Transitioning from Yukon College to Yukon University: YukonU President Karen Barnes

By Justin Barnes
Yukon University. ©

Justin Barnes

After years of hard work and dedication, Yukon University ( was officially launched on 19 May 2020. On the day of the launch, Prime Minister Trudeau celebrated Yukon University, its transition to a degree-granting university, and its importance to the region and the country during his daily news conference: “young people have the power to change our country for the better and it’s up to us to make sure that no matter where they live, they have the tools to chase their dreams and succeed.” In this ‘Polar Matters’ interview, Karen Barnes, President and Vice Chancellor at Yukon University, speaks to Justin Barnes, Fellow at Polar Research and Policy Initiative, about Yukon College’s successful transition to become Canada’s first university in the territories. This interview took place in February, prior to COVID-19 response measures across Canada.

Justin Barnes: Why transition to a university?

Karen Barnes: That is a question that has been around here for quite a long time. Maybe for 50 years, they’ve been talking about it. I think there’s a couple of important things to note. One is that, in 1973, when the First Nations of Yukon went to Ottawa to first talk to Pierre Trudeau about self-government, they brought a document with them called Together Today for our Children Tomorrow, and in that document, they talked about the value of having a university in the North that would allow young people to stay home because if people wanted to get educated, they had to leave the territory and often they didn’t come back. And so, it was hard to build capacity in the new governments when there wasn’t appropriate training for people to do the work that they needed, get the education they needed, to really build those governments. The government funds students to go outside of the territory to university. It makes much more sense to keep them here in the territory, getting their education at home – and it is a North-focused education.

The other thing is really that most of the research that’s done in the North, much of the policy work that’s done in the North, a lot of the decision making around how money is spent in the North, happens in southern Canada, whether it be Ottawa of course, but also southern universities that have been doing research in the North for decades and not really leaving that research behind, but rather taking it back with them when they leave, and the communities don’t benefit from that research. It really became important that there needed to be an institution where people could study the North and be in the North when they do it, that northerners could inform that research in a better way, and that the research would stay and be used and applied to the problems and issues that are happening in the North. Especially now with climate change and, you know, with the devolution from territorial governments, there really needs to be a lot of people with strong backgrounds and experience in those areas living in the North and really looking at the issues that are emerging and doing the research needed to address them. So, it’s time. Somebody in the University of the Arctic once said to me that “it’s time for the North to define its own destiny” and that’s really what it’s about.

Justin Barnes: What are the primary goals of Yukon University moving forward?

Karen Barnes: Well, first and foremost, it’s to inspire young people in the North to further their education and to study issues of the North. One of the big goals is to create a body of knowledge through research around the North and northern issues both on the physical and natural sciences, but also the social sciences and humanities. And to celebrate the literature and the culture, as well as look at the issues that are facing us with climate change and population change and all those things. I think we really want to keep young people in the North. People who grew up here. One of our goals is really to expand the education around science and tech, because that’s something that’s really lacking in the North. A lot of students who pursue careers in science all have to go south. It’s not something that’s going to be immediate with us, but, thanks to investment from the federal government, we’re going to build a science building next year, and that’s going to be the start of that kind of progress towards making more science available for students. I think it’s about aspiration, building aspiration. I think universities can do that. We’ve had colleges, of course, in the North for a long time, but they’ve been very focused on vocational job readiness as opposed to building bodies of knowledge, asking difficult questions, creating discourse around the issues. Those things universities can do, and I think that’s going to really broaden the communication and broaden the self-confidence of northerners.

Justin Barnes: What are some of the education needs of the Yukon that the university will directly address?

Karen Barnes: Science is one for sure; science and tech. I feel really strongly about that, because a lot of communities [in the North] end their school at grade eight or grade nine and kids have to move to go to high school, so they often don’t. Many of those communities have no science facilities at all, so they don’t get exposed to any kind of classroom-based science. They have a huge laboratory outside their door in the land, but they don’t always use it or take advantage of it. One of the things we’re trying to do at the new science building is create an understanding of how you can use the land as a place of study and learning and try to make sure that people are aware of that. We [also] have a teacher education program that we’re trying to do that with as well, to train the next generation of teachers to look at the world differently and use the world around them.

Justin Barnes: What role do Yukon First Nations play in developing the programs? At the college, because I think there’s been a history there, but also moving forward into the university. What kind of role do they play?

Karen Barnes: We have a committee called the President’s Advisory Committee on First Nations Initiatives. It is made up of a representative from each of the 14 First Nations. Plus, we have people from our neighbouring First Nations in Northwest Territories and British Columbia. They meet four times a year for two days, and they provide input into all of our programs. Every time we propose a new program, it goes to them to talk about first, and then, as the curriculum is developing, they have input into the curriculum, or at least they see it and give feedback. They make requests for new programming; they also help us with defining research and just making sure that we are doing appropriate protocol around research and activities, so they’ve been really active. We also have that connection with the leadership table [Chiefs]. I speak to the leadership table when we’re introducing new ideas or new programs and listen to them when they have feedback about what’s going on in our programs. We have a very close connection, even when we have community activities. We have programs going on in small communities, and we have learning plans that have to be signed off by the First Nation before they can be approved at the college. Any kind of new training or new programming, they see it first before we fund it.

