Post-secondary education in Inuit Nunangat: Learning from past experiences & listening to students’ voices

Thierry Rodon, Fiona Walton, Frances Abele, Sheena Kennedy Dalseg, Darlene O’Leary, & Francis Lévesque

Although high school education attainment in Inuit Nunangat has shown significant improvement over the past decade, graduation rates remain well below the Canadian average. For example, in Nunavut, while the high school graduation rate rose by 11 points between 1999 and 2009, it still remains at only 39%, well below the Canadian average of 78.3%.1

Inuit students who wish to pursue post-secondary education do not have access to a university in the Canadian Arctic. However, a college system in each of the territories offers a wide variety of academic and vocational programs, some of which are offered collaboratively with Southern institutions. Currently, Nunavik does not have a college system and students must leave the region for post-secondary education; meanwhile in Nunatsiavut, students have access to university courses through the Labrador Institute of Memorial University. In the absence of a university in the Canadian Arctic, students in Inuit Nunangat may take courses by distance delivery but most go South to pursue their degree, a situation that brings with it both opportunities and challenges for individuals and their families.

Despite these initiatives, access to relevant and sustainable post-secondary education in Inuit Nunangat has remained extremely limited for most Inuit, and long term accessibility to a high quality diversified post-secondary education has been problematic. Although Inuit have made noticeable gains at the high school, college, and trade program levels since 1981, the percentage of Inuit who have completed a university degree has remained quite low (from 1.6% in 1981 to 2.7% in 2006). More significantly, the gap between Inuit and non-Inuit has increased as the percentage of non-Inuit who have completed a university degree during the same period increased from 6.4% in 1981 to 16.5% in 20062.

Recognizing the need for more evidence-based research on university and post-secondary programs delivered in Inuit Nunangat, including research that aims to understand the factors that contribute to the success of Inuit at the post-secondary level, the authors launched the project Improving Access to University Education in the Canadian Arctic. We aimed to compile an inventory and evaluation of past and present university initiatives in Inuit Nunangat, considering factors and issues related to curriculum, delivery methods, and success. This research has led to a better understanding of the needs and experiences of Inuit completing post-secondary programs and to the development of different scenarios to improve access to university education for Inuit and Northerners in Inuit Nunangat.

Three groups of researchers, including Inuit and non-Inuit student researchers, based at Laval University, Carleton University, and the University of Prince Edward Island, considered different aspects of the overall research question. This short article provides a summary of the major findings from this research. The research results will be available shortly in Arctic- Net’s IRIS 2 report3 and in academic journals.

We begin with a brief overview of the institutional and social history of adult and post-secondary education in Inuit Nunangat before turning to Inuit post-secondary students’ experiences collected through a survey and focus groups. We end with an analysis of UPEI’s Master of Education (MEd) program.


The Institutional and Social History of Adult and Post-Secondary Education in Inuit Nunangat

(Frances Abele and Sheena Kennedy Dalseg)

The history of adult and post-secondary education in Inuit Nunangat is intertwined with federal and provincial development dreams and actions. It has been shaped and reshaped by Inuit parents’ and students’ choices, along with the initiatives of a few non-governmental organizations devoted to democratic development. The complex and dynamic relationship among these forces has created the education and training situation that exists today, defining opportunities and limiting them as well.

Our aspect of Improving Access to Post-Secondary Education for Inuit inventories and analyzes the programs and initiatives offered to provide post-secondary and adult education to Inuit in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, beginning in the 1960s. Through archival and interview researchundertaken between 2011 and 2013,4 we have identified key historical moments and actors in the development of Northern adult and post-secondary education policy and programming, and we have been able to draw out many of the important and enduring debates surrounding education in the NWT and Nunavut,5 including those about the creation of a Northern university. Here we provide a very brief overview of our findings, and make some suggestions for further research and consideration by decision-makers.6

