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The Catalyst

The Catalyst

Erin Freeland Ballantyne and the Northern take on university
By Herb Mathisen
Sep 26
From the October 2016 Issue

As a kid, Erin Freeland Ballantyne remembers her gym teacher, hired from the south, telling the class that the Yellowknives Dene were extinct. This was on Yellowknives Dene land; most of her classmates were Yellowknives Dene. “You just know things are not as they should be when you’re living in a community—growing up in the 80s—that’s still hard-majority Dene and you’re going to school and not learning anything to do with Dene,” she says. “Your classmates are being told they don’t exist. That feels really wrong.”

The feeling stuck. Freeland Ballantyne became a student of the North, learning from its people and about the policies that shaped it. Her parents’ vocations—cabinet minister, lodge owner, senior bureaucrat—introduced her to leaders across the territory. She left to get her post-secondary education (she’s Northern Canada’s first Rhodes scholar) and after more conversations and travels, the idea for a Northern bush university came to her.

In just seven years, Dechinta (‘bush’ or ‘being in the bush’ in Dene language dialects) has gone from experiment to establishment. It’s where indigenous students learn about their history in a safe space; where non-indigenous students confront colonization; and where everyone can engage in the necessary and difficult conversations about reconciliation. Dechinta’s grads are returning to their communities empowered. They’re starting small businesses and taking leadership roles. As Dechinta’s dean, Freeland Ballantyne has big plans. But Dechinta needs government backing to grow. ⎦

How do academic and land-based learning come together at Dechinta? A couple winters ago, we had a winter net set and one of the things the elders had been talking about was how do we keep fish stocks healthy in lakes—how it’s important to fish certain lakes a certain amount, when to leave them, what size of fish are good and what you have to watch for. We were pulling this net and it was really, really heavy. One of the things that we had talked about a couple days before was how older animals teach younger animals how to do certain things. When caribou are migrating, there’s always the caribou leading the rest of the caribou; it knows where to go and knows the routes. So when you’re hunting, you never hunt the caribou that are at the front of the herd, because they’re really important for knowledge-passing. And they were talking about how it’s the same with some really big, old fish, they’re really important to ecosystems of fish.

So we’re pulling out this net and we pulled out this magnormous trout—it was like 37 pounds or something. And it came out and then everybody just looked at each other and, without talking, everyone was getting this massive fish out of the net and putting it back in the water. It was this really neat moment because we all worked together to do what we knew from our teaching was the right thing to do.


So you had this concept for Dechinta. What came next? The process of getting people together was really interesting because the first thing I did when I was ruminating is I just started phoning people who I considered to be my mentors. This is what I’m thinking about—a land-based university. We’re all out in the bush, but it’s university. It was something totally different. I [asked former-Tlicho land claim chief negotiator] John B. Zoe, “Will you please be a mentor?” He’s someone that I grew up admiring and honouring and thinking is so amazing. And he’s just like, “Yes.”

That was the first thing—having the support of people that I trusted and that I felt like speak to these things. We give a lot of lip service to youth so often. “Youth are our future.” They’re such a huge part of our population, but I’ve been in a lot of meetings where they’re talking about designing programs to get youth into jobs and I’m saying , “I’m the youngest person at this table. [Laughs.] I’m not very young and my hair is getting grey. I’ve been here for ten years and there’s still no youth at this table.”


How did the design for Dechinta come about? We just went around and talked to young people and elders and said, “What’s not working? Why does school suck? Why are people dropping out of college? Why are people going down south and quitting?’ What are all the barriers that make the education system not function and then we design to remove all those barriers. It wasn’t anything complicated—we just talked to everybody that education is supposedly serving.

We have this incredibly rich knowledge base—leadership, culture, language and environmental knowledge—in the North and we don’t use any of it. We have all these highly skilled people like elders that are sitting at home and they’re lonely or they’re out on the land by themselves. They’re incredible teachers that we can be mobilizing to be part of how we learn. I think we’re still so stuck in the leftover residential school model—where it’s ‘sit down and listen.’ If we think we’re training people to be strong like two people in the 21st century with really good decision-making skills, conflict-resolution skills and healthy relationship skills, then we need to totally change what we’re teaching. That’s where we went from.


