Nunavut University part two: old offer, enthusiasm, mixed messages
Agnico Eagle first proposed $5 million donation to GN five years ago
Academics were buzzing over last month’s surprise joint Government of Nunavut-Agnico Eagle announcement of a $5 million donation towards a university in Nunavut.
At an annual gala dinner for the 17th Nunavut Mining Symposium, where mining delegates dressed to the nines in sharp blazers and snazzy dresses, Agnico Eagle chairperson James Nasso announced the company would pledge $5 million towards a future bricks and mortar university in Nunavut.
But one day after, the GN quietly reminded Nunavummiut that its focus is instead aimed at early education, the kindergarten to Grade 12 system, and trades training.
“Through our mandate, Sivumut Abluqta, we are focused on kindergarten to Grade 12, and are looking at new ways to expand current trades training and academic programming,” said a GN statement posted April 11 on the government’s Facebook page.
As for Agnico Eagle’s offer, the GN said they hope it inspires more discussion of Nunavut’s future, but they did not commit to creating a university.
One issue is that Nasso’s announcement is actually old news for the GN.
Nasso told Nunatsiaq News May 20 that the money was earmarked for a university in Nunavut five years ago.
Nasso said the company originally pledged the $5 million half a decade ago — but with “the government of the day… it just sort of died,” Nasso said.
Agnico Eagle’s communications officer, Dale Coffin, confirmed that the company made the financial commitment five years ago towards developing a university program, but the money was never used.
“It just quietly went away and laid dormant. Now we’ve resurrected it again, but in a more meaningful way. We’ve got government support, we’ve got minister’s support, community support — it’s a different day,” Nasso said.
Some people are skeptical, however.
An April 11 Nunatsiaq News article about the university announcement generated over 90 comments, many calling the announcement a publicity stunt to curry favour for the multi-million dollar mining company.
Nasso laughs at the remark.
“A publicity stunt after six years? I’ll tell you this — I like that. I like those objections. It gives me something to argue about, or reinforce our opinion,” Nasso said.
“There’s always cynics, and they’re entitled to their opinion, and that’s fine. And all they do is fuel me — personally, they fuel me,” he said.
At the April 10 gala in front of hundreds of people, Nasso declared that Nunavut’s education minister, Paul Quassa, and Premier Peter Taptuna will “spearhead” the project — and Nasso still maintains the university project is the GN’s baby.
“It’s really their initiative,” Nasso said. “It’s a priority with the premier. When we met with the premier, minister Quassa and George Kuksuk, another minister, they reacted very favourably,” Nasso said.
Nunatsiaq News tried to contact minister Quassa for this article. Two emails to the GN’s education department’s communications people got no response.
On May 21, a spokesperson for the department said the GN’s position on a university remains unchanged from what it was this past April and that Nunavut Arctic College is the lead agency on the matter.
A day after that April announcement, the GN took to social media and posted that carefully worded statement — found only on its Facebook and Twitter profiles — saying they “appreciate” the gesture but that “we are focused on kindergarten to Grade 12.”
Anne Crawford, an Iqaluit lawyer who worked with the first version of the Akitsiraq Law School in Iqaluit and director of the Ilitturvik University Society — a group that’s been advocating for a university for five years — takes exception to that statement.
“What’s my goal in graduating from Grade 12 if I don’t have anywhere to go or anything to do?” Crawford said.
“I understand that the GN has a really strong focus on K to 12. But I think kids in those grades need to have something to graduate for,” Crawford said.
When Akitsiraq Law School opened its doors for the first time in 2001, Crawford said the response from grade schoolers was immediate.
At a graduation ceremony at Aqsarniit Middle School that spring, Crawford walked through the school’s hallway and counted colourful posters the graduates made about what profession they wanted to follow after school.
“Two-thirds of them were going to be lawyers,” Crawford said. “I went and counted them. There were about 40 — maybe 42 posters. And there were something like 27 kids that were going to be lawyers.”
“Kids have to have a clear idea of what they’re going to do with this education. And where it’s going to lead them.”
That’s Nasso’s philosophy too — and he wants the university built as soon as possible.
Nasso said he met with one of Agnico Eagle’s board members, Dr. Sean Riley, a former president of St. Francis Xavier University — where Nasso received his bachelor of commerce degree — and discussed the creation of the university in Nunavut.
Nasso has also inquired about modular buildings — the university’s going to have 10 or 20 classrooms, he said.
