Indigenous leaders fight for bigger role in new N.W.T. university

Indigenous leaders in the N.W.T. are asking for a bigger role in Aurora College’s transition into a polytechnic university.

“This is our golden opportunity to go back to who we are as Indigenous people,” chief says

Aurora College will become a polytechnic university by 2025. (Mario De Ciccio/CBC)

Indigenous leaders in the N.W.T. are asking for a bigger role in Aurora College's transition into a polytechnic university. 

Hotıì ts'eeda, a research unit for the Tłı̨chǫ government, released a discussion paper earlier this month arguing for a new governance structure at the university. 

The discussion paper is in response to a discussion paper released last August by the N.W.T. Department of Education, Culture and Employment, soliciting feedback  about the governance of the future polytechnic. It suggested two governing bodies with at least five board members who are residents of the territory, and three who are Indigenous. 

The Hotıì ts'eeda proposal also includes two councils to govern the university. 

The first council would resemble a board of governors, but would include individuals from the N.W.T. with a mixed set of skills who would be responsible for the university's budget and setting the university's mandate. The council would include students and staff. 

The second council is similar to a senate, but would include a mix of academics and leaders from Indigenous communities. There would also be room on this council for the N.W.T. government and rotating seats for "major industry partners" like the N.W.T. Chamber of Commerce, or those in the social sector. 

Dr. John B. Zoe, chair of Hotıì ts'eeda and co-author of the discussion paper, said he was motivated to reply to the government's first look at how to govern the college because it didn't go far enough to include Indigenous peoples. 

"It doesn't take into consideration what the Indigenous communities are about," Zoe told CBC, talking about on-the-land programming and traditional knowledge. 

John B. Zoe, chair of Hotii T'seeda, says a new governance structure at the N.W.T.'s upcoming polytechnic university would better reflect the people of the North. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

"We've never been part of something that's been growing. We've always been subject to it, but not in a participating way." 

R.J. Simpson, the minister of education, culture and employment, said that engagement with Indigenous leaders and stakeholders is valued and important to the success of the transformation of the college into a polytechnic university.

He said the input he's heard about the transformation of the college into a polytechnic university through discussion papers "was overall a positive experience."

"However, we will continuously adapt our engagement approach based on the feedback we receive," he said. "There will also be opportunity for additional input during the legislative process by all partners, stakeholders and the public."

Governance style would reflect northern culture

The Hotıì ts'eeda model also recommends a president with a PhD, and that the university's chancellor should be a traditional knowledge holder.

Governing Aurora in this new way, Zoe said, would make this university uniquely northern. It would also help convince N.W.T. students to stay in the territory, instead of leaving to study at Yukon University or down south. 

"We can do something that has to do with Indigenous resurgence, learning about what we have," he said. "We're continually ignoring half the population … instead of trying to strengthen our way of life." 

Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya says he wants to see elders involved in teaching courses at the university, like instructing prospective nurses on traditional medicines. (Sidney Cohen/CBC News)

Norman Yakeleya, chief of the Dene Nation, supports the proposed model by Hotıì ts'eeda. 

"This is our golden opportunity to go back to who we are as Dene people and Indigenous people," Yakeleya told CBC. 

Model suggests Indigenous resurgence studies

The education department's most recent discussion paper on Aurora College, released in October, suggests four areas of study instead: skilled trades and technology; earth resources and environmental management; northern health, education and community services; and business and leadership. 

These areas of teaching and research provide the university with "a basis for planning and implementing new and enhanced programming" at campuses and community learning centres, the report reads. 

Zoe said the education department's proposed areas of study are "heavy-laden" with mining and the public service, two of the biggest areas of employment in the N.W.T. 

The Hotıì ts'eeda model includes six additional schools for students, including schools dedicated to Indigenous resurgence, and land connection and sustainability. Within the schools, students could take a masters in Indigenous governance, knowledge and culture, or classes in northern agriculture. 

"We're ... making sure that what's been ignored for a long time, that there's space for it." - Dr. John B. Zoe, chair of Hotii T'seeda 

Zoe said the suggestions in their paper are not meant to replace what the territory's working group has already come up with, but to add Indigenous knowledge to that list. 

"[It's about] making sure that what's been ignored for a long time, that there's space for it," he said. 

Leaders want more roles for elders

David Poitras, chief of Salt River First Nation, tells a story to show how important knowledge from the elders is. 

One elder caught all the big beavers in the river, while everyone else struggled with small ones. 

A young person asked the elder how they were so successful. The elder told the young person to put the traps lower in the water, so the little beavers swim over them - and the big ones get caught. 

David Poitras, chief of Salt River First Nation, said there could be a loss of knowledge if elders are not included in the new polytechnic. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

It's this kind of knowledge, including survival on the land, spirituality and how to live in the bush, that Poitras wants to see included in the plans for the territory's first polytechnic. 

"To me, they don't involve enough elders in what they do. It's getting to be a loss of knowledge," he said. 

[Elders] have a lot to offer, and I think it's time for the territorial government to acknowledge that." 

Yakeleya said they want the university to recognize how important traditional knowledge is to people in the communities. 

"These knowledge keepers, they are equivalent to professors and teachers in our community," he said. 

"They are the keepers of our way of life … and we've got to look at how to incorporate them into our education system." 

Yakeleya and Poitras suggest having traditional knowledge holders involved in teaching some of these courses. For example, Yakeleya said a nursing program should include lessons on harvesting and working with traditional medicines.