How did it all come together? My family has a lodge [Blachford Lake Lodge, a 20-minute bush plane flight from Yellowknife] and when it’s freezing and it’s melting, there’s nobody there. And it’s awesome and you can fit a lot of people there and it’s in the bush.

With curriculum, we gathered 45 people from all over the territory. It was when Dechinta became Dechinta. Here’s what it is and what it isn’t. Co-teaching was a core principle and we came up with themes: indigenous self-determination, colonization, decolonization, health, communication—reading, writing, journalism—and sustainable communities. This question of how do we become sustainable again. We came with these key themes and from that people began identifying, “Hey, I know some stuff about indigenous self-determination. I can come and talk about this.” So finding academics to lead what a course outline looks like and then working in groups about what content would look like, while keeping this bigger group conversation about how do we facilitate something like this.

Critical at the beginning was we had the Dean of Native Studies, Ellen Bielawski, at the time, from University of Alberta, come to that initial gathering and say, “We will find a way to credit this.” We wanted it accredited because we were tired of it being, “The North and their certificates, it’s not really good enough and you can’t take it across the border.” No, we’re not going to lower the bar—we’re going to redesign it and raise the bar. ⎦

Take me through the Dechinta experience.They’re 12-week university semesters. Seven to eight weeks are on-site, which means they’re out on the land, all together, and then you have five weeks at the end, where you’re in your home community or another community doing a co-op, an internship or a research project—something that you’re super passionate about that mobilizes the skills you learned during the semester and brings them back, in some way, to your community.

For the eight weeks we’re on site, initially the first four weeks are out. We travel and we set up a traditional bush-camp—tents and stoves, hauling water, wood, all of those sorts of things. A lot of that is team-building and leadership and we start reading and doing class.

We have lecture around the campfire. There will be a teaching specific to the day that surrounds something that we’ve read. If we’re reading Glen Coulthard’s Red Skin, White Masks, looking at the political history of Denendeh, there’ll be conversations around that and looking at leadership: how did they organize? How did they make decisions? Why did this happen outside of government? It’s usually about an hour of lecture and then an hour or two of discussion. Facilitated discussion is a huge part of Dechinta learning—it’s very Socratic.

It’s a very intensely emotional space, because you’re talking about things that are real and they’re not just in a textbook. If we’re talking about residential school, everybody is connected to residential school. If we’re talking about the Indian Act and people not having status because their moms married white dudes, it’s most of the women in the room—they’re still fighting to get their status back or have just gotten their status back.

People bring their kids. There’s kids everywhere—newborns to surly teenagers. That was a really big thing when we were doing the design because that was the number one barrier. Why are people dropping out of school? “Because I can’t afford daycare. I can’t go down to Edmonton with four kids. And I don’t want to take my kids out of their cultural context—away from their grandparents, away from their language, away from who they are—and bring them to the city.” So we have a program called Kids U: it’s preschool all the way through Grade 12.


What do students come home with? What we see is people leave really confident in themselves and really proud of who they are and where they come from and excited about the future because they feel like they have the power and the knowledge that they can work in their communities and in the territory to build something that they want to be a part of.

People come out and say it changed my life, but how do you measure that on a graph to show return-on-investment? You see it in how they walk. We had a roundtable with [Indigenous and Northern Affairs] Minister [Carolyn] Bennett a couple weeks ago and their office asked us to organize with youth leaders. It was people sitting around the table telling the minister what were critical issues in their communities around education. The minister, partway through, said that was the most valuable meeting she’d had since being elected. We have such strong youth and, with good support, they can do anything.

How do you see Dechinta evolving? When you have eight weeks all together and 12 weeks [in total], you establish new habits and you have time to figure out things on a deeper level. I think that the time is really important and that’s why we’re really excited to say, “Look what happens in a semester. Imagine what happens in ten.” 

That’s the plan, to keep working with regions and communities and have the program happen all over the NWT and eventually have it be established that you can spend a semester in every region, so that when you’re done your degree, you have five regional semesters, plus another five semesters where you have time to specialize in whatever you’re super stoked in, in whatever region is best suited to that, or your home region.

