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Big Ideas: A Canadian Arctic University

May 26, 2009

Governor General Michaelle Jean was in the news today for eating a raw seal heart, but there was an earlier story about her current trip to Canada’s Arctic that I found even more intriguing:

GG Jean pushes government to build university for Inuit

OTTAWA – Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean is making a rare break from ceremonial circumspection to publicly urge the government to build a university for Canada’s Inuit.

In a vice-regal plunge into policy advocacy, Jean proposes a university in the Arctic so Inuit youth can get a degree close to home and benefit from economic activity expected in their region.

Canada’s claims to sovereignty over the North will be, she says, nothing but an “empty shell” unless the area’s inhabitants participate in northern development.

The Governor General has begun promoting the idea with government officials, and sources say they expect her to raise it with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Jean was inspired by an experiment in Norway and plans to use what could be her final year in office – and her time after leaving Rideau Hall – to champion the idea that Canada can do it too.

What I found most interesting about this idea is that I’ve heard it before – from Jean’s predecessor’s husband, John Ralston Saul. In his new book, “A Fair Country”, he proposes the idea of an Arctic University being exactly the sort of big, original policy idea that Canadian governments used to pursue, and goes on at length about all the potential benefits.

Jean says that she got her inspiration from a visit to the University of Tromsø in Norway – the northernmost University in the world at 69°N (by comparison, Yellowknife NWT sits at 62°). I can see why – it’s a beautiful city and a beautiful campus that has attracted students and residents from around the globe.


It has always seemed to me that Norway and other Scandinavian countries have been far more successful in integrating their Arctic regions and the people who live there into their nations, their economies and (to a lesser extent) their societies. We, on the other hand, never seem to have really accepted our Arctic as anything more than a barren, forbidding, alien wilderness to be exploited for its resources. It’s as if the 60th parallel represents a psychological frontier between nation and colony.

Perhaps a university could help breach that frontier.

(H/T to Cam Holmstrom)

7 Comments leave one →
  1. nmboudin permalink*
    May 31, 2009 1:22 pm

    Great post. If we are a complete country, we cannot avoid dedicating an institution to a region that is so large and important to our sovereignty and identity.

    It is only now, that the ice is melting that the world’s gaze has focused on this region. Like the icebergs that inhabit the Arctic, most of it’s import is buried in obscure images of barren landscapes, but it will prove to be a diplomatic puzzle of dizzying complication.

    Some of the smartest minds on Arctic policy convened as SFU’s Harbour Centre in a 2008 conference in partnership with the SFU School for International Studies.

    To read some of their excellent presentations, download the free PDF at

  2. Lindsay Dench permalink
    May 29, 2009 5:52 pm

    A university in the north is probably a good idea for research, education and our sovereignty in the Arctic. There are so many complex issues in the north – global warming, sovereignty, native issues to name a few. A university can only help our understanding of the north.

  3. canworldjon permalink*
    May 28, 2009 12:36 pm

    How cool Michaelle Jean?! This is a fantastic idea. As for name, we might look to New Zealand for some guidance where Maori named schools like Otago are widely known and seen as the best in the country.

    Sadly, I must ask, however: is this something the current Canadian government will get behind? This is rhetorical, but must be raised…

  4. May 28, 2009 7:03 am

    I think we should call it “Inukshuk University”, as a way of emphasizing human presence and activity: “We are here”.

    I didn’t have space to get into all this fully (400 words… grumble), but Saul points out that Canada is the ONLY circumpolar nation without an arctic university. He also points out that there are already three training colleges in the three territorial capitals that could be built on, creating a university with three campuses, each with a specialized field.

    My favourite quote: “An arctic university would be the single most eloquent statement we could make about Canada as a place in the North”. To me, that’s a far more useful approach to arctic sovereignty than rattling sabres and buying slush-breakers.

    As for Michaelle Jean’s seal meal: HURRAY! I said what I had to say about all that at my other blog, where there is also a great video of a celebrity chef enjoying the same feast on someone’s kitchen floor. I didn’t post it all here because my rant didn’t have much of an international component (except the haughty European response), but maybe I will.

    I’ll have to edit, though 🙂

    • corsullivan permalink*
      May 29, 2009 12:44 pm

      It would be great to see your thoughts on the seal meal here, and please don’t edit them too heavily! Aside from those haughty Europeans, one international implication of Michaelle Jean’s recent behaviour is that the Taliban would probably run screaming if we sent her over to Kandahar Province with an ulu.

      I like the idea of emphasising human presence and activity in the far north, but I must say that “inukshuk” has always struck me as a rather unattractive word. Still, an Arctic university would indeed be an eloquent statement, whatever we decide to call it. We should save the sabre-rattling for really serious occasions, although surely it’s also true that there’s not much point in building a university (or anything else) on land we can’t properly defend.

  5. reneethewriter permalink
    May 27, 2009 11:19 pm

    And yet, “Franklin University” does haunt the imagination. What would an Inuit or other indigenous Arctic name sound like? What a fascinating post. The photo of the Norwegian university glows with beautiful blue light. What are your thoughts about Mme Jean and er, seal meat?

  6. corsullivan permalink*
    May 26, 2009 11:36 am

    An Arctic university would be an excellent idea. A lot of investment would be required to get it up and running, but the advantages would be tremendous. Northerners (not just the Inuit) would have easier access to education, scientists would have a new potential base for research projects involving the Arctic, and our claims to Arctic sovereignty would be strengthened. If the Norwegians can do it, so can we.

    The only question is what to call the place. In my opinion something like “Boreal University” would be better and more original than “University of Yellowknife”, or whichever city it ended up in. My original impulse was to suggest “Franklin University”, after Sir John, but that would be asking for trouble. The entire campus would probably vanish into the tundra amid rumours of cannibalism and insanity.

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