In the North, for the North: post-secondary education in the provincial North.

Author:Morrison, William R.

Abstract: For generations, promoters of northern political and economic development have emphasized the importance of post-secondary education. These northern advocates have lamented the absence or narrow scope of postsecondary institutions in the North. Canada is the only circumpolar nation without an Arctic university, and there is ample evidence that the region and the country are much the poorer for the lack of northern research, education, and training capacity. It is not that Canadian institutions have ignored the region. Northern tier community colleges have played key and innovative roles in responding to regional needs. Southern universities have, through a variety of undergraduate, graduate, and professional outreach programs, provided some degree options in the North. The University of the Arctic represents an innovative circumpolar effort to address northern needs across the Circumpolar North. Focusing on the University of Northern British Columbia, which opened in 1994, this article demonstrates how responsive, regionally-aware post-secondary institutions can have transformative effects on their host communities and regions, and it deals with some of the controversies surrounding the opening of the university.


In August 1994, Queen Elizabeth stopped off on her way to the Commonwealth Games in Victoria to celebrate the opening of the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George. It was a signal event in the history of the region, capping a long effort to develop a university in the vast central and northern district of the province. The well-attended ceremony, conducted outdoors in the agora that formed the centrepiece of the new campus, celebrated the special role northern communities had played in the institution's development. At the pinnacle moment of the formal proceedings, a large banner listing all of the communities in northern British Columbia (BC) was unrolled from the top of the library. It was an ideal touch, connecting this pivotal moment in the educational history of the Provincial North with the cities, towns, villages, and First Nations communities that had sustained the drive to build the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC).

The important part of the story behind UNBC, quite unusual in the history of Canadian post-secondary education, is that the institution was not the creation of a provincial bureaucracy or even a cynical vote-grabbing initiative by a political party. Started by a Social Credit government and completed by a New Democratic Party (NDP) administration, UNBC represented a triumph of northern boosterism over provincial planning, southern myopia, and the conservatism (one might say selfishness) of the traditional universities. That arguably the most important educational institution to that time in all the Provincial Norths--one with an unabashed northern focus and commitment--emerged from the mobilization of regional support and a full political battle with southern authorities, was an important symbol of the ongoing struggle to develop post-secondary institutions in the Provincial North.

It is now axiomatic that a modern, competitive society--a complete social and political system--requires access to advanced education. Across North America and throughout much of the world, governments, business, parents, and young adults share a commitment to post-secondary education and formal preparation for entry to the workforce. This represents a substantial change from the way people thought about northern regions in the 1950s and 1960s. As the resource and development boom rolled out across the Provincial Norths through the post-war period, low-skill, high-wage work dominated the regional economy. Major projects came along with regularity--the Kemano power project, Kitimat aluminum smelter, and W.A.C. Bennett dam in British Columbia; major forestry, hydro, and mining projects across the prairie provinces; mining and forestry developments in northern Ontario; Quebec's province-changing investments in northern hydroelectric generation and mineral development; and the highly controversial Churchill Falls hydro project in Newfoundland--fueling the rapid expansion of the population of the northern provinces and raising the standard of living among the non-Aboriginal communities.

The resource-based economy did not put a high premium on regional education. Engineering and design expertise rested largely with the construction firms, mining companies, and government offices in the south. Much of the northern work required little formal education, but nevertheless produced high incomes and, during the boom years, steady work. Northern companies only occasionally complained about the absence of skilled workers and university-trained employees. The blue-collar expansion of the Provincial North brought the region to the nation's attention--W.A.C. Bennett showed up on the cover of Time magazine in celebration of his audacious vision of northern development--establishing an image of high wages and prosperity along with short-term commitment to the region. Workers and their families cycled in and out of the North with the construction activity; the emergence of major company towns (Kitimat, Uranium City, Cassiar, Thompson, Elliot Lake, Schefferville, Labrador City) and regional centres (Prince Rupert, Prince George, Prince Albert, Thunder Bay, Jonquiere/Chicoutimi, Goose Bay) provided a measure of stability, although...

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