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OPINION | Conversation on N.W.T. university should be about collaboration, not competition

Many candidates in the upcoming territorial election have been speaking about an upcoming polytechnic university in the N.W.T., and where it should be headquartered. Instead, Julian Morse argues, we should be talking about how to make the benefits work for everyone.

Debate around university shouldn't focus on Yellowknife vs. Fort Smith vs. Inuvik, says councillor

A flag bearing the Aurora College logo flies in Fort Smith. Candidates in the region have pledged to keep the headquarters of a new polytechnic university there, while Yellowknife candidates have pledged to bring it to the territory's capital. Councillor Julian Morse says the discussion is missing the larger point. (Mario Di Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

With the 2019 territorial election campaign well underway, I've been pleased to see a number of candidates acknowledging the need for economic diversification in their platforms. Right now, more than ever, we need new ideas, innovation, and fresh vision to face oncoming economic challenges.

I believe one of the biggest opportunities for diversification in this territory is the knowledge economy, which, if harnessed effectively, could result in significant job creation and new residents moving here. 

Around the circumpolar world, many communities have built their economies around universities. It's a proven model, and one that can be done even in small jurisdictions like ours — a feasibility study confirmed the economic and social benefits a university could achieve here.

Our neighbours in the Yukon saw the potential of the knowledge economy years ago, and are now less than a year away from transitioning Yukon College to Yukon University, which boasts more than 500 jobs and 1,200 students from across Canada, internationally, and, notably, from our territory as well. Momentum is building, and there is a huge opportunity here to build upon the success of our circumpolar neighbours. 

To their credit, the territorial government has committed to transition Aurora College to a university, but the details of how this will be achieved are yet to be determined, and that is why this is a critically important election issue. Significant leadership and commitment are going to be needed from our new MLAs to see this project achieve its full potential for success.

A university should form a cornerstone of the territory's plan for economic diversification.

Several weeks ago, the minister of education announced the release of the NWT Post-Secondary Education Strategic Framework. While the document is high-level and forms just one step in the transition process, I believe it falls short of what a vision for post-secondary renewal needs to be. The vision and goals shared in the framework represent a repackaging of what Aurora College is already doing, rather than a bold new vision for something bigger.

Instead of arguing over who will get the headquarters, Julian Morse says territorial leaders should be ensuring that all communities reap the benefits that a new polytechnic university could provide, before the opportunity is lost. (Mario Di Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

While the framework does a great job of articulating the needs of our local students, who absolutely need to be at the centre of this new initiative, it falls short of identifying goals and a vision for attracting new students and growing beyond the existing college.

In fact, the foundational review, which spurred transformation of the college, warned against the risk of making past mistakes. It said the recommendations are a set of "breakthrough ideas" at risk of being whittled down.

"Will the outcome of an incremental or safer route lead to the creation of a higher education system in N.W.T. that meets the diverse needs of students, employers, industry and both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents of the territory?

"The assertion of this Foundational Review is that it will not and for the College to continue 'as is' and make only incremental improvements, will not result in a sustainable and long term solution for higher education in the N.W.T. for generations to come."

How do we achieve this together?

While significant debate is occurring regarding concerns related to this project, I believe we have lost sight of the conversation we should be having about how we are going to achieve this transformation together, as a territory. 

The vision to renew our post-secondary system should not be about taking something existing away from communities and simply centralizing it in Yellowknife. It should be about building upon our valuable existing resources and growing them beyond what we already have, adding the advantages our capital city brings to those of the communities to form a stronger whole. 

Yukon saw the potential of the knowledge economy years ago, Morse writes, and are now less than a year away from transitioning Yukon College to Yukon University. (Paul Tukker/CBC)

At the municipal level, we have been collaborating. In November 2018, the City of Yellowknife sent a delegation to Fort Smith at the town's invitation, and spent a day meeting with their mayor and council to discuss ways we could work together. The mayors of Yellowknife, Inuvik, and Fort Smith issued a joint press release to the education minister expressing mutual support for the project and emphasizing the benefits it could bring to not only campus communities, but many others as well.

Our communities are co-operating because we all want to realize and share in the benefits this transition could bring. We now need our territorial leaders to come together and show this kind of leadership. Our communities are stronger when we work together, and we need leadership at the territorial level that recognizes this and commits wholeheartedly to a bold new collaborative vision. 

We all want to realize and share in the benefits this transition could bring.

Our goal should be to create a world-class post-secondary institution that attracts students and researchers from across Canada and the world, and provides northerners with high-quality, relevant education that can only be delivered here.

Imagine a place where people could learn about and from our various Indigenous governments who have blazed the trails of reconciliation and self-governance, and have so much to teach the world. Imagine a northern mining research and innovation centre. Imagine communities building upon their significant agricultural potential, and serving as innovation and research hubs for cold-weather farming.

These are just a few ideas of some of the opportunities we could harness. There are many more. 

It is time for us to come together and realize the potential we can create when we work together, and understand the significant risk of being left behind while the world innovates around us.

Transforming the college is not a simple project, and it will not be easy. It cannot succeed on the backburner of the territorial agenda, nor can we allow divisiveness and doubt to stand in its way. A university should form a cornerstone of the territory's plan for economic diversification; it needs adequate funding, and it needs to be a significant focus of the upcoming assembly.

If it is not, I fear the opportunity will be lost.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Julian Morse is a Yellowknife city councillor and chair of the city's university/post-secondary advisory committee. He has a diploma in environment and natural resources technology from Aurora College, and is currently working on a master's degree by distance at Royal Roads University.

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