Yukon University welcomes new Indigenous president

While it’s not quite the first semester he anticipated due to COVID-19, the new president of Canada’s first northern university is taking it all in stride.

Mike DeGagne is the first president of the newly minted Yukon University, and also its first Indigenous president to join its ranks.

Despite the fact there will be few students at the university this year, DeGagne is optimistic.

“It’s a wonderful time to be a part of this,” he told APTN News.

“The university is an opportunity for the Yukon to really take charge of its research, and, of course, all the training and skills development that we’ve developed for the university here in our territory, (as well as) open us up to the rest of Canada.”

Originally from Animakee Wa Zhing 37 First Nation in northwestern Ontario, DeGagne is Ojibway and has a PhD in Education from Michigan State University.

Aboriginal Healing Foundation

He previously served as the founding executive director of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, which responded to the legacy of residential schools in Canada and its associated community health repercussions. He also lectures on Indigenous governance and reconciliation.

DeGagne is perhaps best known for holding a seven-term tenure as director of Nipissing University in North Bay, Ont., from 2013-2020.

During his tenure, he took a leading role in Indiginizing Nipissing’s role in the post-secondary education sector, helped grow its graduate and undergraduate programs and oversaw a 70 per cent increase in research funding.

DeGagne stepped down from his role at Nipissing this year to focus on new ventures. He plans to use his background to build on Yukon University’s undergraduate and postgraduate programs, with a focus on furthering the post-secondary careers of Yukon First Nations students.

“Yukon first Nations have a real stake in this community, in this university,” he said.

“We’ve worked with them a long time now to find what programs we have to offer and how Indigenous knowledge is used in a university setting or college setting. I think it’s important that Yukon First Nations see this place as a partnership and engagement with them.”

Educational needs

One of the first tasks on DeGagne’s agenda as president will be meeting with First Nations communities and getting a sense of their educational needs.

“It’s a good way for communities to see that we’re serious about listening to what their needs are, and I think it’s also important for me and for others to understand what the communities are thinking in terms of their own search.”

While most of Yukon’s University’s classes will be online this year, DeGagne said it hasn’t put a damper on his excitement for the upcoming school term.

“This is going to be a resource, not only for the people here – Yukon First Nations and northerners – but a Canadian resource, and I think it’s an opportunity to open up the territory to a lot of people that have never been here.”

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