Royal Roads University’s new president takes reins, with an accent on history

Philip Steenkamp, the president of Royal Roads University, took a seat at a newly resurrected desk Wednesday, marking his first day on the job.

Steenkamp said the wooden desk with a shield and the words “Royal Roads” carved into the front was found in storage. It seated the commander of the institution when it was a military academy for officer cadets training for the Canadian Armed Forces.

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“It was a great touch. It’s such a nice connection to the military history of the college,” he said, noting the site also has a “profound connection” with local Indigenous history.

“It was very important for the Songhees and Esquimalt peoples.”

Steenkamp, the fourth president of Royal Roads University, takes over from Allan Cahoon. He was appointed to a five-year term as the university’s president and vice-chancellor on June 18, 2018.

Steenkamp has a bachelor of arts from the University of Natal in Durban, South Africa, and completed a master’s degree and PhD in history at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., where he met his wife.

From 2015 to 2018 he was vice-president, external relations, at the University of British Columbia. He previously held the same post at Simon Fraser University.

Steenkamp also worked in public service for the Ontario and B.C. provincial governments.

He rose to the position of B.C. deputy minister of aboriginal affairs working on the completion of the historic Nisga’a treaty, B.C.’s first modern treaty with a First Nation. He also served as deputy minister of advanced education.

Steenkamp described his position in Aboriginal Affairs, from 1997 to 2003, as the most exciting, demanding, challenging and rewarding he has ever held.

“It was a fascinating introduction to B.C. and to B.C.’s Indigenous history,” he said.

“I feel really privileged to have had that experience.”

Steenkamp is now excited about his position at Royal Roads, which delivers online distance education interspersed with short-stay, on-campus sessions for seminars, lab work and lectures.

It’s a learning model he said is suited to helping people deal with imminent issues such as climate change, rising populism and nationalism, and emerging technologies.

“We are small and special purpose, so we can focus on practical stuff to deal with the big challenges,” he said.

Steenkamp said he wants to meet colleagues at Camosun College, the University of Victoria and others in the community to discuss delivery of post-secondary courses in the West Shore.

In the meantime, he said, he is settling in.

“I’ve got a big learning curve,” he said. “A lot of people are still away [on holidays] so next week, I expect, will be when things really start rocking and rolling.”

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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