The idea of founding a university in the Canadian Arctic is worth discussion, but not under the terms issued by Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean.
The issue of education in northern communities has become a personal crusade for our Governor General, who has won over the communities she has visited during her eight-day northern tour this week. Her participation in the preparation of seal meat for a community feast in Rankin Inlet (where she sampled raw seal heart flesh), and her warm, genuine response to people in general have made it easy for the locals to like her.
But personal popularity aside, Jean crossed a line by making an overt criticism of Canada, in front of reporters’ microphones on Thursday.
It may have been another opportunity to lobby in public, or maybe it was frustration with the length of time it takes for personal lobbying to bear fruit, but it is quite outside of the Governor General’s job description to travel on the taxpayers’ dime and then slag the nation in her role as representative of the Queen.
Even Her Majesty is not allowed political comments. Advocacy for any cause is by force made circumspect. Witness (if you can) Prince Phillip’s support for the environment.
But here was Jean, actively campaigning.
“Canada is at least 40 years behind,” Jean said. “Canada is the only northern state that doesn’t have a university in the North. Canada is four decades behind Norway, Finland, Sweden, the United States.”
“The United States has three universities in Alaska. There’s a university in Greenland. In northern Sweden. In the Norwegian Arctic.”
What she didn’t mention was that the area around the university at Tromso — just a dot on the map of Norway — has twice the population of all of Canada’s vast northern territories. What Norway, Greenland, Sweden and Finland also have (that Canada’s north does not have) is centuries of local white European culture placing high value on education.
If Canada were to transplant that culture on her own north, Canada’s chattering class — and Jean chief among them — would call it cultural genocide.
Are there problems with education in the north? You bet there are.
Only a quarter of all children even finish high school, much less attend university. You have to go far from home in the north to get a good schooling, but if you do, the tuition’s free. That distance is a barrier, and most likely a reason why there are less than 500 people in that whole vast expanse of the north who have a university degree — and most of them were probably not born in the north.
Would building a university change that? It could, but Jean is dreaming if she thinks it is a magic solution.
Way down south in Red Deer, we have a significant aboriginal population. How many native high school grads do we produce every year, much less people with degrees? Ten? Less than 10?
One only wishes there were a simple answer to bringing the benefits of the modern technological world to the north — and to all of Canada’s aboriginal community — without creating the mainstream/aboriginal conflict that it always has.
A small post-secondary centre, with a distance learning capability makes sense. It’s certainly worth discussion to fund one.
But Jean needs to understand her role in Canadian politics. Nobody elected her to tell us what’s wrong with Canada. If she wants to be an unelected advocate, she can go back to being a journalist and write editorials.
The travel benefits, however, are rather reduced from those of a Governor General.
Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.