Hundreds of adult education and post-secondary courses and programs have been offered across the North since the 1960s. These programs can be divided into three main categories: academic, vocational/technical, and cultural-linguistic. The vast majority of programs and courses were designed and provided by government either through the network of Arctic College community learning centres, or directly by government departments for labour force training purposes. Other providers include non-profit organizations, like Frontier College, Nunavut Sivuniksavut or the Piqqusilirivvik Cultural School, and industry associations, such as those providing training for oil and gas industry employment. In the absence of a university in the North, there exists a strong tradition in the Arctic College to establish institutional partnerships with Southern universities to offer degree programs. The longest-standing program of this nature is the Northern Teacher Education Program (NTEP), which began in the late 1970s.

Historically, post-secondary and adult education programs offered in the North have tended to mirror the political and economic events and priorities of their time, often responding directly to short-term labour force needs in the resource development and government sectors. While in the early days education programs offered to adults could be linked more closely with community development,7 increasingly, adult and post-secondary education has become focused on skills development and improving the employability of Inuit in the wage economy labour force (in both the private and public sectors). Simultaneously, as Northern governments grew, they assumed more and different responsibilities for education, changing the relationships between community members and schools. This dynamic played out differently in the four territories of Inuit Nunangat, a matter we intend to explore in a future publication.

Alongside the evolution of the college system in the North has been a long-standing debate surrounding different visions for a university in the territorial North and more recently specifically in Inuit Nunangat.8 The discussions and debates, dating back to the 1960s, point to the fundamental relationship between education, self-determination, and democratic development. A university in Nunavut, for example, would contribute to the development of a stronger civil society in the territory to encourage more public engagement; it would create a Northern- based space for Inuit knowledge leaders and scholars to work together; and most importantly, a university would help to expand the range of imaginable possibilities for post-secondary education beyond those that respond directly to the immediate needs of the labour force.


Listening to Inuit Students

(Thierry Rodon and Francis Lévesque)

This part of the project was focused on Inuit students’ needs and experiences with post-secondary programs or courses in order to better understand educational paths and university successes from their point of view. Quantitative and qualitative data were gathered through 68 surveys, nine in-depths interviews, three focus groups (Iqaluit, Kuujjuaq and Inuvik), and two workshops with southern and Northern educators involved in Inuit education (Ottawa and Kuujjuaq).9 These tools allowed us to identify many issues faced by Inuit post-secondary students.

One of the main issues identified in the survey and focus groups is the difficulty of accessing post-secondary programs. Not only do many Inuit students feel high school education does not prepare them adequately for post-secondary education, but once they graduate they have difficulty accessing programs. The fact that there is no university in Inuit Nunangat means that prospective post-secondary students must choose among the limited number of programs offered at one of the Northern colleges (which may not be located in the students’ home communities), or move away to study in a Southern college or university where more options are available but where they face considerable challenges: loneliness, homesickness, lack of support, adapting to a totally new environment or levels of education often not equivalent to Southern students.10

From left: Nikki Eejeesiak, Kerri Wheatley, Francis Lévesque, Fiona Walton, Sheena Kennedy Dalseg, Naullaq Arnaquq, Thierry Rodon, and Maatalii Okalik following their session on Inuit education at the ArcticNet Annual Scientific Meeting in Halifax, Nova Scotia, December 2013.

From left: Nikki Eejeesiak, Kerri Wheatley, Francis Lévesque, Fiona Walton, Sheena Kennedy Dalseg, Naullaq Arnaquq,
Thierry Rodon, and Maatalii Okalik following their session on Inuit education at the
ArcticNet Annual Scientific Meeting in Halifax, Nova Scotia, December 2013.

