Suspension of Churchill field study course draws criticism

Churchill and the Manitoba Coastal Region travel/study program has been offered since 1995

The unexpected cancellation of the U of M Churchill-based field study course urged former students to write letters to the Clayton H. Riddell faculty of environment, earth, and resources.

The cancellation of a U of M Churchill-based field study course is drawing criticism from former students of the program.

A Facebook post published by the course’s instructor, Ryan Brook – associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan – Jan. 22 announced that “for reasons that remain unclear, the department head at [the] University of Manitoba has decided to cancel the course this year and potentially permanently.”

Brook urged former students of the program to write letters to the Clayton H. Riddell faculty of environment, earth, and resources’ dean, Norman Halden, and acting department head of environment and geography Mark Hanson to highlight the value of the university continuing to offer the course.

Brook said that like all field courses, the travel/study program is expensive to run, but much of its costs are offset “with research grants and amazing support from our northern partners.”

“In most years, the costs have been covered by tuition and travel fees paid by students, but not always,” he said. “As costs have gone up, student recruitment has gone down.”

Brook added that the university has “in some years” subsidized the program’s costs but “under current financial realities, all universities have to make difficult decisions and it comes down to priorities.”

“Is this course important enough to dedicate teaching resources to ensure it is sustainable over the long term?” he asked.

The travel/study program, Churchill and the Manitoba Coastal Region, introduced students to the ecological, cultural, historical, and economical setting of sub-arctic, coastal Manitoba, and provided an opportunity to be a part of an interdisciplinary research team.

The program was run in partnership with the region’s Indigenous community, Churchill Northern Studies Centre, Manitoba Conservation, and Parks Canada. Topics of study included vegetation dynamics, protected areas, ecotourism, and the connection between environmental change and human health.

Since 2012, the program has been offered jointly by the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Manitoba, with students from both universities participating.

Brook said the course began in 1995, when he initially participated as a teaching assistant before being asked in 2004 to take over instructing the course. He said the course was offered only every second year until 18 students from the university submitted a petition to the dean asking for the course to be offered yearly.

“It has been running annually since [2004],” he said.

Former U of M environmental sciences student Astitwa Thapa participated in the program in 2014 and said he “absolutely loved it.”

“Experiential learning opportunities play a significant role in shaping your personal, academic, and career development goals,” he said. “For me Churchill, it was absolutely the best.”

“That course helped me get a job,” he added.

Speaking on the hands-on experience students gain from the course, Brook said “Students are immersed in the people, landscape, and wildlife of the Canadian sub-arctic.

“They snorkel with beluga whales, they see polar bears in their natural environment, they observe herds of caribou, arctic foxes at their dens, northern lights, and they interact with northern people and learn about traditional knowledge.”

Brook added that more importantly, students design and conduct their own research projects.

“Just like you wouldn’t want your pilot to only have experience on a flight simulator, our students need real world practical experience in order to do their jobs effectively,” he said.

Thapa said he is disappointed with the suspension of the course.

“Not letting the course happen is an absolute shame,” he said.

“It makes no sense to have billboards at [the] Toronto airport speaking about why we’re trailblazers if we can’t fund an arctic research opportunity,” Thapa added.

“This is not about money. This is about priorities and the faculty has got its priorities wrong. They’re focused more on advertising and not research opportunities.”

In an email signed by Hanson, Halden, and Mary Benbow – associate dean of the Clayton H. Riddell faculty of environment, earth, and resources – the faculty’s commitment to the Churchill field study course “that is unparalleled anywhere else in the country,” was affirmed.

“We want to clarify that the course has not been cancelled, rather we are not in a position to offer it through the University of Manitoba this year for a variety of reasons,” reads the statement. “We have told the instructors that any student in the faculty wishing to take the course can do so through the University of Saskatchewan listing and we will provide a credit transfer waiver.

“We are actively working towards seeing the course back on the books for 2019 under a University of Manitoba number.”

Hanson cited “the financial structure of the course” as reason for the suspension.

“There are other reasons, but unfortunately privacy and confidentially precludes me from elaborating further at this time,” he said.

“With respect to student credits that you can get from the University of Saskatchewan,” Thapa said, “then they should stop all research opportunities at the U of M because, of course, you can get it from other universities.”