[Note: this blog post was published as an opinion piece in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix Friday 23 November 2012. See http://www.thestarphoenix.com/late+save+Kenderdine/7598518/story.html]
I am sad, angry, and confused that the University of Saskatchewan released news Thursday November 15th 2012 that it is suspending operations at Emma Lake Kenderdine Campus, the U of S-owned campus on the shores of Emma Lake, in Saskatchewan’s northern boreal forest. It is shocking news. The timing is particularly strange: just one day after the U of S hosted a major expo to flaunt its support for experiential learning opportunities for students, it moves to close the one campus that offers exactly that.
Such a move, of course, is a sign of the fiscal restraint facing the University. As a campus community member, U of S grad, and a Canadian environmental historian whose research encompassed the beginnings of the Kenderdine campus, I pause to reflect on the irony of this announcement.
Augustus Kenderdine was a painter, trained in Britain, who taught art from his top-floor studio in what is now the Thorvaldsen building – home of chemists, pharmacists, and old memories of turpentine. By the 1920s, as cars brought mobility and better roads led north of Prince Albert, Kenderdine discovered Saskatchewan’s north, and set out to paint its beauty. He took yearly sojourns at Emma Lake.
When southern Saskatchewan fell to its knees amid the dual prongs of drought and economic devastation, Saskatchewan’s mid-north, all along the forest edge, boomed. It is a little-known story. Thousands of prairie refugees fled north to carve a living off a bush homestead. It was a tough life, but it worked. Northern residents required less than one tenth of the aid of their southern kin – in a time when relief money was a loan for which the government expected payment, a place with fuel, game, fish, berries, and a chance to grow a garden and raise a hay crop seemed a Saskatchewan mecca.
Kenderdine convinced President Walter Murray to purchase land at Emma Lake, and build an art school. It was an art school with a purpose: bring teachers from across the southern wasteland north, to the beauty of the boreal forest. Through art, the teachers would know that not all of Saskatchewan was barren and broken. There, they soaked in a landscape of trees, water, and green and took those visions home with them, to bring a sense of hope and renewal to their students and communities squeezed by drought. It was an extraordinary vision of what Emma Lake meant to the U of S – a critical foothold in a Saskatchewan landscape that was decidedly not the prairie.
It was a stretch for the University. In the province that was hardest-hit by the depression, in the middle of endless years of short budgets and constricting choices, Kenderdine convinced the president that this was a worthwhile endeavor. He won, and Saskatchewan artists, biologists, students, writers, ecologists, and many others have been the thankful beneficiaries.
Fast forward to now. This past September, my colleague and I from the School of Environment and Sustainability took 30 graduate students on a field trip to Emma Lake, the Lakeland, the boreal forest, and Prince Albert National Park. Our students come from all over the world. We had two perfect days and nights at Emma Lake Kenderdine Campus, basking in starlit nights, excellent food, a sense of history, all within an ecological experiential learning laboratory of the highest order. We wished, several times, that we had brought our new U of S president, Ilene Busch-Vishniac, along with us. What a jewel in the campus crown – we wanted to show it off.
Kenderdine campus has an Achilles heel: it is not operational in the winter. So, the peak time is May to September. When are students most active on campus? September to April. That leaves a scant one month crossover. How much money would it take to winterize it? What could that do to create better connections between the facility and the main campus student body? Solutions, I’m sure, abound.
Yes, I understand fiscal constraint. Yes, I believe you when you say it was a difficult decision. But if Kenderdine and Murray could create it during a time when the province of Saskatchewan, and the U of S, were going through their most difficult fiscal times, could we not do the same now? Please, for the sake of student experiential learning, let’s reconsider.