The University of Winnipeg has announced it will receive an $800,000 US grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to launch a master's degree program in indigenous peoples and sustainable development practices.

The program will combine training in health and natural and social sciences, along with courses in management to "address the world's most challenging problems while creating leaders in indigenous development studies," school officials said in a press release.

Those problems include human-rights issues, along with poverty and climate change.

Hands-on curriculum

University president Lloyd Axworthy called it a huge honour to receive the grant, as dozens of the world's top universities were in the running.

The degree program will be delivered in partnership with other universities but the U of W will lead it, officials said.

"We have been selected as the centre as the hub for indigenous development for the entire network making us the global centre of research for the 350 million indigenous people around the world," said Axworthy.

Graduate students accepted into the program should expect to get their hands dirty, Axworthy said.

"Rather than focus on traditional classroom study, the [program] will develop practical skills through comprehensive periods of field training to provide hands-on problem-solving experiences for students," he said.

Courses will also use web-based technologies to promote a "global classroom" ideal by sharing information with schools in other parts of the world, officials said.

Classes likely to start in 2011

Pending internal approval by the university's senate, classes in the program could begin at the start of the 2011 academic year.

Between 20 and 25 students will be accommodated in the inaugural year.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation bills itself as one of the largest independent foundations in the U.S.

The foundation's stated mission is to build a more "just, verdant and peaceful world" by supporting "creative people and effective institutions."

The foundation says it works to defend human rights, advance global conservation and security and make cities better places, among other things.