship, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Sámi classes breathe new life into Finland’s rarest languages, Barents Observer

Greenland: (VIDEO) The importance of perserving the Inuit language, Eye on the Arctic

Norway:  Sami character keyboard app released, Barents Observer

Sweden: Town in northern Sweden leads the pack of best schools, Radio Sweden

United States:  University, U.S. State Department announce Arctic Fulbright program, Alaska Dispatch News

Heather Exner-Pirot

Heather Exner-Pirot is the Managing Editor of the Arctic Yearbook, a Fellow at the Macdonald Laurier Institute, and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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