Canada’s first university north of 60


The story of Yukon College and its historic transition towards becoming Yukon University.


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Canada is home to just under 100 different universities.1 The list of these post-secondary institutions is robust and broad, with an incredibly vast offering of programs, disciplines and areas of study. Early next year, there’s going to be a historical addition to this list with the establishment of Yukon University—Canada’s very first university north of 60.

Eight years so far in the making—and grounded in a half-century of popular support for a university in Canada’s north—the visions for Yukon University (YukonU) are well on their way to becoming a full reality in the spring of 2020. The school’s model hinges on providing a flexible post-secondary institution that includes options for every learner, and its mission is to provide greater opportunities for students—locally, from across Canada and internationally—to be immersed in research and education that’s relevant and unique to the North.2

dr karen barnes headshot Dr. Karen Barnes

The Perspectives team recently spoke with Dr. Karen Barnes, president and vice-chancellor of Yukon College, to learn more about the story of YukonU and its vision for the future. Dr. Barnes has been president of the college since 2011 and currently chairs the governing committees of the Yukon Research Centre and the Northern Institute of Social Justice. She has also co-chaired the Colleges and Institutes Canada committee that developed the Indigenous Protocol for Canadian colleges and institutes. She currently works with other college and university presidents in Canada to raise the profile of colleges serving rural and remote communities.

The roots of change

The history of post-secondary education in the Yukon goes back to 1963, when Yukon College (then called the Yukon Training and Vocation Centre) was first established in Whitehorse, primarily as a vocational school to help those in the territory prepare for employment. Over the ’60s and ’70s, conversations began about making it more than just vocational programming, and talks about partnership degrees with other universities began in the ’80s. (Since then, the college has added three partner degrees that focus on northern education, social work and northern environmental and conservation sciences, as well as two made-in-Yukon degrees that focus on Indigenous governance and business administration.)

“What’s also really important to recognize is that Yukon is unique because of First Nations and the relationship there,” notes Dr. Barnes. In 1973, Yukon First Nations leaders approached the Canadian government to begin negotiating land claims and self-government agreements on behalf of all Yukon First Nations people, and over the next 20 years, the framework was established for the negotiations and agreements to take place. Since that time, 11 of the 14 First Nations have become self-governing, and Yukon is considered to be at the forefront of Aboriginal land claims and self-government in Canada.3 “This relationship is quite distinctive and strong, and as an institution, we have been shaped by that relationship—self-governing First Nations play an integral role at our board, advisory and faculty levels,” shares Dr. Barnes. “This is a key piece of why this university is so important, and they have been very much engaged in the vision for YukonU and what it’s ultimately going to be and represent.”

Stepping stones of transition

It was back in 2011 when the proposal for YukonU was first introduced and when initial planning began with the Government of Yukon to transition from a college to a university.

“It’s been an intricate and evolving process, but right from the get-go in defining the vision for YukonU, offering as much flexibility as possible has been a top priority, as well as building on the college’s existing strengths,” notes Dr. Barnes. “As part of the transition from the current college, we also wanted to ensure we provide a continuum of education that meets the needs of every type of student. With these aspects in mind, the development plan from early on has been for YukonU to exist as a ‘hybrid’ university.”

Funding partnerships have also played a key role in bringing the university’s visions to life. As Dr. Barnes explains, “With these partnerships, we were afforded opportunities to develop innovative programs and initiatives and to develop a master land plan. That really sparked a focus on how we wanted to bring traditional knowledge to the campus and to encompass the environment, the outdoors and the uniqueness of the land.”

Along this lengthy journey towards the transition, there have been many milestones, and one that really stands out for Dr. Barnes is the coming together of all governments within the Yukon to collectively mobilize the vision. “We really want to highlight what this university can do for the community and for the country as well. Everyone involved really wants to help people recognize that this is not just Yukon’s university, but Canada’s university of the North.”

