N.W.T's 'bush university' upset about exclusion from long-term public funding

The Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning is voicing concerns that proposed territorial legislation would exclude it from core public funding.

Dechinta says decision is fiscally, socially irresponsible and sets northern students up for failure

Dechinta's students are taught by elders and university professors, as well as Indigenous activists and artists. The university is concerned that a proposed territorial legislation would exclude it from public funding. (dechinta.ca)

The Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning — the N.W.T.'s 'bush university' — is voicing concerns that proposed territorial legislation would exclude it from core public funding.

The issue stems from a new discussion paper by the territorial government on the governance of post-secondary institutions — the first step toward accrediting such institutions in the territory.

The paper says Indigenous institutes, which are Indigenous-governed and operated, would fall under the private sector and outside of the publicly funded post-secondary system.

In its 11-page response, Dechinta said the decision is fiscally and socially irresponsible and sets northern students up for failure. The school also said it ignores the territorial government's responsibility to protect treaty rights and provide quality public education.

Dechinta students gather in a tent. (Submitted by Robby Dick)

"I think everybody wants and deserves accountable, highest quality post-secondary [education] and that we need to support all of the institutions in the N.W.T.," said Erin Freeland Ballantyne, dean of land based academics at Dechinta.

Dechinta also expressed concerns the proposed legislation provides no pathway where it can transition to a publicly-funded Indigenous institute or a public university.

It said it has been working toward establishing an Indigenous university in the territory since 2009.

Dechinta also criticized the government's discussion paper for failing to consider the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People and research on Indigenous education.

The school noted it's been offering university-accredited on-the-land programming with southern partners like the University of Alberta since 2010. Currently, it offers 16 courses to upwards of 30 to 40 students annually and said it receives four to five times the demand.

"Students are coming because they want a different kind of education. They want an education that's hands-on, that deals with relevant issues in their communities," Freeland Ballantyne said.

Former student Jiah Marlowe, who currently runs the Dechinta kids program, also attested to its benefits.

"It's given me the opportunity to work with culture and on the land and with my own elders in my own territory. It's opened a lot of  doors for me," she said.

Private organizations autonomous, says government

According to Dechinta, core public funding would provide it stability, allowing it to expand and plan for the long-term.

Its current three-year, $1.5 million contribution agreement with the N.W.T. government, its first multi-year funding agreement, ends next March.

The territory's Department of Education, Culture and Employment said private organizations are distinct as they remain autonomous from the government, while programming and tuition of public post-secondary institutions are more regulated by the government.

While private institutions would be excluded from core public funding, it noted they would still be eligible for funding in the form of contribution agreements and grants.

The department also said its proposed legislation aligns with Canadian standards. For a public university to be established under the proposed legislation, it will have to meet certain criteria and be supported by the Legislative Assembly, it added.

Elder instructors Paul Mackenzie and Archie Sangris show students how to build a birch bark canoe. (Submitted by Pat Kane)

Dechinta is currently registered as a non-profit under the N.W.T. Societies Act. It has developed its own mandate and programming and is governed by by the Canadian Revenue Agency and community membership.

Last July, Dechinta held its first official AGM after it was revealed that its board of directors over the previous seven years had not been officially appointed.

Along with territorial contributions, Dechinta also receives funding from the federal government and its foundational partners as well as revenue from donations, tuition and program fees, totalling $1,297,798 during the 2016-17 fiscal year.

That year, Dechinta spent $454,342 on facilities, accounting for 35 per cent of its operating expenses. It also spent $233,772 on wages and benefits and $175,013 on instructors.

The majority of Dechinta's on-the-land activities take place at Blachford Lake Lodge, according to the school's website. The lodge is owned by Mike Freeland, who's father to Freeland Ballantyne.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Dechinta partnered with the University of British Columbia since 2010. In fact, it was with University of Alberta.
    Mar 21, 2018 11:17 AM CT