On the traditional lands of the Yellowknives Dene First Nations, Dechinta Bush University Centre for Research & Learning
Fewer than 5 percent of aboriginals in the Northwest Territories have a university degree (compared with 25 percent of Canadians overall). It's not that they're not interested; there simply isn't anywhere for them to go. A college in each territory offers high school equivalency and training for industry jobs, but for professional qualifications residents would have to travel at least 1,500 kilometres south to Edmonton — a world away for kids who've never been outside their tightly knit communities.
"Canada is the only northern State that does not have a university campus offering a full range of programs in the Far North," wrote Michaëlle Jean on her blog after last summer's infamous tour of the region. The governor general has emerged as one of the country's most outspoken advocates for a northern university, having travelled across the circumpolar North gathering intelligence on sovereignty. "We absolutely cannot forget that this sovereignty is an empty shell," she has cautioned, "without the participation of northern people." Now, despite the usual objections (sparse population, insufficient resources, etc.), the cause has finally gained traction.
This spring, a pilot semester of Dechinta Bush University Centre for Research and Learning will see up to sixteen northern indigenous students earning fifteen credits through the University of Alberta's native studies program. Located on the traditional lands of the Yellowknives Dene First Nations, five hours by snow machine from the capital, the field school will teach a broad range of courses relevant to a northern skill set. Participants will calculate the lodge's diesel carbon footprint, set up micro–wind power, and operate composting toilets. They'll study science as a methodology and traditional ecological knowledge as a cosmology. Law, writing, resource management, and political history will be taught by a roster of heavy hitters, including David Hik and possibly Severn Cullis-Suzuki.
Born in Yellowknife in 1974, Coulthard grew up in nearby Norman Wells, where his father owned a small business, and spent summers with his extended family in the Dene community of Dettah. When he was around ten years old, his parents moved him to Kelowna, BC, so he could take advantage of better educational opportunities there. Instead, he found the atmosphere at his largely Christian, upper-class high school, located next to a major reserve, antagonistic. "I was never very good in high school, and I took a break for most of the 1990s," he says apologetically. In fact, he spent the latter half of the decade agitating for political change in East Vancouver.
But around the time Irlbacher-Fox was founding a reading group on indigenous rights and governance at Cambridge, Coulthard decided to give school another chance. He registered at Langara College and climbed his way to a Ph.D., defended this winter at the University of Victoria. His recent work posits "recognition" — of indigenous peoples, of rights to land, of self-government — as an empty promise that perpetuates oppression. It's the kind of political theory that informs Irlbacher-Fox's fieldwork, but Coulthard's application is more radical. "My involvement [in Dechinta] is contingent on making sure Yellowknives Dene interests are met and their sovereignty respected," he says.
The university's success is contingent, in turn, on how this tension — between aboriginal and academic interests, theory and action — is handled. It's a tremendous challenge, matched only by the commitment of those involved. In Yellowknife, Irlbacher-Fox has already thrown herself into writing a new book, using attachment theory to explore the Dene people's fundamental connection to the land. Coulthard will use his semester in the territory to explore that connection through his young son and daughter, returning home to Dettah.