Canadian universities and colleges gathering in the Yukon for reconciliation discussion

Representatives from 31 universities and colleges will be visiting Dawson City, Whitehorse, Carcross

Yukon College will be hosting a first-of-its-kind gathering of Canadian post-secondary institutions beginning today to discuss the roles they play in reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, and to share ideas on how they can all do better.

Entitled “Perspectives on Reconciliation,” the inaugural event will see representatives from 31 colleges and universities visiting Dawson City, Whitehorse and Carcross from Aug. 9 to 15, learning from each other and their host First Nations — Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, Ta’an Kwäch’än Council, Kwanlin Dün First Nation and Carcross/Tagish First Nation.

The event, or “summer institute,” as it’s being officially referred to, was organized together by Yukon College, Vancouver Island University (VIU) and the McConnell Foundation, a private organization with a focus on social innovation. Activities include panels, group discussions and site visits and tours.

“One of the things that we’re really excited about … (is) everyone’s coming with their strengths and their weaknesses and the areas they really want to improve,” McConnell Foundation program director Chad Lubelsky told the News.

“So we’re really keen to have on display sort of the arc of the possible, where different institutions, it might not have occurred to them to do a type of activity or event or program, and then to see other institutions doing it very successfully, it shows that it often is a possibility and a pathway to say like, ‘Oh, okay, maybe I can bring that to my institution.’”

Yukon College’s work on reconciliation efforts — for example, its active partnerships with the 14 Yukon First Nation and the supports available for Indigenous students — made it the perfect fit to host the event.

“What we’re seeing is that there’s an increasing number of schools that were interested in the work of Yukon College,” he said.

“… When we look at Yukon College, what we see is really a model of an institution that has a very wide and deep civic footprint in the community that it serves, right?” he added. “So, you know, our colleges and universities are public institutions and we see Yukon College as being a real leader in putting that ‘public’ part of their missions at the forefront.”

Yukon College president Karen Barnes told the News that the institute has been in the works since last fall, with the idea first coming up at a reconciliation forum hosted by Universities Canada (Yukon College is in the process of becoming a university).

“So we’ve been working for the last little while … as a college, really working on the story of reconciliation and improving our practice here, and that came to the attention of people across Canada,” Barnes said.

One of Yukon College’s strengths, she said, is meaningful partnerships with Yukon First Nations and communities, and recognizing the importance of those in breaking down barriers and ensuring the success of Indigenous students.

“It’s about reciprocity, really, and balance,” Barnes said. “I think that for so long, we’ve held the power and we need to recognize that that power is creating a lot of barriers and a lot of bad practice and we need to recognize that our institutions have got structures that are probably not that effective in advancing the needs of First Nations communities across the country, and particularly the self-determination needs of communities that are self-governing.

“And so for me, it’s about listening, it’s about being able to come to the table as equal partners and both have that decision-making, shared decision-making table.”

That approach goes beyond just the classroom or the campus, Barnes explained — it’s about working with First Nations governments and communities to build capacity, too.

“And so that’s about reframing how we do partnerships and some examples of that might be things like the work we’ve done with Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in on their farm, where we come in and just really support the initial stages, help them find and identify funding, get the thing started, but then really, it’s their project and they run with it,” she said. “Same thing with the energy project in Kluane or the solar project in Old Crow, it’s just really about being the support that will allow them to run and thrive.”

VIU president Deborah Saucier, said she was excited to visit the Yukon for the first time and hear what other institutions are doing. One thing she’ll be sharing, she said, is her university’s work surrounding the Canada Learning Bond, a federal program which provides money for post-secondary education to every child belonging to families making under a certain annual income.

VIU has a full-time coordinator who goes into the university’s communities, finds “brand-new kids, brand-new babies” and helps their parents sign up for the bond.

“If we sign a child up for the Canada Learning Bond the day they’re born without their parents contributing one cent, by the time they graduate Grade 12, they will have $8,000 in the bank for any post-secondary program they want — hairdressing, a bachelor of arts, whatever it is that they want,” she explained.

“That kind of thing is so incredibly important, because we know that when a child is in kindergarten, if they know money has been put aside for post-secondary, they’re five times more likely to not only graduate high school but to go and get their post-secondary education.”

Nationally, only about 17 per cent of eligible people actually apply for the program, Saucier said, but in the Nanaimo area, that number’s closer to 40 per cent.

“I would like to challenge every university to dedicate a resource in their home community to go out and do that work,” she said.

Contact Jackie Hong at

Indigenous reconcilliation