Mike DeGagné, the new president of Yukon University, poses for a photo at the Whitehorse campus on July 8. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

YukonU president excited about institution’s potential

Mike DeGagné took over as Yukon University president July 2

Yukon University’s new president says he’s excited to help shape the direction the school takes as it evolves from its previous college status — including addressing issues raised by a faculty member about systemic racism within the institution.

“Yukon University, first of all, it’s new, there’s a lot of development to do so that’s a really attractive thing,” Mike DeGagné told the News in an interview July 9.

“… (I’m) really attracted to all the potentials that are here with moving from a college to a university.”

DeGagné, who’s currently self-isolating at a residence on campus typically used to house a visiting researcher, took the reins at YukonU on July 2.

An Indigenous person from Animakee Wa Zhing 37 First Nation in northwestern Ontario, he most recently served as president at Nipissing University, which he described as a smaller institution with a northern and First Nations influence which he also described as a “really nice fit.”

Some of his goals as president for YukonU, he said, include making sure there’s education for Yukoners that’s relevant to local needs and contexts.

He added that there were also “some real special areas” the university could focus on, including northern studies and the environment, but that building local capacity was key.

“An institution of this size in the Yukon has a real regional impact and we have to develop our own knowledge here and that’s what moving to a university is all about, is developing new knowledge,” he said.

DeGagné confirmed that he had also spoken to Lianne Charlie, a faculty member with the university’s Indigenous governance program.

Charlie, who’s of Tagé Cho Hudän (Big River People) heritage, penned an open letter to university leadership last month calling on them to undertake four key measures “to the elimination of racism, discrimination, and oppression at YukonU.”

The measures include acknowledging the role post-secondary institutions play in holding up systemic racism, oppression and discrimination that disproportionally impacts Black, Indigenous and racialized people, as well as collecting data on how many higher-level positions are held by those groups.

Officials told Charlie in reply letters that they would wait until DeGagné’s arrival before making any decisions or changes.

DeGagné and Charlie spoke on July 8.

DeGagné told the News it was a “nice conversation,” and that he saw Charlie’s letter as a “very positive thing.”

“There’s a number of times when, if you have really serious issues in an institution, nobody feels either, you know, confident enough or hopeful enough of change that they’ll even raise these things, so… it’s great that people can bring these issues up,” he said.

“I think we know that in the current environment … systemic racism, structural racism, unconscious bias in institutions, everyone is examining these things and I think we can move ahead very quickly and do a good job of making things better.”

DeGagné said he hasn’t committed to enacting Charlie’s suggested changes, saying that he thought the first step was to get a clear picture of what’s happening at the university.

“We don’t want to fire before we’ve aimed — I think we need to know what it is that the problems are,” he said.

One thing that might be helpful, he suggested, was a survey of staff to see how they self-identify.

“I think then you take those numbers and you say, is this close to what the percentage of these populations are in the Yukon? So if we’re way behind, then that’s a concern,” he said.

“What types of positions are these? Are most of a particular group, are they represented by staff, faculty, administration? Do we need more people in administration? Do we need more people on the board? These kinds of things, right? So generating data from a survey is a good place to start. Where we take that, that’s where the real discussion’s going to be.”

DeGagné added that the issue wasn’t overt racism, and that otherwise well-intentioned policies could have negative consequences if not planned out properly.

“For example,” he said, “if you have an institution that says, ‘Our goal is to include First Nations in all of our discussions and all of our decisions,’ that’s great, but what happens is, you may only have a few Indigenous people inside the institution and all of a sudden they get put on every committee, they get involved in every discussion, and it’s overwhelming.

“Pretty soon they can’t get their jobs done and they just don’t feel like they can apply themselves to their research and it’s not fair to them … Those are the things that we want to correct, so it’s not this sort of overt racism, it’s more how we subtly put too much of a burden on some people and not others.”

Charlie, in a separate interview, said she thought the conversation with DeGagné went “really well.”

“I heard an openness and a willingness, especially given his position as the leader of this institution, to sort of start taking this on,” she said, adding that it was a relief because many people react to conversations about addressing systemic racism in a defensive way, or with fear.

