Canvas tents, moosehides
and textbooks featured
at the North’s “bush uni-
At Dechinta, students spend their time on the
land learning a range of skills
school was a struggle for Kristen Tanche –
until she found the one that fit. After Grade 11,
she took online courses to try and complete high
school. But the solitary learning style didn’t suit
her. She then enrolled at the University of Northern British Columbia, focusing on First Nations
environmental planning, but the campus was far
from her home and family in Fort Simpson,
Northwest Territories. After a year and a half,
she dropped the program.
“I really wanted to learn more about my
region,” said Ms. Tanche, now 31, who grew up
in the NWT and whose mother is Dene. “I was
starting to learn a lot about other Indigenous
people [at UNBC], but I’m a strong believer
that you really need to get to know where you’re
When she spotted posters for the Dechinta
Centre for Research and Learning around town
and on social media, and learned that many of
its professors were from the North, she decided
“It was really scary at first,” she said. “I
thought, ‘What am I getting myself into? I’m
going to be in the bush and away from all my
family for five to six weeks.’” But she quickly
found herself mastering skills she’d hardly
dreamed of, from living on the land to studying
regional politics and acing academic essays.
Dechinta, also known as Dechinta Bush University, is far from the bricks-and-mortar model
of most universities around the world. Though
its pronunciation is variable, Dechinta means
“being in the bush” in all Dene languages. The
Northwest Territories-based institution, established in 2009, offers postsecondary-level
courses relevant to northern students, with topics ranging from indigenous medicine to natural
Its current campus is a lakeside tourism lodge
100 kilometres from Yellowknife. Students spend
their time on the land learning a range of skills,
including camping out in canvas tents, chopping
firewood, snaring fish and tanning moosehides,
from elders and community experts. At the same
time, they work with Indigenous professors to enhance their academic research and writing skills.
Currently, the school partners with the Uni-
versity of Saskatchewan, the University of Alberta,
the University of British Columbia and McGill
University to offer credited undergraduate and
master’s-level courses. Dechinta’s partnership
with UBC, set in motion in 2015, allows Glen
Coulthard, an associate professor who teaches
First Nations studies and political science, to
split his time between UBC and Dechinta. It’s a
model Dechinta staff hope to replicate with other
universities across the country.
To Erin Freeland Ballantyne, Dechinta’s dean
of land-based academics, research and innovation, the curriculum’s land-based approach is key
to the institution’s success. Like many northerners, Dr. Freeland Ballantyne had to leave home
to pursue a postsecondary education – a bachelor’s degree at McGill University, and an MSc
and PhD at Oxford University. Having been born
and raised in Yellowknife, she wanted to give her
fellow northerners the opportunity to learn in
their home territory, from their home territory.
So far, it’s working: In its seven-year existence, every one of its 340-plus students has
completed the program they enrolled in. Considering the school operates in a territory that
has a 66 percent high school graduation rate,
the second lowest in the country, it’s a remarkable achievement.
Students have ranged in age from 18 to 68,
from recent high school graduates like Ms.
Tanche, unable or unwilling to attend postsecondary school farther south, to residential school
survivors taking a second chance at their education. And since Dechinta accommodates young
parents, the centre includes KidsU, a children’s
program that runs alongside the official curriculum. Sometimes, the younger students join in the
adults’ activities, learning to collect medicines,
set fish nets, snare rabbits and hunt.
But Dechinta is still not a full-fledged university. Since establishing the school, staff,
alumni and NWT community members have
been lobbying their territorial government for
core funding that would allow the institute to
deliver full, degree-granting programs. In the
past year, Alfred Moses, the Northwest Territories minister of education, culture and employment, promised to work with Dechinta to achieve
that goal. Dr. Freeland Ballantyne hopes to see
students graduate with joint Dechinta-UBC and
Dechinta-U of A degrees by 2019.
But she also has more specific plans in mind.
She hopes to open branches of Dechinta in each
region of the Northwest Territories, teaching PHO
Elder Therese Sangris shows student Charlotte Overvold how to prepare fish for drying.