There’s a feeling of anticipation in the city as summer ends. The approach of winter means the approach of 2015 and the tripartite celebrations that will surround the city of Prince George’s 100th anniversary, the Canada Winter Games, and the 25th anniversary of the University of Northern British Columbia.
I’m just a few years older than UNBC so I don’t really have a memory of the city without its existence. Vague memories of touring the campus with my parents, and the knowledge that the Queen was in town are about it.
Given that it’s such recent history, I find it fascinating how foreign some of the attitudes are when learning about the push to create UNBC in the first place. Yesterday on CBC there was an interview with Edward John of the Tl’azt’en First Nation, one of the key people who helped establish the university. He recalled that the attitude- a negative one- of many was that the university would only be for “lesbians and Indians.” I haven’t been able to track down any quotes yet, but I’m told this is something that respected people could/did express in public. Tough to imagine today.
This morning I’m having a read through “UNBC, A Northern Crusade” by Charles J. McCaffray, one of the key person in the the creation of the university. In it he documents the many, many obstacles that had to be overcome by the “No-Name Group” of leaders and supporters who wanted to establish a university in the north. The famous one is the advanced education minister telling the Globe and Mail in 1989 that
“In the interior…people don’t think of education beyond grade twelve. The questions they ask at the end of the day are ‘How many trees did you cut today?’ or ‘How were things down in the mine?'”
It was a controversial statement, but certainly not the only attitude that had to be overcome. Throughout the book, the No-Name Group encounters people, both in the south and right in Prince George and other nearby communities, who don’t think that northerners will actually be interested in attending a university in the province’s north. UBC and Simon Fraser in Vancouver, ten-hours-plus away, do a good enough job at serving the small number of people in the north who would be interested in getting a BA.
It’s tough to list all the ways UNBC has impacted the region, but I can tell you how it’s impacted my own life. Even though it was only a fifteen minute drive from my home, I encountered so many new people and ideas as a result of the campus that shaped who I am today. I was able to walk into the campus newspaper office and get a writing job, and I was able to start a radio show on CFUR. I got to know my profs, and they gave me advice and pointed me towards opportunities that I wouldn’t have otherwise known about. I met my future wife.
I would likely have had many similar experiences if I had gone to U of A or UBC or anywhere else in the world, but the key difference is that I went to UNBC and had these experiences in Prince George. Spending my early twenties here made me see the city in a new light- I started going to concerts, I learned about the local history. I fell in love with the city I had spent my whole life in. Had I had all these formative experiences somewhere else- well, I don’t know that I would have come back.
Also key is the number of people I know who are only in Prince George because of the university. My friend Reza springs to mind- he was an exchange student from Iran when I met him. Now he’s the owner of the first Persian restaurant in the north, and an even bigger advocate for the city than I am. He’s embraced the north and it’s embraced him.
So the university has helped create new attitudes. And it was created, in part, because of the leadership of people at northern colleges who saw that there was room for higher education options in the north to grow. And those colleges were created by people who had the vision to create higher education of any sort in cities where there had once only been high school. And so on. Growth begets growth begets growth.
Ultimately, this is one of the reasons I’m so interested in being here. Every day you can see people building the foundations for the next steps in northern B.C.’s future. There’s problems and bad attitutudes, for sure, but there always has been. It’s not inevitable that those will be overcome… but as recent history proves, it’s not impossible, either.
So if you ever wonder why I’m so enthusiastic about Prince George, this is it. I’m inspired by how much things have changed, so quickly, and excited by what that can mean for the future- along with the right attitude.
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