Opinion

Canada Needs a True Northern University in an Era of Climate Change

A multi-campus enterprise would help us learn to flourish in the warming North.

By Crawford Kilian 19 Sep 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Over 50 years ago, John Diefenbaker was promoting development of Canada’s north, and thereby drawing the population away from the strip along the U.S. border where most of us lived.

His northern dream went glimmering by the late 1960s, but it looks like an idea whose time has finally come. We never really knew the old North; now climate change is bringing us a new North we don’t know at all. For that reason alone, we need a multi-campus Northern Canada University (NCU), dedicated to learning about the warming North and how to live there.

Researchers at 33 Canadian universities might say such a university would be redundant: they’re already members of the University of the Arctic, a circumpolar network of colleges, universities and research institutes. NCU would certainly join that network, and it would offer a distinctive contribution: a focus on building large, sustainable communities north of the 55th parallel around the nuclei of its own campuses.

NCU would offer a comprehensive range of academic programs, but with a strong northern emphasis: architecture, for example, would focus on elegant, energy-efficient structures that could withstand both melting permafrost and extreme weather. Environmental science would track the impact of warming on northern ecosystems. Language studies would include those of First Nations and Inuit, and of other polar peoples like the Sami and Yakut.

A steady spread across the north

The first NCU campus might be based at an existing institution like Yukon College in Whitehorse. NCU faculty and students would both learn from and enrich Yukon College’s own research. Then, like a Hutterite farming community forming a new settlement, NCU would establish another campus — perhaps in Dawson, or Hay River, or Yellowknife — and so steadily move across the north.

Each new campus would draw upon the experience and skills of its host community as well as its own research and the experience of newcomers — because many if not most of the campus community would be from elsewhere in the North, or from very far away.

As the chief funder of NCU, the federal government would treat each campus as a major research centre. Faculty and staff, recruited from everywhere, would be both well paid and strongly subsidized. The same would be true of the people building and supporting the campus infrastructure. So everything from housing to groceries would be at least as cheap as in a smallish southern Canadian city.

At least one NCU campus would house a medical school and teaching hospital, again with a focus on the public health of northerners. Working in small northern communities would be part of each medical and nursing student’s training. Many students would be natives of those communities.

NCU would not merely serve an existing community, but create new ones. Whitehorse, for example, now has a population of 25,000. NCU's Whitehorse campus would attract new residents, not only as students or faculty but because of the jobs created as a side effect. Foreseen and planned for, Whitehorse’s population could grow to perhaps 125,000 or even more.

A new urban North

The new urban north inspired by NCU would be a blend of Indigenous and other cultures, consciously studying themselves and choosing which elements could support an advanced society in the midst of catastrophic climate social and social upheaval. Guatemalan refugees would turn to their Indigenous neighbours for advice on coping with the long winters. In return, the newcomers might study how to grow corn and chilies in the warming tundra — or how to develop other food sources if need be.

Immigrants of all kinds would be promising residents of NCU communities — especially if the educated professionals among them are permitted to work in their own fields, whether medicine or engineering. But many young Canadians in southern cities would head north as well, in search of affordable housing, steady jobs and the adventure of pioneering. That in turn would help open up housing and jobs for those preferring to stay in the south.

As climate change creates new dust bowls and bread baskets, NCU communities will study the north’s changing terrains with growing intensity and sophistication. They’ll be able to advise federal and provincial governments on where new farms and forests should go, and where to found still more new cities.

Intellectual boom towns

All these new cities would be improvements on the old Soviet-era Akademgorodok, the “Academic Town” in Siberia that was designed to be a city-sized think tank and centre for research and development. Its purpose survived the fall of the Soviet Union, and today Akademgorodok (on the 55th parallel, like Prince Rupert, B.C.) is a flourishing town of 100,000 also known as “Silicon Taiga.”

CNU campuses could similarly attract investment and brains to their new communities, until they became self-sustaining — intellectual boom towns without a bust.

One model for CNU might be Finland’s University of Oulu, founded in 1968. On the 65th parallel (a bit north of Yukon’s Dawson City), the university has 16,000 students and 3,000 faculty and staff. The main campus includes many buildings, all interconnected, and offers programs in everything from education and humanities to information technology and architecture. The secondary campus houses Oulu University Hospital as well as the faculties of medicine and biochemistry and molecular medicine.

If a country with the population of B.C. can build a successful university on the 65th parallel, then Canada ought to be able to do it several times over. A Canadian Northern University could help ensure that we get through the rest of this tumultuous century as a stable, functioning industrial nation.  [Tyee]

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