Education for a Bright Future
Axel Meisen, Ph.D., P.Eng.
President and Vice-Chancellor
Memorial University of Newfoundland
Presentation to "Labrador in the New Century"
Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador
March 29, 2001
In my presentation, I hope to accomplish a number of objectives. I want to make the case for Labrador, for education (particularly advanced education), for Memorial University and for Memorial's Labrador Institute as a facilitator of what I see as a highly beneficial partnership between Labrador and the university.
The Case for Labrador
Since I joined Memorial University in September 1999, I have learned a great deal about Labrador. I am delighted about what I see, a region: Populated by generous, open, caring and sharing people; where a mélange of unique, individual and independent cultures co-exist and which, for me, come together to create a distinctive Labrador culture; of great achievement, initiative and endeavour; of great promise and potential. Mostly, I see a place that presents tremendous challenges for those who live here and for people like me and my colleagues at Memorial University, who wish to be more a part of Labrador. We want to share our knowledge and expertise with Labradorians. We would like to learn from the people of Labrador and we hope that you will also share your knowledge and expertise with us.
I have witnessed first-hand the strong attachment of Labradorians to this land. I know the strong commitment of Labradorians to ensure that Labrador is protected, even as it is developed. This is prudent, responsible thinking and you are to be commended for it and supported in it.
I have no doubt that higher education will play a critical role in sustaining the quality of life in Labrador and creating the Labrador of the future.
I would like to tell you a story about a woman I met during one of my visits to Labrador some months ago. She told me that one of the things that gave her the most pleasure in life was watching her eldest son join his father heading for the country to go hunting for a living. She said she wanted this important part of her life to continue. But she also said she wanted her son to have more opportunities than she and her husband had available to them. She recognized that the son getting his education - and she was thinking of a university education - would be critically important to his future financial success. Yet she expressed a profound fear that if her son pursued this education, she would lose him to another town, to another life, to another set of values and traditions. She saw his pursuit of higher education as a threat - something that would take her son from the life that she held so dear.
This story left me troubled. The disconnect she saw between a university education and the preservation of her culture was very real. Of course, I could understand her joy, but, as a person long involved in education, I did not see the threat she saw in education. For me, education has always been liberating and providing choices, including the choice to adhere to and preserve the very best of a culture.
Nevertheless, her concern is real and well founded. Since then, I have learned that the concern is shared by many, not only in Labrador, but also in the rural communities throughout our province, our country and indeed throughout the world.
Your role, as leaders, and as the people of Labrador, is to find ways to strengthen and grow your culture and communities without surrendering what is traditional and valuable.
My responsibility, as an educator and as president of Memorial University -- your university -- is to find ways to help you fulfill that role. I want to provide the support that will enable you to develop and preserve your communities, and to provide educational opportunities that will enable your young people to stay in Labrador and to work in productive, entrepreneurial and innovative ways.
The Case for Education
It is true in Labrador, as it is true throughout the world, that advanced education is often a prerequisite to personal success. However a review of our enrolment statistics indicates that there are presently just 179 students from Labrador attending Memorial. Is this because of the distance, the difficulty in attending, the cost, the desire for more relevant programs or more attractive educational offers elsewhere? Whatever the reason, it is not a number that I think should be acceptable and Memorial University is committed to increasing the enrolment of Labradorians in their university.
Advanced education provides the skills to create jobs and to access better jobs. This is as true for pursuits in the resource-based sector as it is true for pursuits in information technology, tourism, education, etc. Unless you have expertise, your ability to be successful in the modern world limited. If you think about it, this was also true in the old days. Those who had expertise thrived and became leaders. The only real difference today is that the expertise can no longer be obtained from just one's father, mother, family or small community. We have to draw on all the knowledge available in the world.
An advanced, university-level education provides the basis for this expertise. Once this expertise is combined with experience and good values, it gives us freedom of choice and action. Those who have an advanced education, have a greater ability to shape their lives, select their occupation and decide on where to live. They can also serve their communities better.
Without question, advanced education provides the basis for a better standard of living. We know that there is a direct correlation between education and income.
This leads us to the simple question: What kind of education is appropriate for the people in Labrador and those who wish to continue to live in Labrador? While the question is simple, the answer is complex.
The education would have to reflect the local cultures, the history, the land and the climate. It would have to take into consideration the knowledge and wisdom that are unique to the north and to remote, accomplished communities.
