"The best advice I ever got from anyone was be yourself and be true to yourself and do what excites you."
Dr. Frits Pannekoek has created an inspiring legacy through his passion for promoting Alberta’s cultural heritage, Aboriginal history and open and accessible education for all. Over three decades of public service to Alberta, he was the driving force behind more than a dozen heritage developments designed to bring Alberta history and the opportunity for post-secondary learning to everyone.
Born in 1947 in the Netherlands, Frits moved to Alberta as a child with his family and grew up in Wetaskiwin. From an early age, he wanted to be a historian and read every history book in the public library, even though his parents worried, as Frits recalls, that “it was a road to unemployment.”
He pursued his dream, earning his Bachelor (Honours) and Master’s degrees at the University of Alberta. Ironically, he had to move to Ontario, where he attended Queen’s University, to do his doctorate in western Canadian history and indigenous peoples. It was not considered appropriate to have three degrees in such a narrow subject from one university.
From the beginning, Frits broke new historical ground. In 1975, he became Parks Canada’s first Chief of Historical Research (Prairie Region). Headquartered in Winnipeg, he was responsible for leading historical research in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, northern Alberta, Yukon and the Northwest Territories. During his almost two decades as Director of Historic Sites Service and Archives for the Alberta government, the province’s museums and historic interpretive sites quintupled, from three to 15, including Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As his admirers have noted, this heritage network would not exist without his vision, dedication and creative genius.
In his seven years as Director of Information Resources at the University of Calgary, Frits conceived and secured support for a leading digital learning centre which eventually became the university’s digital library. He also quadrupled the yearly output of the University of Calgary Press. Many of the books won national awards. Frits is particularly proud to have spearheaded the Alberta Heritage Digitization Project, which saw all of Alberta’s historic content, including newspapers, local histories, books, magazines and photos, become freely available on the Internet. He was also involved in a major research initiative, the Supernet Research Alliance, which investigated the impact of high speed internet on the province.
In 2005, Frits took on duties as President of Athabasca University and began work to transition the institution from a largely print-based distance university to a world-class centre of online learning. Under his leadership, Athabasca University became one of four Alberta Comprehensive Academic and Research Institutions. A new online doctorate in business administration and online architectural programs were the first of their kind in Canada, as was the Aboriginal business major. The success was achieved in partnership with Architecture Canada and many of the First Nations communities of the province.
Frits has worked to improve access for students traditionally under-represented in universities: First Nations, Métis, working adults, people with disabilities and students in rural and remote communities. In 2008, Frits led a partnership of colleagues, a private company and educators that established the Learning Communities Project to create post-secondary learning opportunities for people in remote northern Alberta communities and work camps. This successful initiative has attracted substantial private and non-profit sponsorship, as well as wide-spread partnerships with Métis and First Nations Peoples. Frits also volunteers with Mikai’ Sto Foundation, which works to establish, operate and maintain infrastructure so Blood Tribe members, students, researchers and scholars have a place to study and preserve historical artifacts and pursue their educational goals. Fittingly, Mikai’Sto named him “Aakaisspomihtaa” a Blackfoot name that means “Helps Many.”
Frits has also collaborated with universities in Asia and Africa to ensure support for Athabasca University’s overseas students. He became a member of the International Advisory Committee for the UniSim University in Singapore and led the heritage development program among institutions in Mozambique.
In 2007, he established the Athabasca University Press, Canada’s first truly open press, providing all scholarly content free and online for anyone in the world. Frits was also the inspiration behind the creation of two new university institutes – one for the Athabasca River Basin, and the second for E-Learning and New Technologies. The Athabasca River Basin Research Institute was launched to bring industry, community and various interests together to understand, preserve and nurture a river basin that Frits describes as “one of the lungs of the planet.”
From 2008 to 2012, Frits was president of the Norway-based International Council for Open and Distance Education. The 45 universities of this UNESCO-sponsored body are working to make post-secondary education accessible to any student, anywhere, regardless of means or circumstance. Because of his international experience, and in response to his passion for open distance learning, a selection panel awarded Canada’s only UNESCO and Commonwealth of Learning Chair in Open Education Resources to Athabasca University in 2011.
Frits has received numerous honours over the years, including the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, the Institute of Public Administration of Canada Bronze Award for Excellence and three Premier’s Awards of Excellence. In 2005, he received the Alberta Centennial Medal for service to Alberta, and in 2012 the Calgary Stampede Centennial Western Legacy Award. This award identified him as one of the most influential one hundred Albertans in the last one hundred years. Tianjin Radio and Television University in the People’s Republic of China awarded Frits the title of Honourary Professor for his work in open and distance education. He also holds an Honourary Doctor of Literature and Philosophy degree from the University of South Africa.
His lifelong love of western Canadian history, and Alberta history in particular, has not only encouraged countless Albertans to engage with the world around them but has helped shape Albertans’ collective identity. Frits strongly believes that museums and heritage sites are critical to people’s understanding of themselves and others. “The best advice I ever got from anyone,” he says, “was be yourself and be true to yourself and do what excites you.” Albertans will continue to benefit from his passion long into the future.