History and geography have given the University of Alberta a special relationship with the North and its people.
Along the shores of the Great Slave Lake the aspen that find sustenance in the crevices of the tumbled Canadian Shield granite were enjoying the moment of glory granted them before winter's long reign, and the unearthly brilliance of the gold in which they dressed themselves was a splendid contrast to the evergreen of their more constant neighbors.
From the air the land below was a symphony in green and gold under the baton of the morning sun. It was a sight altogether worthy of poetry, and the more lyrical minded of the University of Alberta senators arriving for their September 11, 1987 meeting in Yellowknife could be forgiven for discovering in the scene a welcoming carpet in the traditional colors of the University — a carpet spread in honor of the historic nature of the occasion. For the first time ever, the University of Alberta Senate would be meeting outside the boundaries of the province of Alberta. And it was entirely fitting that it should take place in the North.
The University of Alberta is proud of its connections with the North: of its historic links to the boreal regions, of the contributions its scientists and researchers have made to northern welfare and development, and of the continuing involvement of University of Alberta alumni in northern life.
For many of the senators who made the journey to Yellowknife it was a first visit to the vast lands north of the Alberta border. There were, however, some notable exceptions. Associate Chief Justice Tevie Miller, who as the University's chancellor chairs the meetings of Senate, is no stranger to the Territories. His father helped established Yellowknife's first school for the mentally disabled, which was later named in his honor — in its new embodiment as the Abe Miller Workshop, it continues to be a fixture of education in Yellowknife — and Chancellor Miller continues his family's involvement with the North, serving as a deputy judge of the Supreme Court of the Northwest and Yukon Territories.
One of the senators appointed by the University's General Faculties Council is the dean of the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation, Gerry Glassford. Dean Glassford's scholarly interest in the traditional games and contests of the Inuit is credited with being largely responsible for the renewed interest in this sport that ultimately led to the creation of the Arctic Games.
Another of the senators who took part in the Yellowknife meeting was literally right at home in the North. In fact, few people have as broad an understanding of the Canadian North as does John Parker, a 1951 engineering geology graduate of the University of Alberta. He has spent most of his life in Northern Canada, first as a mining engineer and since 1979 as the commissioner of the Northwest Territories, a position which has become increasingly vice-regal in nature as he has encouraged the development of self-government in the N.W.T. In this regard, an important constitutional change occurred at the end of January 1986, when Commissioner Parker turned over the chair of the Territories' executive council to the Honorable Nick Sibbeston, government leader. Like Mr. Parker, Mr. Sibbeston is a University of Alberta graduate, having earned baccalaureate degrees in arts and law in the early 1970s.
An elected member of the U of A Senate, Commissioner Parker assisted with many of the arrangements for the Senate visit to Yellowknife and acted as host at a banquet attended by the Senate visitors, some invited residents of the Territories, and a number of University of Alberta alumni living in Yellowknife.
As the northernmost of Canada's traditional universities, the University of Alberta naturally serves a northern constituency that includes Northern Alberta, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. It offers a wide range of academic programs relevant to the northern regions and undertakes a great deal of boreal research. Indeed, the University of Alberta is the leading Canadian university involved in northern studies leading in terms of the number of graduate students and staff working in the North, and in terms of scholarly production related to the North.
The senators, however, did not travel to Yellowknife in search of accolades — although there were those — but to find out how the University might do a better job of meeting the needs of the people of the North. It is the responsibility of the Senate to "inquire into any matter that might tend to enhance the usefulness of the University," and the senators have recently begun to look northward within the context of that mandate. In 1986 they held their annual off-campus meeting in Peace River, Alberta and in April of this year they established a task force on "The University and the North." The task force was formally charged with working with the people in Northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories to: identify ways in which the University of Alberta serves the North, such as courses, programs, research or other special relationships; assess needs in the North which might be met by the University; consider a role for the University in meeting these needs; and make appropriate recommendations.
Chairperson of the new task force is Edmonton lawyer Peter Caffaro. He and his colleagues on the task force have been busy speaking with Northerners and also plan to distribute questionnaires on campus to determine what the various faculties are doing to meet the needs of the people of the North. They will also be asking the faculties if there are things that they did in the past that they are no longer doing — and if there are, why are they not done now? While the focus is decidedly on the North, Mr. Caffaro believes that many of the issues being raised will force the University to take a close look at itself in an even broader context: "What is the role of the University in this modern age, when the technology exists for delivering education over long distances using teleconferencing and other advanced techniques?" While the work of the task force is far from complete, already it is evident that Northerners have some desperate needs for specialized advanced training in fields such as education, medicine and business, says Mr. Caffaro. "I think we now have a moral obligation to help the institutions that are developing in the North to meet those needs, just as McGill did when western Canada was first being developed." And the assistance should come, he says, "not with the heavy hand of paternalism, but working as equals."