If we focus, for example, on teachers, the skills necessary to teach effectively in Rigolet, Makkovik, Hopedale, Davis Inlet or Nain are significantly different from those required in St. John's, Corner Brook, Grand Falls/Windsor, Toronto or Calgary. Teachers on the Labrador coast have to be considerably more self-sufficient than their counterparts in the South. Indeed, success in Labrador requires greater independence of action. Therefore, effective education in Labrador must foster a far higher degree of entrepreneurship and independence than in urban Canada.
We can also look at this issue from another perspective. In Labrador, there is much work to be done, but there are not many jobs. The jobs have to be created so that the work can get done.
One of our students, in the Native and Northern Education program recently recounted the following to our Dean of Students. He opined that, of the students from Labrador's aboriginal communities, some will return upon graduation to work in their communities as teachers, social workers and in a variety of other, mostly caring, professions. They return because part of their culture is to be one with the community, and the roles they have chosen present opportunities for work at home. However, there is another group that, though they may wish to return home, cannot because to quote him directly, "There are no jobs."
We have not done all that we could in education, if these talented and educated young people are prevented from returning home because of a lack of opportunity and a lack of skills to create opportunities.
It is not as if the opportunities do not potentially exist. If we use the example of tourism, Labrador has rich resources that lend themselves to attracting visitors from all over the world - angling, adventure, wilderness, scenic beauty, fascinating history. All these riches represent potential work. However, until someone steps forward with the ability and commitment to convert this potential into reality, there will be no jobs from tourism. The Labrador Straits region is a shining example of where tourism could be developed. Jobs, and economic and community development would be the result.
I see a role for advanced education in fostering these kinds of developments - developments that are sensitive to the history, the culture, the environment and the land - and which provide opportunities for Labradorians to prosper in Labrador.
Advanced education need not be the cultural threat perceived by the woman I spoke of earlier. Relevant education, delivered in relevant and effective ways, that produces practical skills and knowledge, will serve to preserve and strengthen a culture.
There are numerous Memorial University alumni who are highly successful and who are leaders in Labrador. Some examples are Judge Robert Fowler, Bernice Hollett (formerly on Memorial University's Board of Regents), Gail Hughes of the Labrador Development Corporation (and a member of our Labrador Institute advisory board), Lawyer Ed Hearn and Principal Cindy Fleet. There are hundreds more throughout Labrador; they can be found in every community, in every school and in every clinic.
Advanced education can be a harbinger of a bright future, not only for a vibrant economy, but also for a quality of life in a cultural and social sense.
How might we achieve this? You and I know that there is no simple answer. However, I think that there are answers and I think that that we can find them better together than separately. And when I say we, I mean you, your communities and Memorial University. Of course, the College of the North Atlantic, the K to 12 educational system, our government and our communities are also partners. However, this morning, I would like to focus just on Memorial University role.
The Case for Memorial University
I believe we should fashion a strong partnership between the people of Labrador on the one hand and Memorial University on the other hand. We are well on the road to such a partnership.
I see the partnership between Labrador and Memorial as balanced and two-way. Labrador is both a consumer of educational and research services from Memorial University and it is a potential provider of ideas and educational services to the rest of the province. There is no reason why courses could not be delivered out of Labrador through the College of the North Atlantic, or under the auspices of the Labrador Institute to residents of Labrador and to other parts of the province.
But what should be taught, what courses should be developed, what fields of expertise should be explored and what new knowledge should be acquired and disseminated? If Labradorians are to teach and learn about matters of direct relevance to Labrador, then we have to accept that many questions remain to be answered. Again, this is where Memorial University can be playing a major role as your partner in research.
We therefore have a counterpoint to the cultural disconnect to which I referred earlier, viz. the connection of research on Labrador to teaching about Labrador.
The Case for the Labrador Institute
Memorial University's primary and most direct connector with Labrador is the Labrador Institute. The Institute, as you know, is located in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, but it co-ordinates scores of educational services and research projects throughout Labrador. Memorial has been well served by our representatives in Labrador, notably Carol Brice Bennett and, in recent years, Harvey Best and Dr. Ron Sparkes.
It was bittersweet news for me earlier this year when Dr. Sparkes informed me that he would be leaving the university to take up a senior role in the new provincial Department for Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs. I share your pleasure in knowing that Labrador is getting such a focus in the provincial government and cabinet, but I lamented the fact that Memorial University would lose Dr. Sparkes. We have a great challenge to fill the directorship of the Labrador Institute. I assure you that it is a priority with me to meet that challenge quickly.
