Illustration by Nigel Buchanan

Alumni Awards

Karen Barnes Bolstered Education In the North

The former president of Yukon University is one of four 2020 Distinguished Alumni Award recipients

By Therese Kehler

Illustration by Nigel Buchanan
November 23, 2020 •

Now more than ever, it’s clear. We all have a part to play to keep each other safe, to lift each other up. This year’s 2020 Distinguished Alumni Award recipients show us how it’s done. These four extraordinary grads Karen Barnes, Ron M. Clowes, Howard Leeson and Stanley Read — have brought together ideas and people to make the world a more just, humane and intelligible place. 

One of the first lessons Karen Barnes, ’93 MEd, ’03 EdD, learned when she took a job at Yukon College in 2008 was that the North didn’t need assistance to become self-sufficient. It needed tools.

And, as vice-president of academics, she knew education was the key to that tool box.

Three years later, as the college’s president, she set an ambitious agenda to create educational opportunities for Yukoners living in Whitehorse and those in remote Indigenous communities.

“If we can allow the North to develop on its own — to achieve its destiny, as some northerners like to say — then it’s good for Canada.”

Higher education in the North

The first thing on Barnes’s to-do list as president turned out also to be her last before retirement in June: transforming the college into a degree-granting university. It was a long road, but Yukon University finally launched in May 2020. Yukon’s First Nations leaders had been lobbying for a university for 50 years, and they had taught Barnes the value of northern education. “If you didn’t provide education close to home … much of the population’s capacity would not be realized because so many people could not leave.”

Mining for educational opportunities

Mining has been Yukon’s leading industry since the gold rush, but Barnes was struck by the college’s lack of related training and the community’s lack of access to industry jobs. “People were really missing out,” she says. So, she helped open the university’s Centre for Northern Innovation in Mining in 2016. It has a permanent facility in Whitehorse and a semi-trailer packed with mobile classrooms to reach remote communities.

First Nations education: the past, the future

Yukon is home to 11 of Canada’s 25 First Nations self-government agreements, a statistic that guided two key curriculum initiatives: a First Nations 101 course and the university’s first home-grown degree, a public policy program in Indigenous governance. The degree will train a new generation to guide policy decisions, while Yukon First Nations 101 is a mandatory one-day workshop for university staff and students, RCMP, teachers, social workers, judges and government officials living in the territory. “People walk away with a completely different understanding of something they thought they knew,” she says. “It creates this whole new shared understanding that hadn’t been there before.”


 6 things you should know about Karen Barnes

“She’s contributing to a change in relationships with First Nations and a change in the world’s perception and understanding of the North.” – Geraldine Van Bibber, MLA, Porter Creek North

Can’t quit now

Barnes was set to retire in 2017 when her contract ended. But in 2016, having spent years working on the college-to-university transition and knowing the enormous amount of work that still lay ahead, she gladly extended her contract to see it completed.

Northern lessons

The political history of Yukon’s First Nations and its 11 self-governing agreements had a profound impact on Barnes and shaped the university’s focus on self-determination. “It’s truly groundbreaking,” she says. “It’s a story that needs to be shared.”

Degrees of expertise

YukonU’s Indigenous governance degree in public policy is one of the institution’s most popular offerings. This year, it welcomes students in-person and online from Yukon, N.W.T., Alberta and northern B.C.

Cutting edge

Climate change was another obvious specialization for YukonU given the North’s direct experience of global warming and its impact. “We’re right in the front and centre of it.”

Came for the adventure

Moving to Whitehorse was a career opportunity but also a thrill, Barnes says. “Wow,” she recalls thinking. “I get to go live in the North for a while.” Now retired, she’s officially a northerner for good.

Go Deeper

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