The upside of higher education in the North

🕔Aug 04, 2010

After the Christmas break in 2009, Elisabeth Fraser climbed aboard the midnight Greyhound from Sault Ste. Marie to Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. She got off the bus the next morning and her roommate picked her up, but before they got back to their shared house Fraser asked her to turn around. She’d decided she didn’t want to go back to school; her heart just wasn’t in the forestry program anymore.

Soon she was back on a bus, rolling her way west to Victoria. But when she got there, the 21-year-old decided she really didn’t want to drop out and emailed a trusted professor for advice.

That’s how Fraser found herself taking the first semester ever of an innovative university program focused on First Nations, forest ecology, and the politics of resource management. She bought an airplane ticket Friday and arrived Sunday for classes starting Monday on Haida Gwaii.

Conceived as a way to diversify the Islands’ economy, as well as use Islanders’ boundless knowledge and unique resources to enhance local education opportunities, the Haida Gwaii semester offers a program of University of British Columbia-accredited courses in Natural Resource Management.

And it’s not just for wayward students from Ontario: Queen Charlotte resident Kris Olsen also leapt at the opportunity to take the program. Born and raised on the islands, Olsen believes, like many others, that it’s time for Haida Gwaii residents to manage local resources. “It allowed me to walk the talk,” he said of the hard work and learning he went through to make it to the program’s first grad ceremony held in April 2010.

Among the swirling Haida dancers and the acknowledgements from community members, the students themselves gushed with enthusiasm for the experiential program. Academic advisor Hilary Thorpe said the key is getting the students out in the community. They learn about land-use plans by day and head to a meeting in Port Clements at night, where workers discuss their real concerns about the changes in logging rules. The students learn about the importance of cedar to the Haida and then spend a few hours making cedar-bark bracelets with a local weaver.

“[A trip out to the community] hammers the point home and they spend the rest of the time learning in a deeper way,” says Thorpe.
Olsen thinks the program has a direct benefit on the youth of the Islands too. He works at the Teen Centre and the local high school and says he got the visiting students together with locals as much as he could—be it as chaperones at a teen dance or in the high school classroom.

Locals get a more solid picture of university, he explained. Meeting actual students and hearing about what they are studying allows Islands’ youth to realize, ‘I can do that too,’ he says.

Birth of a university
Getting a post-secondary education, or even taking a course, while living in some parts of Northern BC hasn’t always been possible. It wasn’t until 1994 that the University of Northern British Columbia opened its doors in Prince George. During the decade-long grassroots campaign to get a full research-based campus in the north, 16,000 signatures were collected region-wide, but the provincial Minister of Education at the time was still skeptical.

He was quoted in a 1989 Globe and Mail article as saying, “In the interior … people don’t think of education beyond Grade 12. The questions they ask at the end of the day are ‘How many trees did you cut today?’ or ‘How were things down in the mine?’”

“Building a brand new university from scratch seemed to be a risky decision,” says vice-president of external relations at UNBC Robert Van Adrichem of the then-political climate. But the minister’s perceived slight gave Northerners something to rally around, and helped with the last push towards UNBC becoming a reality. Now a medical program, engineering department and cutting-edge research facilities in fields like bio-energy and genetics (to mention but a few) exist on a campus that serves 4,300 students in a city of 75,000.

“You won’t see that combination anywhere else in the world,” says Van Adrichem. “We don’t celebrate that enough.”

It’s true, he points out, that 20 years ago in parts of northern BC very few people had university degrees—among the lowest levels in the developed world. That’s why the vision of opening a university here was so strong. “Post-secondary education was seen to be the most important ingredient for the region to diversify around its resource-based industries,” he said. And building a university, which from the moment recruitment began attracted a high level of university professors, helped increase the profile of all post-secondary education in the North.

Van Adrichem says that when UNBC first opened it was cited as the reason for the growth in enrolment at the Prince George-based College of New Caledonia. “People were getting ready,” he said.

Decolonizing education
That said, community colleges have long been an option for Northerners. As Ruth Wheadon, campus manager at Haida Gwaii’s Northwest Community College says, the college takes the term ‘community’ seriously.

The courses and curricula reflect the needs of the community, she says. For example, the Guardian Watchmen certificate program, which runs through the winter months in different coastal communities, was requested by the different Watchmen programs. On Haida Gwaii, the Watchmen greet visitors at Haida cultural heritage sites throughout the tourist season, and courses on forest ecology, boat skills, map-reading and cultural history provide a valuable base of knowledge for them to share (see separate story this issue).

“The college has a big focus on decolonizing education,” says Wheadon, meaning they want to ensure that education is more accessible—especially to First Nations learners, who make up more than half of NWCC’s students.

With its nine campuses and community learning centres, the college, which started in Terrace in 1975, covers 104,689 square kilometres of territory from Houston to Haida Gwaii. Trades and technical programs like carpentry, cooking and computers are offered, but university credit programs are featured too. Like at most colleges, students can take their first two years of an arts or science Bachelor’s degree, but at NWCC, in partnership with UNBC and the College of New Caledonia, they also offer a full degree program in nursing.

Why is it so important to offer post-secondary education in the north? Wheadon points to a 
geography course offered in Terrace last year, where students assessed the implications of developing a run-of-river hydroelectric project on the Shames River. Having grown up in the area and knowing its importance to local people helps students bring a different context to the study, she says.

Leaving home may appeal to some students, but others feel more comfortable surrounded by family. Still others want to stay close to a family member because of illness or for the simple reason that it is less expensive than going to a place like Vancouver. “We have some of the lowest tuitions in the province,” says Wheadon.

For Thorpe’s students, who came from places far afield, living on Haida Gwaii was an important part of their education. They learned how to entertain themselves in the darkest days of winter in the tiny town of Queen Charlotte, she says. They also learned about transportation challenges, and how wholeheartedly a small community gets involved in land management decisions.

Fraser, along with students Ainsley Charbonneau and Julianne Kucheran, says that seeing the impact of resource management decisions from so many different angles, and broad-to-narrow perspectives, connected the semester of learning together. “It’s the healthiest university experience I’ve ever had,” she says.

Higher education in northern BC:

University of Northern BC:
Undergraduate and Graduate programs are available at campuses in Prince George, Terrace and other locations, and through teaching centres in Prince Rupert, the Nass Valley and other regional spots.

College of New Caledonia:
Campuses in Prince George, Burns Lake, Vanderhoof, Fort St. James and Fraser Lake. Courses in business and management, continuing education, health sciences, trades, social services and more. 
Haida Gwaii Semester:

Field-based natural resource management and conservation programs for university students.

Northwest Community College:
Study in Hazelton, Houston, Kitimat, Masset, Nass, Prince Rupert, Queen Charlotte, Skidegate, Smithers and Terrace. Check out their Summer Field Schools with geography and anthropology courses in the Kitlope, Stewart/Telegraph and Haida Gwaii.

Northern Lights College:
Serves Atlin, Dease Lake, Fort Nelson, Dawson Creek, Chetwynd and more.