Among those who accompanied the senators on their visit to Yellowknife was Ross Wein, a new University of Alberta faculty member with an extensive background in northern research. A plant scientist with a special interest in boreal ecology, Dr. Wein was recently named director of the University's Boreal Institute for Northern Studies, where much of the University's northern research is centered.
Founded in the early 1960s, the Boreal Institute is a multidisciplinary research institute whose role is to foster northern studies in all academic departments of the University. It does this in a number of ways, but primarily through a program of grants and by encouraging various forms of communication.
The Institute's research grants program encourages graduate students to undertake northern research by providing "seed money" to initiate projects. Each year approximately $175,000 is allocated to about 50 students, whose projects usually last two or three years. Not only is the program a stimulus to northern research, it is significant in increasing the number of young Canadians trained to undertake such work. At any one time, 85 to 100 graduate students at the University are actively involved in northern research projects, and many of the students go on to professional careers in the North when they graduate.
The Boreal Institute also sponsors conferences and seminars and publishes scholarly books and articles on northern subjects. It is a reflection of the interdisciplinary nature of the Institute's research interests that Dr. Milton Freeman, one of the three Henry Marshall Tory Professors at the University, holds appointments both in the Boreal Institute and the department of anthropology. Dr. Freeman, who recently has turned his attention to the dreams of Native people and the place of dreams in aboriginal culture, previously headed a study that conducted more than 1,600 interviews with Inuit hunters, and his work is considered an important contribution to establishing Canadian sovereignty in the North.
As a complement to its programs, the Boreal Institute maintains a world class multidisciplinary library. The library produces three on-line databases, accessible nationwide, that abstract and index literature about the Arctic, Antarctic and other cold regions of the world. Most of the material cited in the databases is housed in the library. The collection includes many northern and Native newspapers and an extensive collection of theses and consultants' reports, as well as monographs, periodicals, and government documents. The library, located in the centre wing of the Biological Sciences Centre on campus, is open to the general public and provides library service to Northerners through inter-library loans to community libraries in the North and directly to Northerners.
As the Institute's new director, Dr. Wein is looking forward to increasing the co-operation between his centre and other circumpolar institutes in Canada and abroad. In particular, Dr. Wein is looking forward to working closely with the Boreal Institute's sister institute in Alberta, the University of Calgary-based Arctic Institute of North America, whose aims and programs closely parallel those of his centre.
Another University of Alberta institute that Mr. Caffaro and his task force colleagues will learn about as they investigate the University's relationship to the development of the North is the Centre for Frontier Engineering Research, An incorporated, not-for-profit research arm of the University, C-FER is funded by the Devonian Group of Charitable Foundations, the Governments of Alberta and Canada, the University itself, and more than 25 firms in the private sector. These firms range from major steel and petroleum companies to manufacturers and consultants. C-FER's northern interest is in collaborative research to enhance safe economic development of Canada's frontier petroleum resources. While concerned with the basic engineering elements of the structures and systems used in developing Beaufort Sea and east coast offshore petroleum reserves, C-FER has also developed a networking program, which encourages dialogue among those with a northern interest. Its seminar series on "Northern and Offshore Information Resources" has been a central aspect of this exchange of knowledge.
While the Boreal and C-FER Institutes act as focal points for northern research at the University, academic interest in the North comes from a broad cross-section of campus. Among the University departments with northern specialists and programs in virtually all aspects of their discipline are anthropology, botany, civil engineering, geography, geology, and zoology. Several other departments at the University, including animal science, educational foundations, forest science, history, political science, and sociology have staff members with northern interests and expertise.
The many northern research projects undertaken at the University illustrate the breadth and multidisciplinary nature of northern expertise on the University campus. For instance, northern ecology as a field of study spans all aspects of the relationships of northern plants and animals to their environment and to one another. This encompasses the work of researchers from a total of seven campus departments who are studying everything from the geographic distribution of plants and animals in the North to processes that are unique to northern ecosystems.
Researchers from the social sciences and humanities have also turned their attentions northward. Most often, their interest centres on the nature of community life in the North and its particular problems. A considerable challenge related to this is the integration of traditional knowledge and values into the dynamics of contemporary community life. Perhaps the best illustration of this is the involvement of University of Alberta faculty in the effort being made to help develop a constitutional model for the western Northwest Territories — a model which will integrate liberal-democratic principles with the traditional decision-making processes of the North and must do so within the context of the many different cultural communities that make their homes in the region.
