Becoming Circumpolar: Reflections on Origins and Outcomes

It is sometimes hard to remember that the idea of the University of the Arctic (UArctic) emerged from discussions at the Arctic Council around 1998. In a sense, UArctic is a sibling of the Arctic Council’s vital working groups. In contrast to them, however, UArctic's formation in the hands of post-secondary institutions’ staff, faculty, and researchers emerged in a regional impulse to learn more about each other.

At the outset, the Arctic Council member states focused on matters of joint interest and common concern, one of which was the sustainable development of their separate parts of the Subarctic and Arctic. The Indigenous Permanent Participants were keen for high-level attention to their issues; they had been overlooked and underserved for generations.

Sustainable and sustained sustainable development, rooted in the calls to action of the Bruntland Commission report of 1987, with and by northern people for northern people and their communities, was the framework of choice for the Arctic Council. It was a good approach for organizing the common future of the circumpolar region after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

UArctic should be understood, then, as part of the program of international cooperation in the post-Cold War Arctic and its environmental protection. Where it diverges from its Arctic Council siblings is that, instead of being launched as the Arctic Council University, it set sail as the University of the Arctic.

The Arctic university concept initially proposed to the Arctic Council was as a sort of graduate school, focused on training a cadre of young scientists able to tackle the problems of the region – an institute more so than a university. The newly coalesced Circumpolar Universities Association (CUA) was tasked with considering the idea.

It is at this point that something magical occurred: the Arctic Council university idea morphed into a University of the Arctic. There was so much possibility, but in the Arctic of the 1990s, national borders, difficult transportation and communications, and fragmentation of peoples, their knowledge and experience made it all but impossible. The CUA task force urged a fuller feasibility study with UArctic imagined as a network rather than an actual institution.

A network of established, knowledge-seeking, knowledge-producing universities, colleges and institutions, they thought, located in or studying northern regions, would be the least difficult and most productive format. Nodes of such a circumpolar network of academic and educational cooperation were already present, many of them anchored in northern communities. Schools and institutions were already focused on local and regional issues, and their findings were benefiting their regions. Linking that wealth of academic and scientific expertise would expand the capacity of the region to understand and help itself by orders of magnitude. But the job was not that of the researchers and scientists alone.

The right people were charged with working out the details. The lack of a university in the Canadian North was a key condition; it led to an undergraduate program emphasis. Indigenous cultural resurgence was a key condition; it led to the explicit declaration of “shared voices”. The persistence of traditional knowledge among the many Indigenous peoples of the region was a key condition; it led to the insistence that the shared voices be heard in studies undertaken and curriculum developed. The lack of high-latitude east-west transportation was a key condition; it led to a willingness to embrace emerging (at the time, remember) distance education technologies and the World Wide Web. The lack of common knowledge among northern residents about the region, too, was a key condition; it led to the idea of Thematic Networks and the multidisciplinary Circumpolar Studies Core of seven courses.

It was and remains crucially important to the project of sustainable development, circumpolar cooperation and regional identity development that UArctic speaks to and engages undergraduates, the thousands of students of UArctic members whose futures lie outside the academy, in business, in professions, in the arts, in service, etc. Circumpolar cooperation and sustainable development hinge not only on the scientists and the diplomats. Ordinary people with an awareness of the international region in which they live and work expand the bounds of the locally possible. The benefits extend beyond the region. CS 100, Introduction to the Circumpolar World, for example, is an online course. Anyone can take it and each year thousands do. The “Arctic” is becoming the Circumpolar North to more and more people. Gradually, we are all becoming just a little bit more circumpolar.

By Amanda Graham, Instructor, Yukon University

Amanda Graham was a contributor to sidebar discussions about the University of the Arctic and Circumpolar Studies during the CUA pilot study and the subsequent feasibility study that resulted in the founding of UArctic. She also contributed to the development of CS 100, Introduction to the Circumpolar North, and piloted it online in 2001. She is a YukonU point of contact for UArctic, a committed member of the ad hoc Circumpolar Studies team, and a founding contributor of the Læra Institute for Circumpolar Education.

[Read the article in the Shared Voices magazine here.]