Furthermore, Southern universities seldom offer programs adapted to Inuit culture and needs. Courses do not necessarily have a Northern context and are not taught in Inuktitut — two elements identified as particularly important by participants. For many Inuit post-secondary students, vocational training isnot the preferred option. The survey shows that the vast majority of respondents (85%) study to achieve personal goals, while only 35% indicated that they study for employment or promotion.11

This research shows that the educational path of many Inuit students differs from that of Southern students, for whom post-secondary education programs are designed. In fact, for Inuit students, post-secondary education is often an all-encompassing experience that profoundly alters their way of life by removing them from their home communities. For this reason, they often need more support than average Southern students. The research data indicate that Inuit students need and benefit from counselling and orientation, but they also need support from their instructors (61%) and classmates, and from their family and friends (48%). The cohort approach, where many Inuit students undertake the same program at the same time, is valued by Inuit students (52%)12 and Southern and Northern educators involved in Inuit education.13

The availability of housing is also a determining factor when students make decisions about where to pursue post-secondary education in the North. During the focus groups, it was mentioned that the lack of housing in Iqaluit was a barrier for student living outside the territorial capital.

The survey and the focus groups also highlighted the fact that funding is an issue, since not all Inuit have access to the same funding programs, and funding arrangements can be inconsistent and tenuous. While some funding programs are more generous than others, none of the students said their funding covered all of their needs; it is clearly an area that needs more research. One participant noted the difficulty in finding important information related to funding applications and mentioned the need for an online portal where students could get relevant information.

Our research indicates that post-secondary ed-ucation should be better adapted to Inuit realities and that program design and delivery should reflect their needs. This means, for example, developing programs in partnership with students, focusing on Inuktitut, bringing students on the land, including Inuit Elders, etc.

Encouraging parents to support their children in their educational pursuits is also a key element, and the recent National Parent Mobilization Initiative launched by the Amaujaq Centre is very encouraging in that regard.14 The difficult historical relationship between Indigenous peoples and the formal education system in Northern Canada cannot be forgotten or erased. Contemporary efforts to make post-secondary education more accessible to Inuit students through the involvement of Inuit communities, leaders, students, and educators in designing and carrying out education programs are important steps upon which we can build.

Our research has also shown that often Inuit students do not have access to sufficient funding that fits their specific needs. There are a wide variety of programs administered by territorial governments and by Inuit organizations that each has its specific rules. That means that access to funding can vary both within and across Inuit Nunangat.15

The federal government has a clear fiduciary responsibility to invest more in education, and a Northern university would be a good starting point. The Northern governments should recognize this priority, and not only put emphasis on vocational training for the short term needs of the job market but also on long-term education so that Inuit students can have the same opportunities as the rest of Canadians.


Accessing Graduate Level Education in Nunavut

(Fiona Walton and Darlene O’Leary)

This section of the ArcticNet research project focused on the perspectives of graduates of two iterations of the course-based, Northern-accessible Master of Education (MEd) program offered in Nunavut between 2006-2013. The first iteration of the MEd took place from 2006-2009, the second from 2010-2013. Access to post-secondary education in Nunavut and Nunavik needs to consider both undergraduate as well as graduate programs. Given that Inuit teachers in Nunavut have been completing Bachelor of Education (BEd) degrees since 1986 and that over 200 Inuit teachers have completed this degree, we considered it important to include research related to the experiences of some of the first Inuit to complete MEd degrees.

The MEd program was offered by the Faculty of Education, University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI), in partnership with the Department of Education, Government of Nunavut (GN). By May 2014, 37 Inuit women will hold MEd degrees, including one graduate from Nunavik. One graduate is enrolled in the PhD program in Educational Studies at UPEI and one student chose to complete a Master of Education thesis.

Between 2010 and 2013, 13 individual interviews and a focus group discussion took place with MEd students or graduates as part of this Arctic- Net-funded research grant. Our preliminary findings suggest that a number of factors enabled graduates to access and successfully complete the 10 courses required for the MEd degree, including a keen interest in community service and a desire to act as role models within Inuit society in Nunavut. Graduates acknowledged that every Inuit student who completes a graduate degree represents a step towards a better future for Inuit.

