University 101: Canadian Circumpolar Institute points U of A compass to the North
Formed in 1990, the Circumpolar Institute is the current incarnation of the U of A’s long-standing academic interest and leadership in northern research.
History and geography have given the U of A a special relationship with the North and its people. Some facet of northern research has been conducted at the U of A almost since its inception. Unfortunately, these studies were solo efforts, tucked away in labs throughout the school’s campus and going largely unnoticed.
That all changed with the formation of the U of A’s Boreal Institute for Northern Studies in 1960. The Boreal Institute was a pioneer in multidisciplinary research, designed to foster northern studies collaboration across all academic departments. Its reach was modest by today’s standards. The Arctic’s environmental issues were just a glint in the world’s eye in those days, and what was considered “North” didn’t extend much further than the university’s backyard.
On July 1, 1990, the Boreal Institute for Northern Studies was renamed the Canadian Circumpolar Institute. The renaming was symbolic of many changes in the institute and a re-invigoration of northern research at the U of A. Gaining momentum over the next decade, the CCI was pushed over the top in 2004, when the university approved a new northern research strategy as part of its academic plan, Dare to Deliver, which encouraged greater collaboration on northern research and expanded the university’s already formidable presence in the North.
Reporting to the vice-president of research, the CCI, under the guidance of its acting director David Hik, has a mandate to promote and develop U of A participation in core research and education, and in regional, national and international partnerships. Hik says the institute acts as a focal point for the 50 to 70 researchers and 200-plus grad students in different faculties who are active in northern research and training throughout the circumpolar regions.
“The CCI helps to promote northern education and training, advancing northern research capacity and forging partnerships and collaborative networks that are so important in adding value to the work that any individual team would do,” said Hik. “Think of the CCI as sort of a connector for different initiatives and different areas of research across disciplines and within disciplines. When people want to know something, it is good to have a place to come for people to discuss all the different perspectives.”
The four areas of the U of A’s northern expertise are the impact of environmental change, including climate change; social and cultural advances and adaptation of Arctic communities; the health and wellness of northern communities, physical, social and cultural; and northern resource and economic development.
“All of these are not independent of each other,” said Hik, explaining that the plight of polar bears, for example, touches research done in each of the CCI’s four areas of strength. “In the end, the CCI includes a lot of researchers who have a significant impact on how the world views and questions change in the polar regions.”
Benefits of the CCI include some centralized administration; memorandi of understanding with schools across the North; the Canadian Circumpolar Press, which carries more than 100 titles, many of which are produced in partnership with northern communities; and the world-renowned Circumpolar Library, which carries more than 400,000 items.
Nonetheless, Hik says the biggest advantage of being associated with the CCI may be its good name.
“You can go into small northern communities across northern Quebec, Nunavut or the Yukon and people know the CCI and the University of Alberta because of the CCI. Part of that is our history—more than 50 years means the CCI has an institutional memory of things—and also that so many students and researchers out in the world are connected back to the university through the CCI.”