When Vancouver Island University installed its new president Friday, the ceremony was moved off its main campus in Nanaimo to the longhouse of the Snuneymuxw First Nation.
Deb Saucier was announced as new VIU president in July. Saucier takes over from Ralph Nilson, the president who guided Malaspina University College through its 2008 transformation into full university.
In an interview, Saucier said she hopes conducting the formal installation according to Snuneymuxw protocol in their own space will signal to the university, the community and all B.C. of the importance of a new relationship with First Nations, based on respect, gratitude and honour.
“The work we do with the Nations is absolutely critical,” she said. “It is absolutely going to be key to our long-term success here at VIU, but also our long-term success as a province.”
Saucier is originally from Saskatoon and counts Métis as part of her family background. But she also counts B.C. and Vancouver Island as the starting places of her scholastic career.
She completed an International Baccalaureate at the Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific in Metchosin, then completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology at the University of Victoria. She boasts of still knowing all the best backwoods swimming holes on Southern Vancouver Island.
Saucier earned a PhD in psychology from the University of Western Ontario in 1995 and specialized in neuroscience before entering academia and eventually administration work. She spent two years as president of MacEwan University in Edmonton before accepting the job at VIU.
Delighted to now be back on Vancouver Island with her husband and pre-teen daughter she admits leaving Edmonton brought some pain. She regrets, for example, missing out on the opening of a fully equipped TV studio for communications students at MacEwan University.
But Saucier said the opportunity to take up a leadership role at a campus she believes is on the cusp of a bold new direction for 21st century universities was too good to pass up.
Universities must now go beyond just their subjects, what they teach, to look at who they are teaching. That’s why VIU’s focus on widening access to quality post-secondary education is so exciting.
It was before her arrival, but Saucier notes with pride VIU was first in B.C. to extend free tuition to all young people aging out of foster care. The move offered direction and purpose to 19-year-olds who might otherwise be at a loss.
She also notes VIU’s pursuit of continuing to offer college-type courses in trades, job training and adult upgrading alongside the academics of traditional universities is a bonus.
It goes to what Saucier calls “the transformative” effect of university. Students completing apprenticeships and those studying traditional academics will only be strengthened when they sit next to each other, participate in the same clubs and play on the same sports teams.
She takes a special pride in VIU’s commitment to offer courses and programing for people with developmental disabilities. “We put a lot of support there and they thrive,” said Saucier. “They do things that they have been told since kindergarten they would never do and they succeed.”
But VIU is also poised to make a profound impact on the communities in which it operates its four campuses: Nanaimo, Cowichan Valley, Powell River and Parksville/Qualicum.
As proof of the university’s already existing community-wide impact, Saucier speaks of VIU’s outreach effort to sign up children in low-income families for government-supported Canada Learning Bonds. In Nanaimo 40 per cent of all eligible children are now enrolled compared with 17 per cent nationally.
“These children don’t have to come to VIU. Even if we hope they do that’s not the point,” she said. “But the important thing is we are really trying to push the envelope of saying: ‘Have a dream’.”
“That’s the kind of university I want to be associated with and I want to push things even further,” said Saucier.