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Nunavut Sivuniksavut: Inuit Education in Canada’s Capital

High North News: The Canadian Arctic does not have a university. That can mean tough choices for many Inuit students looking to further their education. Nunavut Sivuniksavut helps these students bridge the gap between high school and their futures.

Written by Mieke Coppes Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Students from across northern Canada attend the Nunavut Sivuniksavut program in Ottawa.Nunavut Sivuniksavut

As the weather cools and the leaves start to change color, youth throughout Canada head back to school. Be it elementary school kids, high schoolers or university students, neighborhoods seem a little emptier come September.

But for some students, this change has deeper meaning. Canada’s Arctic does not have a university and for students from the north, that has implications for the education they choose to pursue. Nunavut Sivuniksavut, an Ottawa-based college program, attempts to ease the transition for high school students to broader academic and employment fields.

“Really, the beauty of the [program] is the impact that it has on students’ attitudes, about themselves, their culture, their world, and their place in the world. That is the overriding benefit that trumps everything else,” said Morley Hanson, the coordinator of the Nunavut Sivuniksavut program. “People leave with an incredible amount of enthusiasm, with a desire to be involved and to contribute, confidence in themselves and in their people as a whole. They leave with an understanding of their relationship with the rest of the world, and their own culture even.”

What is Nunavut Sivuniksavut?

Nunavut Sivuniksavut (NS) features two separate college certificate programs – in Inuit Studies and Advanced Inuit Studies – for students to work toward. Both programs are delivered under the auspices of Algonquin College, also based in Ottawa. “All along, [NS] has been for young people from Nunavut, who take this leap of faith and study in this accredited post-secondary program,” said Hanson, who has worked for the institution for the past 29 years.

Although in recent years the program has opened up to students across the Canadian Arctic, the focus remains on Indigenous people. The one hard-and-fast rule for participation in the program is that students must be beneficiaries of a land-claims agreement. Above all, Hanson said, it is “a program rooted in the land-claims movement … It’s not a transition year program in itself, it is a program in its own right, but at the same time it helps people build the capacity to tackle university programs or other college programs.”

The program is funded predominantly by the federal government, the Nunavut Government, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. and the three economic arms of the regional Inuit associations. The schooling itself is designed to teach students about, among other things, northern land claims, local economies, modern Inuit issues (such as the sealskin ban and food security) and Inuit history (including colonial relationships). The focus of the program, for the past 32 years, has been to give young northern students the chance to learn subjects that interest them and help them grow within their own culture.

Challenges and Lessons Learned

A program such as this one does not come without its inherent challenges. For example, accepting students into the program is a long and daunting process that focuses on more than academic grades – character references become a major part of the application process.

“Mark averages don’t tell us a lot,” said Hanson, who looks for students who are going to participate, work hard and want to succeed, even if they have had challenges in the past.

The small size of the group means hard work and a positive environment are key to the program’s success. “It is like a one-room schoolhouse here. We will be bringing down approximately 40 first-year students and about 10 in a second-year program that we offer,” said Hanson.

But the program takes all of this in stride, and above all focuses on what is best for the student. Although further education is a great option, Hanson is realistic about the goals of the youth passing through. “The goal [of Nunavut Sivuniksavut] is that students take the next best step, whatever that is for them,” he said. “A lot of them want to get in the working world, but we encourage education all the time and more and more that is happening.”

Community Focused

The students live and study in Ottawa for the year, but the end goal is to have them return to their communities having learned important lessons and values. “If they are not [continuing their studies], they are all working back home one way or another,” said Hanson. Many of them work for either the Nunavut government or Inuit organizations, he said.

Being in Ottawa allows for a learning process with the students, giving them access to many different types of resources and allows them to experience being in the political center of Canada. Furthermore, it allows students to learn independence. “It is like an urban Outward Bound,” said Hanson. “It allows them to look back at their homes with different eyes.”

The support given to the students is likely to be one of the fundamental reasons of the program’s success and one of the reasons this program has lasted for more than 30 years. Hanson said the students succeed in part because, “they realize that there is a whole cadre of people here who care deeply about them and about promoting their abilities and realizing their desires of leading a good and productive life that leads to the betterment of where they come from.”

A version of this story was originally published by High North News, and is reprinted here with permission.

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