A plan of post-secondary facilities in Fort Smith as released by the NWT government in September 2022.
Turning Aurora College into a polytechnic university involves a “master plan” for each NWT campus. The plan was released on Friday – here are the details.
Yellowknife residents already know the plan’s biggest component: building a new campus for the university on Tin Can Hill, green space that some people wish was left well alone. Others say the hill is an ideal location.
Fort Smith, meanwhile, has worried that Yellowknife’s new facility and the transformation into a university will mean the town loses its status as the NWT’s academic capital.
The master plan promises more housing in Fort Smith and the destruction of former residential school Breynat Hall, which still houses some college students. Beyond that, the plan doesn’t really address concerns about Fort Smith’s role in the university era.
Inuvik, a campus voice rarely heard above the clatter of Yellowknife and Fort Smith, is also promised more housing and minor upgrades like more storage space for field research.
The college’s many facilities in smaller communities are included in the plan. Significant attention is also devoted to providing for families, to make sure the university does a better job than the college of helping students with kids.
On this page we’ll run you through the basics, community by community.
OK so how much of the hill do they want?
Tin Can Hill is obviously the dominant feature of the Yellowknife portion of the plan.
While there are, theoretically, ways the plan to develop Tin Can Hill could be stopped, in practice it’s hard to see that happening. The GNWT is certainly acting as though it’s a done deal. (Asked at Friday’s technical briefing what the backup plan is, Chris Joseph – who has led the creation of this master plan – said that was “not a technical question” and could not be answered. There is no sign of any such backup plan in the 120-page report.)
Speaking to Yellowknife city councillors in May, Joseph had said the footprint of the campus would be “in the vicinity of 25,000 square metres,” taking up roughly a twelfth of Tin Can Hill.
By Friday’s briefing, that figure had become 32,500 square metres. Joseph said 25,000 square metres was more like the minimum space needed (the master plan states the minimum is actually 22,000 square metres). According to Joseph, 32,500 square metres is the area residents can expect to be taken up when the campus is built. That’s a little over a tenth of the hill.
Importantly, the GNWT still plans to hold on to the remaining nine tenths for possible future expansion, but that would be many years off. The master plan presented on Friday is supposed to last for 20 years and does not contemplate building on most of the hill.
And what becomes of our beautiful, beautiful trails?
Well, the maps in the plan would suggest two heavily used trail entrances from the School Draw Avenue side of the hill are going to be at best affected – and at worst squelched – by new buildings. But the plans appear to leave most of the existing trail network relatively untouched.
Joseph on Friday reiterated the territorial government’s line that much of the trail network will be “preserved and in some cases enhanced.” The territory must by now be well aware that a riot will ensue if a campus opens on that hill with no pleasant trail network attached, so you can definitely expect some sort of trail system.
The master plan insists the GNWT will ensure “existing walking trails through the site are maintained.”
What is this new campus actually going to look like?
There are no fancy conceptual drawings yet. The territorial government doesn’t even expect to start developing the land until 2025 at the latest, so you may yet have two or three years of old-school Tin Can Hill dog-walking to cherish.
But we do have maps that set out roughly where buildings might go.
These are still in rough-guess territory so even though the GNWT produced them, don’t go sharing these around as though this is absatively posolutely how the campus is going to look. It’s one option. (But all the designs the GNWT has shared so far have used the top end of the hill, so it’s fair to assume that’s the broad area where the campus will ultimately be built.)
Are we getting anything else except a hill argument?
Yes. Amid all the hill campus back-and-forth, the detail of what would actually be built is interesting.
For example, the plan suggests a priority will be to build around 89 new single student bedrooms and 134 new housing units for students with families.
That would be welcome investment in Yellowknife housing on top of other recent downtown initiatives, but those figures are also based on a study that happened back in 2007 regarding what proportion of the city’s student body will need to have housing provided.
When we asked how reliable a study from 2007 might be in 2022’s housing environment, Joseph said the building of that housing will happen in phases – and, if the GNWT reassesses the situation, more housing could be added as required.
The master plan, by the way, also offers confirmation that the GNWT intends to build the housing on the Tin Can Hill campus rather than somewhere else in the city.
What kind of detail is there about how things will look?
There are bits and pieces of information, even without snazzy designs to show you.
We’re told the buildings on Tin Can Hill will be no more than two or three storeys high “to create an experience that responds to the natural setting.” (There’ll be no sitting down in a 12th-floor café and marvelling at how all the dog-walkers look like ants.) And the facility design will “follow the lines of the land,” too.