He’s talked to residents about spaces where a university could stand in Iqaluit. And Agnico Eagle even received interest from a woman who assisted in the creation of the Canadian University of Dubai and who said she wants to help as well.
Nasso said Quassa told him a junior mining company donated $50,000 to the government for the university project, after Nasso’s $5-million announcement.
“If they gave me an enrollment — and that’s what we’re waiting on — if they gave me an enrollment, and of course with their permission, it’s their initiative, I would order a building. And we’d start,” Nasso said.
“That’s how quick I’d like to see it done. And then we’ll fill all the other stuff as we go along,” Nasso said, adding that it will be important for the GN to plan out the university properly.
One of Nasso’s roles in creating the university is networking, said the NAC’s Shouldice.
Shouldice sits comfortably in his cushioned red office chair in Iqaluit, sliding halfway down the chair with his palms behind his head.
“You need to put someone in there that’s like that, that’s strategic, that sees the big plan, that can phone people up with credibility,” he said.
Much like politician and academic Lloyd Axworthy, who is president of the University of Winnipeg, Nasso can generate funds for the university by calling up a few “colleagues,” Shouldice said.
“And I’m sure that’s what Agnico Eagle is doing,” Shouldice said.
The NAC president said Quassa has talked to him about the university — but he won’t divulge what was said in their discussions.
Shouldice said he predicts Nunavut Arctic College will receive university-college status in five or six years, now that it’s a degree-granting institution.
But will Nunavut Arctic College grow into Nunavut U.?
“I honestly don’t know that,” Shouldice said.
While proponents are gung-ho for Nunavut U., some young people might not share their enthusiasm.
Candice Sudlovenick, a recent graduate of NAC’s environment technology program, said she’s either looking for a job as an environmental officer, or head south to finish a degree in geology.
It would be convenient for students to stay in the North for post-secondary education, Sudlovenick said — “they’d still be in an environment that they’re familiar with.”
But a southern university experience is still tempting.
“Honestly, I’d want to leave” she said. “But I’d come back and live here for sure.”
The same goes for Lauren Nevin, a third-year university student who calls Iqaluit home, but is studying at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia.
“I don’t think Nunavut is as appealing in your younger years I guess… 20 to 30. It’s not really as appealing to me,” Nevin said.
“It’s expensive, there’s not a whole lot to do, you don’t have access to a whole lot of things because it’s so remote. You can’t just go on a road trip. It’s not appealing for me in my 20s,” she said.
“But it’s home, and I can see myself coming back when I’m older.”
Regardless of how it works, whether its feasible or who gets the publicity, some experts feel a local university is precisely what the fledgling territory needs.
Greg Poelzer, dean of undergraduate studies at the University of the Arctic, says folding the university into NAC is a viable option.
The other options academics have suggested: creating a brand new university, or creating satellite campuses in different communities, such as the Université de Québec à Montreal.
Poelzer lists a number of programs the university should focus on — health care, Inuktitut, governance, the mining sector, geology, engineering and resource development.
“Those kinds of areas are going to be vitally important,” Poelzer said.
Poelzer is optimistic the plan will come together within the next two decades.
“I think it’s incredibly realistic. In fact, with the right game plan, this might be the easiest university to raise funding for, for all of Canada,” he said.
The federal government has to chip in heavily though. “Canada has to see this as a national investment,” Poelzer said.
But most important, a university could inspire Nunavummiut to make decisions on local resource development.
“Without a university, and building that capacity within Nunavut, there’s going to be a continued disproportionate reliance on outsiders and people from the south to make those kinds of decisions,” Poelzer said.
Universities help increase high school completion rates too, he said.
“It’s not: ‘either we deal with literacy issues or we build a university.’ It’s this and that. You need both,” Poelzer said. “Because if you have a place to go to, you’re more likely to complete, right?”
Through a local university, Nunavut could fuel a “renaissance” of culture, argues Fiona Walton, a coordinator for the masters of education partnership program that Nunavut Arctic College runs with the University of Prince Edward Island.
“If you look at Canada as a whole, one of the things that Inuit have to offer our country is their knowledge. And right now [that] knowledge is being written up by qallunaat,” Walton said.
“Envision a place where professors are Inuit. The programs are all offered fully bilingually. Where many Inuit are partaking and involved in the programs taking place. And they’re speaking in Inuktitut.
“That will take some time. But if we don’t start somewhere, how is it going to happen?”