[I value] giving back to my community and learning from other educators. Meaning I took the [MEd] program not to be top of everybody, but being part of my community, being part of Inuit [society]. (Nancy Uluadluak, MEd, Arviat)

[The MEd] is going to have [an impact] on the wider audience… you are thinking students and school, but also… their parents and the community. So you are expanding your vision and how you are creating futures… and building community. (Millie Kuliktana, MEd, Kugluktuk)

Graduates were aware that traditional knowledge, language, history, and social values related to Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit are eroding in Nunavut. They were motivated to access the MEd degree because they believed that their research and writing would contribute to the documentation and preservation of valuable knowledge.

I want to be involved in [the] research side of things, because I think our Inuk voice and an Inuk researcher is what’s needed…there are so many things that socially should be looked at….[W]e can help to voice in print…and it’s just endless, limitless. (Louise Flaherty, MEd, Iqaluit)

Photo credit: Abhi Sharma under a creative commons license.

Photo credit: Abhi Sharma under a creative commons license.

The MEd was delivered in a cohort model that offered face-to-face as well as distance learning options. It was offered in Nunavut, not in Southern Canada, and involved both Inuit and non-Inuit instructors as well as Elders. Participants attendedcourses together without leaving their employment and family commitments. Minimal disruption to work and family commitments made it possible to access the degree. Students remained motivated because the group learned together.

The cohort approach, I love it because we can do it together and have a sense of belonging. (Mary Joanne Kauki, MEd, Kujjuuaq, Nunavik)

I feel that… our MEd… was a huge thing for us Inuit. And also working at the same time and… we were all women.… we have children and families, and I feel that we were able to balance what we had to do and by working together we pulled it through. (Mina Rumbolt, MEd, Sanikiluaq)

MEd graduates strongly believed that completing a graduate degree based on a decolonizing approach enabled them to value Inuit society and appreciate the importance of professional knowledge, voice, confidence, and identity.

I think that we need to start… to build that professional expertise as Inuit… on the local and regional level… I think an MEd course also develops…the ability to start becoming autonomous as a society. (Mary Joanne Kauki)

[The MEd] had helped a lot with… the confidence and… ability to… voice what I think… whereas before, as classroom teachers we kind of went along with what was expected, or what was… told. (Nunia Qanatsiaq-Anoee, MEd, Arviat)

The more Inuit [are] educated with higher degrees, the more people will want to see themselves as equal. If more students go through the Masters program, it will become the norm. (Peesee Pitsiulak- Stephens, MEd, Iqaluit)



After exploring past and present post-secondary programs, listening to Inuit students’ experiences and conducting a preliminary analysis of a very successful post-secondary program, our research results allow us to make the following conclusions and suggestions.

The history of Northern education is also the history of the development of Inuit society over the last several generations. Schools and schooling were fundamental aspects of federal “Northern development” measures, and they are now fundamental venues through which all residents of Inuit Nunangat are building their future. For this enterprise, it is essential to understand how the institutions and philosophies embedded in the school system affected Northern communities, including how those institutions reflected and continue to reflect social power relationships.

Inuit students’ experiences with post-secondary education to-date suggests that programs which focus on Northern context, make room for Inuit co-instructors, include Elders, facilitate instruction in Inuktitut and English, and provide an education that reflects context and culture, raise motivation and engagement and are therefore more relevant and meaningful for Inuit students.

Providing academic and personal support, access to counseling and program orientations, connecting Inuit students together and developing cohort models in order to foster learner communities are all elements that can greatly improve students’ success.

Our research has shown that often Inuit students do not have access to sufficient funding that fits their specific needs, and that access to funding can vary both within and across Inuit Nunangat. These programs should be evaluated in order to make them more relevant to Inuit students’ needs.