However, the work of the Labrador Institute continues. It involves identifying the needs of Labrador's communities and the opportunities for sharing Memorial University's research and educational capabilities toward the primary goal of promoting the well-being of the people of Labrador. The Institute has a community-based advisory board, which presently includes:
- Darrell O'Brien, representing the Straits;
- Gail Hughes, representing the Upper Lake Melville region;
- Brian Lyall, representing Labrador North;
- Roxanne Notley, representing Labrador South;
- Patsy Ralph, representing Labrador West;
- and Robert Simms, representing the College of the North Atlantic.
These volunteers help direct the efforts of the Institute's staff to liaise with community groups, to identify research and to meet the educational needs of your communities.
The Institute also maintains communications with Memorial University's faculties and schools to bring to their attention potential research projects and required educational programs. Likewise, it serves as a source of information for members of the university community undertaking research and educational projects in Labrador. It also provides support to university personnel carrying out projects in Labrador and it co-ordinates university activities in Labrador.
At the university, we have a Labrador Institute Liaison Committee with representation from many disciplines including Science, Arts, Music, Engineering, the Marine Institute, Education, Physical Education, Business Administration, Social Work, Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, Graduate Studies, Continuing Education and Health.
For citizens of Labrador, the Institute serves as the main contact for information regarding Memorial University's activities in the region. For example, two of the Labrador Institute's most recent undertakings include the Labrador Research Agenda, and the Labrador Workshop "Research and Education for the Future", both of which you may already know about. Memorial University is also a co-sponsor of this conference.
The Institute has been strongly involved in many other important projects, including Memorial's Telemedicine efforts in radiology and those being led by Dr. Michael Jong in Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Black Tickle. Schools and faculties that are engaged or have performed work in Labrador are the Faculty of Education - Native and Northern Education, the School of Social Work and the School of Nursing.
Recent Memorial University Activities in Labrador
The School of Continuing Education operates the Labrador West Interactive Learning Centre in Labrador City, which was made largely possible through funding from the Iron Ore Company of Canada. The Centre is administered by Memorial University and the College of the North Atlantic and provides educational programs and services for personal and professional development in Labrador West. The Centre has a learning resource unit containing workstations, on-line Internet access, a resource library and space for seminar or tutorial sessions.
There are also many individual faculty members involved in research here in Labrador and have been for many years. Some examples are:
- Dr. Derek Wilton, Earth Sciences, who has carried out extensive geology research in northern Labrador and is well known to many of you through his work with the Labrador Institute.
- Dr. Hans Rollmann, Religious Studies, an expert on the Moravian missions, who is currently involved in the archaeology work near Makkovik.
- Dr. Barbara Neis, Sociology, who is co-leader of the Coasts Under Stress project. Recently the university has made available $50,000 in seed funding through this project for six research proposals to be carried out in Labrador.
Although there are scores of other projects, there is so much more that we can do. I believe that the best way is to work together in a partnership.
So where might we go from here?
I have no doubt that the people of Labrador expect a more significant presence from Memorial University in Labrador and an increased commitment to Labrador. I concur. For example, distance education students want better service from our School of Continuing Education. Some groups want first year university courses offered in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
First-year university in Labrador West, for example, is available at the College of the North Atlantic - it is called the College/University Transfer Year. The College funds the program and I commend it for offering an excellent program. While Memorial University benefits from this arrangement, so does the College. However, most importantly, students benefit.
Labrador's needs are great. For example, the shortages the province is now facing in nursing, teaching and social work struck Labrador first and will likely last here the longest.
Memorial University can be your supportive partner in addressing these issues and education is the key to Labrador creating a bright future. Although Memorial University is far removed from Labrador in the sense of distance, it is close in spirit. Let me invoke the names of some of the Labradorians upon whom Memorial University has conferred honorary doctorate degrees as examples of this sprit: Dr. Doris Saunders, Dr. Anthony Paddon, Dr. Beatrice Watts, Dr. Elizabeth Goodie, and Dr. Millicent Loder.
Currently, I think Memorial's work through the Faculty of Medicine, the potential of Smart Labrador, the joint initiative of Memorial University and the College of the North Atlantic around the proposed Harry Baikie Centre, the development of Memorial University's Labrador archives and the Faculty of Education's special programs are all clear indicators that our partnership has not only begun, but is bearing fruit.
The challenge facing us is to bridge the gap between Labrador and Memorial University more effectively. In the course of this conference, many interesting and new ideas will surface. We will receive them with open minds and we will pursue them enthusiastically. You have my personal commitment to this.
© Copyright 2002 Memorial University of Newfoundland
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