Justin Barnes: How do you see Yukon University contributing to reconciliation in Canada?

Karen Barnes: Well, we’ve been recognised for a lot of the work we’re doing with community engagement. Last year, we hosted a summer institute called Perspectives on Reconciliation, where we had 67 presidents, vice presidents and Indigenous leads from Canadian universities and colleges here for eight days. The McConnell Foundation funded that activity for us, and it was a really great opportunity for leadership in post-secondary to talk about what the challenges facing us as institutions are: how do we deal with things like traditional knowledge? How do we do respectful research on the land? How do we represent the voice of First Nations in research and programming? All of those questions. And I think we have made it a really important part of what we do.

In our new legislation, the Yukon University Act, there is a lot of talk about the obligation of the university and the government to consult with First Nations on programming and research. We have language right at the beginning – that the purpose of the university is to meet the spirit and intent of the self-government agreements. We have an obligation now, by legislation, to address it. We deliver a mandatory competency course for all students, staff and faculty. They are required to go through a history and culture program on Yukon First Nations, and we make sure that all curriculum goes to our First Nations division to make sure that there’s no ceremony broken, no protocols broken, and that we’re representing the voice appropriately. That’s all curriculum, whether it’s social sciences or physical sciences, they all go through just for that eye. At the Senate table, we have mandatory representation of First Nation voices. So that’s another place where there’s checks and balances. For our board of governors, they’ve created a document that has just been approved that they’re going to be putting up on the website. They have come up with a list of indigenisation principles that the board is now going to live by. Indigenisation is now pretty much across the whole institution, which is cool.

Justin Barnes: What does having a university mean for northerners and the territory moving forward?

Karen Barnes: Well, it’s funny because you just change a word, ‘college’ to ‘university’, and the difference is quite noticeable in the way that the community is responding. We already are hearing that people are getting excited about the opportunity to have a university in the community. I think they’re starting to pay more attention to what we’re doing, which is interesting. My greatest hope is that young people in the North will start to seriously consider university, whereas before, if it meant leaving, many wouldn’t have considered it, but now they have another option. So, you know, we’re not going to have a lot of programming immediately, but over the years it’ll grow, and slowly there will be more and more opportunities for young people to stay here and study. I think that’s going to make a huge difference. It’s going to be a real game changer.

Justin Barnes: What programs are being offered and what kind of programs do you see the university offering in the future?

Karen Barnes: You can actually go on and there’s some information about the university. But one of the things we’ve done right from the very start is we’ve said that we’re going to focus the university on three kind of niche areas. These are areas that we chose because we have strengths in them and because we think they’re really important for the North, and that northerners need to be spending time on them. One is climate change, of course, because we’re warming faster than anybody, and we’re seeing the impacts very quickly right now. You know, there’s lots of impact on food harvesting and infrastructure, like roads and buildings and all that kind of thing. So that’s a big area. We have a post degree climate change certificate program, which is aimed at policymakers and looking at how you create new policy around climate change. We also have lots of research going on with permafrost. So that’s one area. The second is Indigenous self-governance and determination. We have eleven self-governing First Nations here. Our first degree is a Bachelor of Arts in Indigenous Governance. We’re just in the early stages of building an institute, a research institute focused on the new modern treaties. The third niche area is resource development because of the mining history – of course, the gold rush. We are focusing on both meeting the workforce needs of the mining industry, but also looking at remediation and environmentally sustainable mining practices and mine closure. It’s the full life cycle of resource development. That’s a big area of research for us as well.

Justin Barnes: What have been the primary steps towards this transition?

Karen Barnes: It’s been going on for 10 years, the entire period of my presidency really. One thing we wanted to focus on was quality and to make sure that students understood that the degrees that we were going to offer would be the same as anywhere in Canada. We asked the government to join with Alberta’s Quality Assurance Council and so all of our degrees are approved through Campus Alberta Quality Council. That means that they meet the same standards that Alberta degrees meet, but also degrees in the rest of Canada. So that’s been really good, and they’ve been up and visited and have given us the stamp of approval on degree delivery preparedness and the resources to deliver each of our approved degrees. We will be pursuing a membership with Universities Canada, so we’re just working on that. Now that the legislation has passed, we can start that application process. We have also been building our research capacity. We’ve had a research centre here for almost thirty years, but in the last decade, we’ve really ramped it up and developed our organisational infrastructure, such as building all of the policies needed around research. Then it’s about getting the community onside. So, building a sense of ownership within Yukon for the university and building the excitement and making sure people [understand] we are reflecting the needs of the North. That was particularly important for the First Nations. We wanted to make sure their voice was very much part of it. That’s been a really important piece for us.