Choice is important. Many Inuit students undertake post-secondary education not necessarily to prepare for future careers, but to achieve personal goals, and because they enjoy learning. For this reason, they want to have access to a wide variety of programs, not just vocational programs that focus on the short-term needs of government and industry.

In the short term, there is a need for the federal, provincial, and territorial governments to invest in university-level programs in order to close the gap between Inuit and the rest of Canadians. Southern universities can continue to support this effort by developing more university courses in Inuit Nunangat. In the long term, a Northern university designed to meet the needs of Inuit students should be a key element in improving access to post-secondary education for Inuit.

In the upcoming months, a number of longer publications are planned in which we will present the conclusions of our research in more detail. If you would like to receive copies of our work as it emerges, please contact any of the authors of this short paper.16 ◉

Thierry Rodon is Adjunct Professor and Northern Sustainable Development Chair at Université Laval; Fiona Walton is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education, University of Prince Edward Island; Frances Abele is Professor in the School of Public Policy and Administration, Carleton University and Academic Director at the Carleton Centre for Community Innovation; Sheena Kennedy Dalseg is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University and a Research Associate at the Carleton Centre for Community Innovation; Darlene O’Leary is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of Prince Edward Island; Francis Lévesque is Coordinator of the Northern Sustainable Development Research Chair at Université Laval and holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the Université Laval.


  1. Statistics Canada. 2013. Graduation Rate, Canada, Provinces and Territories, 2005/2006 to 2009/2010. Table A.11. tbla.11-eng.htm (accessed December 19, 2013).
  2. Penney, Chris. 2009. “Formal Educational Attainment of Inuit in Canada, 1981-2006”. In: J. P. White, J. Peters, D. Beavon and N. Spence (eds.), Aboriginal Education: Current Crisis and Future Alternatives. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing Inc.
  3. Rodon, T., F. Walton, F. Lévesque & D. O’Leary (Submitted). Part III: Responding to Change: Effects, Outlook, Adaptation. 3.3: Socio-Economic Development. Chapter on Education. Prepared for the Integrated Regional Impact Studies (IRIS) — 2 (ArcticNet).
  4. During this period, we conducted fifteen semi-structured interviews with individuals from a variety of perspectives including current and former public servants and government officials, former adult educators, former students and Indigenous leaders. Archival research was conducted in Yellowknife at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Museum (May 2011 and December 2013); in Ottawa at Library and Archives Canada (October/ November 2013) and the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada library (through 2011, and October/November 2013); and in Igloolik (March 2013).
  5. We also included programs that were offered specifically to Inuit outside of the NWT and Nunavut, such as Nunavut Sivuniksavut, which is based in Ottawa.
  6. We are currently in the process of writing up our results for publication.
  7. In Igloolik, Nunavut, for example, adult educators worked very closely with community members to set up an outpost camp committee, local radio station, library system, youth club, alongside conventional literacy and numeracy programming.
  8. Kelly Black, a doctoral student in Canadian Studies and Political Economy at Carleton University produced a working paper, entitled “Tracing the Idea of a Northern University.” This work was funded by ArcticNet, and is currently under revision for publication.
  9. Lévesque, F. (Ed.) (2012). Improving Access to University Education in the Canadian Arctic: Learning from Past Experiences and Listening to Inuit Student Experiences. Kuujjuaq Workshop, November 2011.
  10. Lachapelle, M. and M. Ruston (Eds.) (2011) Improving Access to University Education in the Canadian Arctic: Learning from Past Experiences and Listening to Inuit Student Experiences. Ottawa Workshop, March 2011 both available at http://www.chairedeveloppementnord.
  11. Rodon T. et al. (2013). Improving Access to University Education in 2011-2012 Annual Research Compendium, ArcticNet, available at pdf/compendium2011-12/2.6_university_education.pdf
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Lévesque (2012) op.cit.
  15. To learn more about the National Parent Mobilization Initiative launched by the Amaujaq Centre, go to: http://
  16. Rodon et al. (2013) op. cit.