We have an international exchange and a circumpolar exchange in another circumpolar country and then internationally with another indigenous institution. We have partnerships with the University of Hawaii right now and we’re working on others, so our students can go and spend a semester and get a sense of what they are doing with Hawaiian independence. So they have a sense of being from the North, and being in the world.

From the beginning, we said we’re going to build a land-based university and 99 percent of people were like, “That’s insane. Nobody wants to go to university and it will take you 20 years.” Within a year, we had an accredited program of unique curriculum and we were running our first cohort. We said we were going to learn by doing. It’s an experiment and everyone’s together in this crazy research project of reimagining what university is. Through the active participation of really incredible students, we’ve shown that not only is another model possible, but another model works for here and other nations around Canada. We get requests nearly every day from band councils or First Nations saying, “Can you please come? We want Dechinta on our territory.” We don’t have the capacity to go.


In Canada? All over Canada. The United States. We’re going down to Pine Ridge Reservation [an Oglola Lakota Reservation in the U.S. state of South Dakota] later this year to talk about what a land-based program could look like there.

We’ve been pitching to university presidents to say it should be required—you have to come and spend a semester out in the bush, because if you think of every Canadian who did an undergraduate degree, if they spent five weeks in the bush in the Northwest Territories, we would have a different country. We would have different kinds of CEOs running companies and we would have people making different kinds of decisions because a large part of that challenge right now nationally is just ignorance. I think that’s the kind of really substantive change that we could offer in terms of that mission of truth and reconciliation and justice. We can change the way that people think about this country by having them come and learn with us.


What are we missing out on by not having a university in the North? People always say the only thing we have in the North that’s worthwhile is under the ground. Man, the biggest
asset we have is our really smart awesome people who know these incredible things. The rest of the world is trying to do climate change research—that’s why researchers come from all over the world to learn here. They’re learning from the land, but they’re learning from elders and community members who have this really expert knowledge. But right now, without a university, we’re missing out on controlling and leading that research and that knowledge. 

The North needs a university, but it doesn’t mean just a building. It means a whole network of knowledge, knowledge-holders and knowledge-sharers. No matter what the market is universities are full. When economies drop, more people start going to post-secondary because people don’t have jobs. But universities create a lot of jobs, they maintain a lot of jobs and they’re jobs that are really healthy because they’re about knowledge production and knowledge dissemination.


You’ve asked the GNWT for $5 million in core funding a year. We want to get to a point where, if you want to pursue a degree in indigenous governance and leadership or environmental resource management and you can either go south to do that degree or you can do it here, we want to be able to say yes to all the people who want to do it here. Because right now, we had 127 people apply last year for 20 spots. So we’re saying no to a lot of people who want to go to university in the North.

We know when we talk about poverty alleviation that a degree is the biggest determining factor for getting people out of poverty. It’s the biggest determining factor if you look at what gets indigenous women out of poverty. It’s having a post-secondary education, but specifically a university degree. If you want to look at investing in something that’s going to really create needle-moving change, post-secondary education—and specifically in-demand university degrees—are a really good investment.

We said $5 million a year is 156 new jobs across the territory, equally distributed amongst the regions, hiring people that are not in the regular labour force—hunters, trappers, cultural knowledge holders. And simply by doing that and creating that micro-economy in the regions, those are jobs that could be there forever.

We say we know what our future labour market needs are—I think 27 percent of in-demand jobs are going to require a university degree. Jobs in management, self-government, aboriginal governments. We have this whole new sector emerging with self-government and aboriginal governments and we have a huge amount of the GNWT that’s retiring and we need people with degrees to fill those jobs. If we want to fill those jobs with people from Ontario, that’s fine. But if we want to fill those jobs with skilled Northerners that are going to stay here, work here for a lifetime and raise their families here, then we have to be providing them with the support to get the credentials that they need.

We have a vision of being the leading circumpolar post-secondary institution in the world that is guided by indigenous knowledge and values rooted in teaching on the land. That’s something totally unique and nobody else has it and nobody else does it and we do it really, really well.

For more, Up Here interviewed an alumnus, a professor and an elder professor about Dechinta from their different perspectives.