Justin Barnes: It sounds like it’s been an eventful journey.

Karen Barnes: Yeah, it’s been fun. I mean, you start with not knowing what you don’t know, and we’ve gone out, and we’ve been so lucky in finding tremendous partners across this country and across the circumpolar world who have been really willing to help us, support us and teach us, and that’s been really valuable. Lots of presidents have come on campus, lots of experts to help us, and it’s been really fun meeting everybody.

Justin Barnes: I’m sure they’ve learned a lot from being at Yukon College as well.

Karen Barnes: Yeah, it’s been reciprocal I think.

Justin Barnes: What have been some of the biggest challenges or barriers throughout the transition?

Karen Barnes: Well, we’re small. We’re very small, and there’s only so many things you can ask people to do at any given time. So [working within our] capacity to change, you know, we had to make sure we weren’t burning people out. That’s a big one. The second might be recruitment of people. There’s huge demand for highly qualified people in the North, and so you’re always competing with government and private industry and others, for the people who are willing to come North or who are in the North. So that’s a big issue. But, again, we’re hoping that, as we build the university, it will increase our attraction for people in the South to come or people across the North. And for ongoing funding, we have to work closely with both governments, federal and territorial, to find ways to fund the university. Everyone’s on the same page – that it’s really important and key for the North. I think there’s lots to support, so we just have to figure out what that funding formula will look like. It will happen, it’s just in progress.

Justin Barnes: What can other territorial colleges learn from Yukon University as they work towards their own transitions in the future?

Karen Barnes: We work closely together, the other two territorial college presidents and I. There are a couple of things. One is that both those colleges are still part of their government. It’s going to be really important, at some point, that the institutions become more independent and autonomous, and that will happen through creating a Board of Governors that have responsibility for their governance. That’s a big piece, I think. The whole structure of the academy, like Senate and bicameral governance and faculty voice and all of those things, still have to be built in those colleges. I think we’ve come a long way in that arena with our Senate, but I think one of the northern colleges doesn’t have a Senate and the other is just starting one, so they’ve got some work to do there. I think it’s just about making sure they create a vision and then stick to the vision — that was what we did. Ours was the understanding that we needed to really reflect the North, build on our strengths, work from where we already were, and build off that. I think the other one is that we are each the only institution in our territory, so we have to make sure that we still continue to do the training and education that’s needed at all levels, including upgrading, trades, certificates and diplomas. We’re still going to do all of those things, we’ve just added the University to it. I think that’s going to be important in the other regions as well.

Justin Barnes: People have been working towards this goal for many years now. What does it mean to you and to all those that you’ve been working with towards this goal to successfully reach the transition to YukonU?

Karen Barnes: Well, I think it’s a tremendous point of pride for people. We had a number of naysayers when we started this and have continued to have them throughout the whole journey. Lots of people have said you will never make it; it’s not possible; Yukon is too small; nobody’s going to come here. You know, so lots and lots of resistance from both inside and outside, and I think we’ve managed to turn the community’s impressions around, and we now have lots of support. That really makes me proud – that we’ve been able to bring people into the vision and that they’ve embraced it.

Dr Karen Barnes has been the President and Vice Chancellor of Yukon University since 2011. Currently, Dr Barnes chairs the governing committees for the Yukon Research Centre and the Northern Institute of Social Justice. In addition, she has served as a board member of the Mining Industry Human Resource Council of Canada and was appointed to the Saskatchewan Higher Education Quality Assurance Board in 2012, where she served as Vice-Chair until 2018. In August 2018, she was appointed to the Board of Directors for the University of the Arctic in Norway. Dr Barnes co-chaired the Colleges and Institutes Canada committee that developed the Indigenous Protocol for Canadian colleges and institutes. She currently works with other college and university presidents in Canada to raise the profile of colleges serving rural and remote communities. She volunteers in the community on the board of the Yukon Imagination Library, as AVP sponsorship for the 2012 and 2020 Arctic Winter Games and as a founding member of 100 Women Who Care Whitehorse. Dr Barnes holds a BA and a Professional After Degree in Education from the University of British Columbia, and a M.Ed (Adult Education) and a Doctorate in Education (Policy Studies) from the University of Alberta.

Justin Barnes is a Fellow at Polar Research and Policy Initiative and the Assistant Editor of the Arctic Yearbook 2019: Redefining Arctic Security. At present, he is also pursuing an internship at the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA). He holds a MA in Sustainability Studies from Trent University’s School of the Environment, where his research focused on the sustainable development of Canada’s coastal communities on the Arctic Ocean. As part of this research, Justin explored the concept of environmental security, the role this form of security plays in shaping social, economic, and environmental policies, and its influence on resource and infrastructure development in the Arctic. Justin is also actively involved in the sport of Sailing and represented Canada internationally on the World Sailing circuit as an athlete on the Canadian Sailing Team for five years (2013 – 2018).


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