A new aspect to the University's involvement with the North comes by way of the recently-created School of Native Studies. Amongst the School's current offerings is a course in the Slavey language, which is being taught by Sarah Cleary. A Native Northerner, she holds the Northern Dene Language Scholarship, which is jointly sponsored by the University of Alberta and the Government of the Northwest Territories. Native Studies examines aspects of northern life in other of its courses and hopes to soon be able to offer a course in the language of the western Inuit.
With its resident northern expertise, the University has often been able to serve constituencies such as government, industry and Native Northerners by undertaking reports and projects commissioned by them. Examples are the report on forest fire management in the N.W.T., produced to resolve questions about responsibility in managing forest fires; a report on overlapping land use by Dene, Inuvialuit, and Inuit in the N.W.T.; the Viral Hepatitis Study, which provides northern communities with important information about the extent of hepatitis; the Dene Mapping Project, documenting tradi-tional and current land use by the Dene for their land claim negotiations with the federal government; and C-FER's project on offshore structures that is being used by the petroleum industry for oil extraction and by government for the construction of ice breakers to operate in the Arctic Ocean. In addition, University staff frequently provide expert witness interventions at public hearings, Royal Commission inquiries and court proceedings related to the North.
While they are far from unappreciative of the academic interest in the North shown by the University, uppermost in the minds of most Northerners with whom the senators have spoken is the University's role in meeting the special educational needs of their communities. The senators are finding that there are many in the North who are exceedingly hungry for continuing education and who worry about their children who must go south to obtain higher education.
At the Senate meetings held in both Peace River and Yellowknife and in the meetings that the Senate task force has had to date, the same themes have emerged and re-emerged: the difficulties that Northerners, particularly professionals working in the North, have in accessing appropriate continuing education, and the special problems experienced by young Northerners, particularly Natives, when they must deal with an institution as large and seemingly impersonal as the University. Any initiatives that the University has taken in these areas have been applauded and the desire for more has come through loud and clear, says Mr. Caffaro.
The task force chairperson says that, in Northern Alberta particularly, there is a feeling that the infrastructure for advanced and continuing education already exists through the community and vocational colleges and what is desired is the University's co-operation in developing a higher level and quality of offerings for delivery through these institutions. "Northerners don't want to have to trek down to Edmonton until absolutely necessary," he says.
Mr. Caffaro also suggests that the University might have to take a good look at the services that it provides for Northern students. He says that it well might be that simply having the services available is not enough; the students might have to actually be taken in hand and led to them. "People used to living in the closely-knit communities of the North can be inhibited in seeking the services available to them. They have to be taught to ask for things."
Also of great concern to the residents of the North is their need for professionals prepared to serve in their very special environment. This is something that has been addressed by a number of faculties. Best known, perhaps, are the initiatives taken in Nursing, but others have come in Law, Education and Medicine. The Faculty of Nursing has taken various steps to improve nursing in the North and to train nurses for northern service. The Faculty serves as a resource con-tact for nurses in Inuvik and Whitehorse and offers training programs in outlying regions for nurses to gain experience in northern and isolated settings. The Faculty of Medicine has programs to give doctors northern experience and to encourage research in the Western Arctic.
Undertakings such as these are tremendously welcome in the North, and — as the senators are learning — such is the need that Northerners are looking to the University for greatly increased involvement in this area. Mr. Caffaro adds some perspective to this need by pointing out that Canadian population statistics show that the North, and especially northern Alberta, is the fastest growing region of Canada. "We're sitting on a population time bomb," he says.
Important, too, says Mr. Caffaro, is the need to completely integrate the programs of northern service into the professional faculties. He and his colleagues are hearing that too often in the past initiatives have relied on the energy of individual faculty members, and when these people have moved on or as has often been the case —"simply burned out" the programs have fallen by the wayside.
The Senate Task Force on the University and the North will continue its meetings throughout the winter and Mr. Caffaro hopes to have a report — even if it is only an interim report — ready for Senate's 1988 fall session. In the meantime, the task force will be continuing its discussions with the people of the North. It welcomes briefs from all interested individuals or institutions. Briefs can either be presented in person during the task force visits to northern communities or submitted in writing to the Senate Office at the University.
Mr. Caffaro says that he has been impressed by the number and quality of the briefs that have already been received. "What is coming out loud and clear," he says," is that the people of the North still look to Edmonton and the University of Alberta for leadership in higher education — it is now up to the University to respond."
Published Winter 1987.