Helping students learn from the land

Agreement will give UAlberta students learning opportunities that combine academic tradition and indigenous knowledge in the North.

By Bev Betkowski on August 28, 2013

(Edmonton) The University of Alberta’s Faculty of Native Studies has formalized an agreement with Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning, an institution based in the Northwest Territories, to provide curriculum combining academic tradition and land-based, indigenous knowledge in the rugged wilderness of the Canadian North.

A recently signed memorandum of understanding with Dechinta, a land-based post-secondary institution, follows on the heels of a successful three-year pilot project between the two partners, formally bringing land-based Northern learning into the academic mix.

The partnership, signed in Yellowknife by Brendan Hokowhitu, dean of native studies at the U of A and by Erin Freeland Ballantyne of Dechinta’s board of directors, develops a framework for undergraduate students from both institutions to receive instruction in bush settings through land-based, hands-on learning.

U of A faculty teach alongside elders and Northern experts to provide the educational experience, and students enrolled in the programs will find themselves learning in unconventional class settings and through seasonal opportunities during the summer, fall and winter/spring terms.

“The agreement with Dechinta builds on our links to Northern communities and expands the learning experience for students,” said Hokowhitu. “Teaching off the land allows a different kind of teaching, connecting to the land spiritually, physically and mentally.”

“This unique partnership enhances collaboration between indigenous and non-indigenous, Northern and Southern students and professors,” said Freeland Ballantyne. “The land is the central teacher and through this new relationship, critical topics in the North are addressed in new and innovative ways.”

Courses are taught on site at Blachford Lake Lodge, located on Chief Drygeese Territory in the Akaitcho region of Denendeh east of Yellowknife. The site is accessible only by snowmobile, dog team or bush plane.


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The accredited courses cover a wide range of critical Northern issues. Students will learn about indigenous political theory, economic development, sustainability and decolonization, all while checking fish nets. They’ll also develop essential bush skills like wilderness first aid, and work with local knowledge-holders to maintain a camp environment, Freeland Ballantyne said.

Students enrolled in Dechinta programs can apply their U of A courses toward a degree if they choose to attend the university. U of A students can also enhance their degrees with the optional courses, said associate dean academic Nathalie Kermoal.

“This is a unique Northern Canada experience for students, being in the bush with professors, elders and fellow students; learning about the land, customary laws and governance; and developing skills to be on the land,” Kermoal said.

The formal agreement caps a relationship begun by Ellen Bielawski, former U of A dean of native studies, who supported Dechinta’s call for university partnership in land-based learning. The alliance was then further developed by Kermoal as interim dean and Gurston Dacks, professor emeritus and special advisor to the dean, in collaboration with Dechinta.