January 22, 2004  
Volume 97, Issue 62  

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Conflict over change to Aboriginal university

By Ben Fine
Gazette Staff

Many of Canada’s secluded Northern populations face economic, geographic and cultural barriers to pursuing university degrees. Often those most affected are First Nation Canadians, and the province of Manitoba has sought to bring education northwards.

Students in northern Manitoba currently have two options when it comes to post-secondary education: a local college or spending $20,000 and drive six hours to the University of Manitoba — an option beyond the means of many.

In 2002, the Manitoba New Democratic Party made an election promise to introduce a new University College of the North. “[The plan] conceptualizes a bold new teaching and research university, concentrating in the area of Aboriginal studies,” stated a report from the Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations.

Under the current UCN proposal, the university would include the existing facilities of Keewatin Community College located in Thomson and The Pas in Manitoba. Students would then have the option of beginning their studies at the diploma level before seamlessly transferring to an accredited university program, the report said.

The driving force behind the idea is to ensure there is no “wasted education,” according to Doug Lovestead of Keewatin Community College.

The committee enlisted to gauge community sentiment soon scrapped the central campus idea in favour of a decentralized, distance studies-based university. The withdrawal of a major campus centre from the table has since stirred debate.

The MOFA report insisted a central facility is the “key component for making the UCN a success,” citing the requirement for a central administration and other facilities comparable to schools like the University of Manitoba or Brandon University.

“Anyone who has ever visited the Keewatin College facilities in Thomson knows that the school needs an expanded campus. It is bad policy to think that a proud new institution of higher learning can be merely legislated into existence,” the MOFA report argued.

According to Lovestead, one obvious problem of a centralized UCN campus is the sparse population of the North. “The reality of northern Manitoba [is that it is] a small population spread over a vast geography.”
Placing a central campus in The Pas would still mean a 4.5 hour trek from Thomson, Lovestead said, adding the geographic accessibility advantage of UCN over U of M is lost.

Lovestead pointed out that half the population of northern Manitoba is Aboriginal and the government must be sensitive to their needs.

Aboriginal students follow a different pattern of education, explained Regna Darnell, director of First Nations Studies at Western, adding aboriginal students seeking higher education are often older students with families, who would find it difficult to seek traditional means of higher education.



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