Members of the Legislative Assembly and staff running the only Canadian land-based post-secondary outfit are fighting together for increased funding to provide wider access to the North’s sole university institution.
Proponents for the increasingly popular Dechinta Bush University Centre for Research and Learning agree that the institute is underfunded for the demand it receives and are asking that the school be recognized by the NWT Education Act to amend the issue.
Education Minister Jackson Lafferty said he is a long-time supporter of Dechinta’s work, having been involved with the organization since its inception in 2009. He indicated he had been expecting the request for some time.
“We are currently in discussions with Dechinta and also the president of Aurora College and the U of (Alberta),” he said, vaguely addressing plans to expand funding to the school. “There is a proposal that’s been discussed and we are moving forward on that. I will be updating the standing committee in due process.”
Lafferty also said he would be looking into federal funding opportunities.
While appreciative of the education department’s increasing financial support for the school, dean Dr. Erin Freeland-Ballantyne says there has been a lot of talk and little action.
“We need to see real action,” she said. “The University of Alberta has been behind us for five years accrediting us, giving us in-kind services, and they’re waiting for the GNWT to take a real step.”
The need for the funding is evidenced by the statistics. In the 2014-2015 school year, 97 applied to Dechinta’s programming with only 30 open spaces. For the upcoming spring semester, 34 applicants have applied for 10 available spots.
“People from all over the country are talking about this as the evidence-based best practice for land-based post-secondary and we don’t have significant core support from our own government,” Freeland-Ballantyne said. “I think that feels really disappointing to the students that want to come, especially most of our students who are from the regions, and they’re not getting that support. We’re still talking about how important it is to get an education but the support isn’t there.”
Over the 2014-2015 school year, Dechinta was given $480,000 total from the departments of Education, Culture and Employment (ECE), Municipal and Community Affairs (MACA) and Environment and Natural Resources (ENR). It also receives funding from several foundations and private donors.
Representatives from Dechinta note that once it is recognized by the Education Act, it will be eligible for $5 million in core funding. This would allow not only for the inclusion of more students, but also for the creation of 32 part-time jobs, eight full-time jobs and 115 seasonal jobs outside of Yellowknife.
“With core funding, (we would) hire coordinators inside every single community outside Yellowknife,” Freeland-Ballantyne said. “That community coordinator would work with a full-time regional coordinator – and with all of the seasonal elders and leaders and professors – to start organizing, with the support of our university partners and indigenous faculty, semesters in all the regions. What it would really mean is a lot of boots on the ground, developing and running programming to get students out on the land and to start moving people through earning their degrees in relevant courses.”
With core funding, Dechinta expects the number of Aboriginal degree holders could increase by five per cent over the next four years. Still, Freeland-Ballantyne said, that’s not enough to fill the ever-increasing number of jobs that require a university degree.
“If we don’t want to be filling Northern jobs with people from Ontario that have degrees, we need to train our people with a relevant degree when we have that capacity in the North now,” she said.
Dechinta’s courses, accredited by the University of Alberta and McGill University, are designed to address uniquely Northern issues as identified by people living above the 60th parallel. The interdisciplinary topics covered, in addition to traditional Aboriginal on-the-land practices, include governance, law, health, research, policy, sustainable economic development, writing and communications.
As of now, Dechinta offers professional development courses and a minor degree in Indigenous Studies, which is in the process of being expanded to a full degree. Starting this summer, it will also provide an on-the-land masters level course for educators delivering Northern Studies programming.
The university boasts a zero per cent dropout rate over 250 completed courses. Of its graduates, 49 per cent have pursued further post-secondary education, 57 per cent are employed and 97 per cent have remained as part of the NWT labour force.
“It’s an opportunity for the North to lead and to do something that the rest of the country is watching,” Freeland-Ballantyne said.