“Big plans” take shape at Canada’s new UN leadership training centres

Monte Stewart
May 10, 2022

Two Canadian universities have joined an international network of UN-sanctioned training centres with a promise to bring a unique nation flavour to efforts toward global economic and social sustainability.

The University of Victoria (UVic) and York University’s satellite campus in Markham, Ont., are home to CIFAL Victoria and CIFAL York, respectively. Known by its French acronym, Centre international de formation des autorités et leaders, a CIFAL centre is part of a global network of UN hubs that provide training and promote the exchange of knowledge across governments, the private sector, and civil society, including First Nations.

Canada became one of the few countries with two CIFALs when UVic launched its centre in March, following CIFAL York’s opening in 2021. The two Canadian sites are among 24 CIFALs across Asia, Oceania, Africa, Europe, the Americas and the Caribbean that focus on different areas in a collective bid to help the UN achieve its 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs).

CIFAL Victoria director Crystal Tremblay, an assistant professor in UVic’s geography department, told Research Money that members of the two Canadian CIFALs already meet regularly. They have begun discussing possible joint webinars, events that bring people together around SDGs, related courses, and other projects.

“It’s still early, but we’ve got big plans,” she said.

Adding Canadian character

CIFAL York’s associate director is Idil Boran, an associate professor in philosophy and associate faculty fellow at York’s Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research. She said the two Canadian centres bring a “unique tone” of distinctly Canadian excellence. The CIFALs will form “complementary” North American hubs as centres of innovative leadership training, “bridging the university and communities of practice.”

“We are in discussions to explore collaborative synergies between CIFAL York and CIFAL Victoria,” she told Research Money. “As CIFAL York, we are thrilled to build collaborative ties with CIFAL Victoria.”

CIFALs are designated by the UN Institute of Training and Research (UNITAR), which serves as the UN’s training branch. UNITAR aims to help governments implement the UN’s 2030 agenda, an environmental and economic blueprint adopted by all UN Member States in 2015.

Although it is one of Canada’s smaller universities, UVic scored well recently in the Times Higher Education rankings of 1,406 institutions assessed on their contribution to the UN's SDGs. UVic placed second in both the climate action and life on land categories, and fifth in the life below water segment.

Factoring in the 17 SDGs, UVic ranked 12th overall. Western University earned the best Canadian overall result, placing third. UVic and Western were among six Canadian universities that cracked the top 20. The others were Queen’s (eighth) and the Universities of Alberta (11th), British Columbia (13th), and Guelph (16th). York ranked 33rd overall.

Base funding in place

Boran said CIFAL York resulted from York’s longstanding ties with its municipality. The centre was created by York University, UNITAR, and York Region in 2020, and commenced operations in June 2021.

Tremblay said CIFAL Victoria, the first CIFAL on North America’s West Coast, was spearheaded by UVic president Kevin Hall after he joined the school in 2020 from Australia’s University of Newcastle, home of CIFAL Newcastle, where he was vice-president of research.

Tremblay said CIFAL Victoria has base funding from UVic and hopes to sustain itself through fee-based courses and training sessions, while also offering free courses.

“I think [CIFAL Victoria] is a really exciting opportunity for our region, but also nationally as a country,” said Tremblay. “It shows our commitment to addressing, and making action towards addressing, the sustainable development goals.”

CIFAL Victoria is also collaborating with all other CIFALs and being “more strategic” by targeting partnerships with other centres located on the Pacific Rim because of their locations and shared focus on oceans and climate, Tremblay added.

“So we have had some initial meetings with those CIFAL centres to think more about doing some collaborations around training but, possibly, around research as well,” she said.

CIFAL Victoria is also developing a research partnership with ArcticNet, a network of Canadian centres of excellence involving scientists, engineers, and other human health, natural and social sciences professionals. ArcticNet partners with Inuit organizations, northern communities, federal and provincial agencies, and the private sector on ways to study climate change impacts and modernize Canada’s North.

Tremblay indicated that the CIFAL Victoria-ArcticNet research project will look at the changing climate and involve Arctic youth using participatory video and engagement methods. UVic will host some workshops next year as part of the project.

According to a UVic news release, the central purpose of CIFAL training programs is to develop and strengthen human capacities to better respond to development challenges and to facilitate city-to-city partnerships. Tremblay said the centre has signed memoranda of understanding with the nearby municipalities of Victoria, Saanich, and Oak Bay.

Committed to integrating Indigenous knowledge

CIFAL Victoria has vowed that it will deliver training activities and research for students, staff, faculty and the community that builds on the university’s commitments to UN sustainable development goals and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). And, CIFAL Victoria will link the region with the global community and support international knowledge-sharing and partnerships, focusing on four key themes:

  • Oceans, climate and sustainability;
  • Innovation and entrepreneurship;
  • Decolonization and Indigenous knowledge;
  • Global health and well-being.

Tremblay said the centre will have a very strong focus on decolonization and support for UNDRIP, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and “other important frameworks in Canada,” such as the reports, and calls to action, on missing and murdered Indigenous women in B.C. As part of an overall holistic approach, CIFAL Victoria is “strongly motivated and committed” to integrating Indigenous knowledge throughout its work.

CIFAL York’s focus areas are:

  • Disaster and emergency management;
  • Health and environment;
  • Entrepreneurship and economic development;
  • Diversity and inclusion;
  • Advancing the UN’s SDGs.

Covering freshwater and transportation

More specifically, the Toronto-area centre’s activities address the impact of climate change on freshwater ecosystems, as well as considering equitable and sustainable transport in cities. Boran noted that CIFAL York is also preparing to host a special event marking International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples 2022.

Robert Phillips, a political executive with the B.C.-based First Nations Leadership Council and First Nations Summit, welcomed the new centre’s creation. He added that Indigenous groups would like to get more information about CIFAL Victoria’s potential future projects.

“We look at it as a very positive movement,” he told Research Money. “And, we agree with the focus on the four key themes around oceans, climate, sustainability, and especially the third one — decolonization and Indigenous knowledge — because there’s so much traditional knowledge that we’ve tried to share amongst, especially in the past 150 years, so much [institutional] and system racism.”

The traditional knowledge-sharing and partnerships between universities and local, provincial, regional and federal governments will help people understand Indigenous people’s origins, history, culture, languages, and way of life, said Phillips. He anticipates that CIFAL Victoria will also further the implementation of UNDRIP, a proposed federal UNDRIP law, and related B.C. legislation already in effect.

Phillips said Indigenous groups are quite interested in partnering with universities and on UN-related projects surrounding Indigenous training programs, knowledge-sharing, and decolonization in Canada and internationally. And it is important to have a second Canadian CIFAL because of Canada’s large size and the amount of time needed to cross the country.

“Just in terms of access and for people to get the training and education," he said, 'I think closer definitely is better.”

The more indigenous knowledge that is shared and the more Aboriginal ways are taught in an authentic manner, he added, the more UVic can enrich its CIFAL, help deal with the climate crisis, and further the goals of global health and well-being.

CIFAL Victoria was officially launched in a ceremony at UVic’s First Peoples House. Phillips said that location was important because it is a welcoming place for Indigenous students with diverse languages and ancestries, and a key training facility for various other groups.

“It just starts things off in a good way,” said Phillips.


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