While she said she was still looking for an “actionable plan,” she said she would give DeGagné time to take his next steps with the communities both within and outside the university.

Ultimately, though, Charlie said meaningful change would require the efforts of more people than just DeGagné.

“It’s a systemic issue, it needs to be addressed at a systemic level, hence the resourced action plan, and that can only come from the folks who hold those powers and the oversight over those kinds of budgets,” she said.

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com

Yukon College

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Comments are closed

Just Posted

Dr. Brendan Hanley, Yukon’s chief medical officer of health, speaks to media at a press conference about COVID-19 in Whitehorse on March 30. The Yukon government announced three new cases of COVID-19 in Watson Lake on Oct. 23. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Three new COVID-19 cases identified in Watson Lake

The Yukon government has identified three locations in town where public exposure may have occurred

Asad Chishti, organizer of the rally to support the conservation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, leads marchers through chants with a megaphone outside the Bank of Montreal in Whitehorse on Aug. 28. The BMO is the second Candian bank to announce it will not directly fund oil and gas projects in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Bank of Montreal second Canadian bank to join ANWR boycott

BMO joins RBC, the first to commit to the boycott

Premier Sandy Silver, left, and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brendan Hanley speak during a COVID-19 update press conference in Whitehorse on July 29. Silver urged “kindness and patience” during the weekly COVID-19 update on Oct. 21, after RCMP said they are investigating an act of vandalism against American travellers in Haines Junction.
(Alistair Maitland Photography file)
COVID-19 update urges “kindness and patience” for travellers transiting through the territory

“We need to support each other through these challenging times”

Whitehorse Correctional Centre officials have replied to a petition by inmate Charabelle Silverfox, who alleges she’s being kept in conditions mirroring separate confinement, arguing that her placement isn’t nearly as restrictive as claimed. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Inmate not being kept in restrictive confinement, WCC argues in response to petition

Whitehorse Correctional Centre (WCC) officials have replied to a petition by an… Continue reading

wyatt
WYATT’S WORLD

Wyatt’s World for Oct. 23, 2020

asdf
Today’s mailbox: Electricity and air travel

Letters to the editor published Oct. 23, 2020

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Irony versus Climate

Lately it seems like Irony has taken over as Editor-in-Chief at media… Continue reading

Evan Lafreniere races downhill during the U Kon Echelon Halloweeny Cross-Country Race on Oct. 16. (Inara Barker/Submitted)
Costumed bike race marks end of season

The U Kon Echelon Bike Club hosted its final race of the… Continue reading

Smartphone showing various applications to social media services and Google. (Pixabay photo)
National media calling for level playing field with Google, Facebook

In Canada, Google and Facebook control 80 per cent of all online advertising revenues

Education Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee, right, before question period at the Yukon legislative assembly in Whitehorse on March 7, 2019. The Yukon government announced Oct. 19 it has increased the honoraria rates for school council members. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Honoraria increased for school council members

Members of school councils throughout the territory could soon receive an increased… Continue reading

Triple J’s Canna Space in Whitehorse on April 17, 2019, opens their first container of product. Two years after Canada legalized the sale of cannabis, Yukon leads the country in per capita legal sales. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon leads Canadian cannabis sales two years after legalization

Private retailers still asking for changes that would allow online sales

A sign greets guests near the entrance of the Canada Games Centre in Whitehorse on June 11. The city announced Oct. 16 it was moving into the next part of its phased reopening plan with spectator seating areas open at a reduced capacity to allow for physical distancing. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
CGC reopening continues

Limited spectator seating now available

During Whitehorse city council’s Oct. 19 meeting, planning manager Mélodie Simard brought forward a recommendation that a proposed Official Community Plan amendment move forward that would designate a 56.3 hectare piece of land in Whistle Bend, currently designated as green space, as urban residential use. (Courtesy City of Whitehorse)
More development in Whistle Bend contemplated

OCP change would be the first of several steps to develop future area

Most Read