Program areas and focus

As a hybrid university, YukonU will preserve the programs that currently exist at Yukon College, and students will be able to access everything from academic upgrading to diplomas and degrees. Expanding on Yukon College’s solid foundation of research and education, YukonU will zero in on three niche areas of programming: climate change and the environment; Indigenous self-determination and self-governance; and sustainable resource development, technology and innovation.

yukon u three female students in class

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With these focus areas, Dr. Barnes explains the aim is to provide programming that addresses northern issues and that applies to northerners, and at the same time offers education and research that’s relevant and valuable to the rest of Canada and other parts of the world.

As she explains, “When it comes to climate change, for example, right from the beginning we’ve looked at things like permafrost—the impact on infrastructure, land and animals—and adaptation measures for communities, and we hope to become a centre of excellence in that area. The North is warming faster than the South and the impacts of climate change could be devastating. There are solutions in research that are needed now, across Canada and internationally. Someone needs to be studying it and innovating, and the Yukon is a prime place for that to happen. Through our programming, facilities and technology, and academic expertise, YukonU could be a leading institution and a trailblazer in that regard.”

The thinking is similar for sustainable resource development. For quite some time already, Yukon College has supported research and delivered programs on sustainable development and stewardship of the territory’s resources. Going forward for YukonU, the goal is to expand training opportunities and to combine training and research as a way to further emphasize sustainable practices and to drive innovation in areas like alternative energy, bioremediation and mine remediation.

According to Dr. Barnes, Indigenous self-determination and governance has been an incredible success story in the Yukon; because of that, she believes they are well-positioned to offer education and expertise and knowledge to others. “Our Bachelor of Arts in Indigenous Governance was launched in 2018, and the hope is that by attracting students and researchers across the nation and training them to work in those governments, they can help in bringing self-governance agreements to life in other areas too.”

For all three niche areas of programming, Dr. Barnes reinforces that the mentality has largely been: “What can we learn and what can we teach other parts of Canada and the world?”

yukon u program areas venn diagram

Finding its place

In the early stages of talking about the university and talking to people outside the Yukon about it, those involved quickly realized a main challenge was a prominent perception that the North is homogenous, as well as a lack of understanding of the differences in the people who live there, of self-government and of First Nations and their differing needs. As Dr. Barnes explains, “The task then became figuring out the right balance: how to make sure people understand the uniqueness of the Yukon and its people and at the same time recognize the shared commonalities that exist with other parts of the North and with Canada as well.”

“Throughout the process, we’ve also been very conscious and mindful of the fact that each of the other territories in Canada also has aspirations for higher education opportunities. Being the first university to become established north of 60 is a huge achievement and we’re extremely proud of that. At the same time, we recognize the significance and importance of growth and transitions like this in other parts of the North too.”

Driving impact locally, nationally and beyond

“For Canadians, I think it’s really important to understand that northerners have had to go south to get certain education, even when it comes to studying issues of the North,” Dr. Barnes explains. “With YukonU, now they can learn about their own areas while still being immersed in the community; the university and the opportunities it provides will help to give northerners the chance to define what the Yukon will look like in the future and will help the North grow and thrive.”

In summarizing what this university means locally and broadly, Dr. Barnes has an impactful message: “When you think about it, all great cities in the world have great universities, and universities help to drive growth and business and infrastructure through education. With education also comes economic and social development, and I believe YukonU will bring more people to the Yukon and other parts of the North as well.”

“Canada’s north is attractive and there are so many features that attract learners, not only for programs that are relevant here, but experiences and learning that can also be taken away and applied all over Canada and beyond. I can’t say it enough—the potential of the North is truly unbelievable.”

For more information, please visit the Yukon College or Yukon University websites.

  1. “2018 full-time and part-time fall enrolment at Canadian universities,” Universities Canada website, “Enrolment by University” page, accessed February 2019.
  2. Yukon University website, accessed February 2019.
  3. “Infographic on Yukon’s history of land claims and self-government,” Yukon First Nation Self-Government website, accessed February 2019.

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