Building ivory towers in the North

Tim Hortons is a far cry from Greece’s ancient agora, where philosophers met to discuss exciting new ideas.

Tim Hortons is a far cry from Greece’s ancient agora, where philosophers met to discuss exciting new ideas.

But NDP leader Todd Hardy couldn’t find any olive trees.

And besides, it’s still a bit chilly for a toga.

So, instead, he used the bustling coffee shop as a forum for debate and discussion, airing his newest platform Wednesday morning, over steaming cups of Joe.

“I believe the time has come for the Yukon to have a university,” said Hardy during a Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce business luncheon Tuesday.

“And tomorrow morning, at 7 a.m., I’ll be at Tim Hortons. And I’ll even buy the first cup of coffee for anyone who joins me.

“We can talk, we can dream, we can make history together.”

But, as it turned out, no one from the chamber luncheon showed up for coffee.

“I think they thought I was joking,” said Hardy.

But plenty of Yukoners sat down with the NDP leader this morning to talk about their concerns.

And the university idea did come up.

A university would give Yukon youth the opportunity to pursue their formal education in the North, said Hardy.

Universities are good for business — there’s no such thing as a poor university town, he added.

And they attract investment and create lots of year-round jobs.

“The economic benefits of a university aren’t boom-and-bust; they last and last — they carry on through what I believe you call the ‘bumper season,’” he said.

But this did not satisfy Tourism Industry Association spokeswoman Patty Balsillie, who attended yesterday’s luncheon.

“Where do you see capital investment as it relates to the growing economy in the Yukon — what kind of things are going to happen to support your university?” Balsillie said.

“Something has to punch the economy forward in order to pay for all that.”

A university is not driven by other economies; it’s an economy unto itself, said Hardy in response.

“You can see this in small towns; it’s a huge benefit for small business and tourism, and it’s what we need.”

A university North of 60 would support fields of research and study that aren’t available elsewhere, and would draw students and faculty from around the world, particularly circumpolar regions, he said.

Hardy’s son is just about to return from Siberia, where he was studying at a remote, Russian university.

To get home, he has to take a 22-hour bus ride to the nearest train station, then a 100-hour train ride to St. Petersburg, to get on a plane, said Hardy.

“So this should give you an idea of how far north he was — yet there was a university in that town and he got there through Yukon connections.”

There are 17 universities in Atlantic Canada, and not one in the North, he added.

Hardy was inspired by the University of Northern British Columbia’s story.

In the late 1980s, some local business people in Prince George got together over coffee.

That was a model Hardy hoped to copy this morning at Tim Hortons.

Prince George, like many other small towns, relied on one industry, and its economy was struggling.

Eventually one of the business people piped up, “You, know what we need — a university,” said Hardy.

At first, people probably thought he was crazy, he added.

But the rest is history.

In 1990, BC’s NDP government, under Mike Harcourt, announced its plans for a remote university in the northern pulp-mill town.

It was only seven years from the conversation at Tim Hortons till the university’s opening, said Hardy.

“Why? Because it was an idea whose time had come.”

In its first year, UNBC had 1,400 students. Last year, it had 3,700.

“I believe the time has come for Yukon to have a university, and you and I can make it happen,” said Hardy.

“If we build it, they will come.”

There will be a university in the North, he added.

“And if we don’t build it, you can rest assured that Nunavut or the Northwest Territories will.”

Liberal leader Arthur Mitchell agreed with Hardy that a northern university was on the way.

“And I would be happy to see it in the Yukon,” he said.

“But all of us have to look at what the costs are.”

Mitchell was particularly worried about compromising the identity of Yukon College.

“People go to college to complete skills and learn trades, and we’re already worried there aren’t enough trades people,” he said.

“We don’t want to lose the identity of Yukon College.”

And Mitchell isn’t certain the territory could sustain both a college and a university.

“They won’t co-exist within the same institution and, if we move towards a university, we have to look at the number of people that won’t be moving toward university, because not everyone chooses to take this path.

“We have to provide multiple paths for different people,” he said.

Mitchell was not sure of the Liberal platform on a northern university, but was interested in studying it.

“It would be better than spending all these resources studying ports we don’t have and railways that may never come,” he said, taking a shot at the Yukon Party.

“I know there are naysayers,” said Hardy.

“But once it’s built, people will say, ‘Why didn’t we do this earlier?’”

“And if the territories or Nunavut build a university first, we’ll be left scratching our heads wondering why we didn’t build it.

“It’s in our control — it’s not some decision that will be made in distant boardrooms — we can do it.”