Archival Connections Speaker Series: Dr. Jonathan Swainger

Tierney Watkinson | News Director

Are you interested in learning more about the history of this university?

On January 31, History Professor Dr. Jonathan Swainger spoke about his recent book Aspiration: A History of the University of Northern British Columbia to 2015.

Dr. Swainger conducted approximately 80 interviews and investigated the archives for about four years before compiling his research into one, nearly 300-page collection.

The Archival Connections Speaker Series event, also live streamed by UNBC, was held in the Canfor Theatre at 4:30pm. For the time being, if you follow the link in the UNBC Events page for this event (, you can still watch the recorded video.

Ramona Rose, Head of Archives and Special Collections at UNBC, opened the event. She spoke a little about the Archival Connections Speaker Series, explaining, “These talks demonstrate the connections between archival research and the connection to contemporary issues of society.” Dr. Swainger’s speech is the third in the series so far.

Dr. Geoffrey Payne, Physiology Professor as well as Interim Vice President of Research and Graduate Programs, followed. He announced a new joint scholarship, between his office and an external funder, for the Northern BC Archives Graduate Research scholarship. This scholarship is worth $5000 and will be awarded up to two times per year, he said, to graduate students pursuing archival research at Northern BC archives for their graduate thesis or project.

Dr. Swainger opened with the revelation that we are coming up on the 30th anniversary of the first, informal chat between Charles McCaffrey (then principal of CNC) and friends Bryson Stone and Tom Steadman about the possibilities of students taking and completing their degrees in Northern BC.

His dry humour, a staple to his lectures as students would surely agree, was not absent and was woven into his passionate words about the story of UNBC and his search for information.

This was not the first time Dr. Swainger has spoken publicly about Aspiration; first, he spoke after the book was launched in November 2016, and again at the Prince George Public Library in March 2017.

Dr. Swainger said that his research began roughly in the spring of 2012. He noted that it feels as though he has been talking about this project forever. “Far too long,” as surely his colleagues, Dr. Swainger dryly attested, would agree.

The Archives, on the 4th floor of the university library, were the central place for research for this book, and Dr. Swainger spoke extensively about the benefits and even drawbacks of working from such a treasure chest.   

He also spoke of how the history as recorded in the archives would sometimes not align with what people recalled when interviewed; their views had changed based on the positive outcome of the bid for the university.

“At its best, these active comparisons between what the individual did, thought, or believed at one particular point in time and how the passage of time gave rise to differing notions provided splendid moments through which we see that history is always a dynamic conversation between past and present.”

In 1992, Dr. Swainger was one of the first 8 people hired to teach the new university’s students in Prince George.

During his speech, he admitted to a few instances of ignorance on his part–he thought his prospective job would be in Prince Rupert, not Prince George and subsequently decided that a job on the West Coast of BC would be nice. Dr. Swainger had never been to Northern BC before his interview in Terrace.

The professor had planned to move on after 4 years. Not only is he still here at UNBC a quarter-century later, but he has written an entire book about the school he had once mistaken to be in Prince Rupert.

Dr. Swainger ended his talk with a poignant statement: “We need to produce students with sharp minds and critical skills, so that they possess the means to speak truth to power. I would suggest that such a result represents a fitting legacy to those workaday Northern British Columbians who, in the latter half of 1987, wondered what it would take to reimagine the future of an entire region.”

UNBC History Department Chair and Professor Dr. Ted Binnema managed a question period following the speech.

Aspiration: A History of the University of Northern British Columbia to 2015 is a recipient of the 2017 Jeanne Clark Memorial Local History Award. It is available in the Geoffrey R. Weller Library in both the Special Collections and Stacks; it is also for sale in the UNBC Bookstore.