There is a lot of emphasis on access to the land and outdoor gathering spaces. That extends across all the campuses mentioned in the master plan. Expect landscaping and outdoor environments to be features of the university’s development across Inuvik, Yellowknife and Fort Smith.
Buildings on Tin Can Hill will be “nestled into the low points” when they face the lake and there’ll be a “wide buffer” between the new housing and School Draw Avenue. They will each have a green roof to give them “a natural and humble presence” (we’ll see how that goes). The main academic building will have “prominent views” of the lake, and there will be “boardwalk-style” pathways. Parking will be set back from buildings to “encourage an approach to the facilities on foot.”
And the cost?
Slightly north of $350 million judging by a table in the master plan, although that might not all come at once. That figure includes all phases of student housing, for example.
Tell me the president’s office is in Fort Smith. TELL ME the president’s office is in Fort Smith.
You know full well they’re never going to commit to this. We asked anyway. The usual delicate dance ensued in which territorial officials try to move everyone away from thinking in terms of phrases like “headquarters.” The phrase “administrative centre” is used to describe Fort Smith instead.
Here’s our exchange from Friday with Aurora College’s president, Glenda Vardy Dell – who is already in trouble with Fort Smith’s MLA because she doesn’t live in the town (reportedly owing to a close relative’s health requirements).
Cabin Radio: “What does the phrase ‘administrative centre’ mean?”
Vardy Dell: “I’ve worked in post-secondary for a long time at many other schools. We don’t use ‘headquarters’ as the term. We use the term administrative centre, and that typically houses the support departments that go across the entire facility. So if you think about Fort Smith – and historically it was the head campus, years ago – we’re looking at maintaining those support departments in that administrative centre to support across the college. It’s not a headquarters. That’s a government term. And so that’s just how we’ve envisioned it. And I think the other piece around that is we’re looking at three distinct, separate and strong campuses, and our programming will move across those to support that. But that support centre, that administrative piece, is still going to remain in Fort Smith.”
Cabin Radio: “And in which campus would the president’s office ordinarily be?”
Joseph: “It’s unusual, in a university, to declare a location of where the president’s going to be or a headquarters. So what we have, through the facilities master plan and this technical document, is building administrative space in all the campuses, with the board of governors having the ability to dictate where senior leaders exist through the life of the institution.”
Cabin Radio: “You’re going to need an office. Where’s it going to be?”
Vardy Dell: “Absolutely. Well, right now, if you look at it, I have a travel schedule and I spend time in each of the three campuses, as well as a travel schedule for some of the easier-to-reach community learning centres based upon the cost of travel. So I go to Fort Smith and there is an office there for me to work out of. I’ve created a space here at Northern United Place [in Yellowknife]. Historically there hasn’t been a president on campus in Yellowknife, and so there’s a space there. There’s also a space – it’s a spare office space, but there’s also space for me to work out of – in terms of Inuvik, as well.
“If you look at our executive leadership team right now, it’s important for leaders to be located on each of the campuses depending upon what their portfolio is, and that’s what we’ve done now. And that’s what will continue. The relationship is important to the president. The president needs to understand the communities. But the day-to-day leadership that happens on a campus cannot happen from one person on each of the three campuses. So the executive leadership team is dispersed among the three campuses at this point in time and will continue to be. And just as an aside, if we look at my executive leadership team right now, the majority of those are already located in Fort Smith.”
I am not one of the Fort Smith residents prepared to die on this hill. What do we get in this plan?
Housing, primarily, and the long-overdue destruction of the Breynat Hall residential school.
The GNWT says it can’t tear down Breynat Hall until new housing is built to replace its 52-student capacity, so that has to happen first.
Joseph said removing Breynat Hall is “at the very top” of the GNWT’s priority list for the transformation of Aurora College into a university, and has been raised with the federal government “as a point for further discussion,” meaning the NWT hopes funding might be found through federal reconciliation budgets.
Some form of commemorative feature that honours the memory of children associated with Breynat Hall will be constructed, in time.
Overall, the plan for Fort Smith mostly focuses on creating 100 new student bedrooms in a series of new residences, with accompanying outdoor space.
There will also be a new student services centre, meaning things like food services, stores and other facilities.
The total estimated cost for work planned in Fort Smith is just under $100 million. (A very important note: none of the work in the master plan has been commissioned or approved yet. The master plan is as much a brochure for potential funding partners as it is for residents. The plan is designed to ensure the right stuff gets built but the plan is not itself, the GNWT said, a commitment to build any of it.)
Oh good, you remembered us.
Sorry, but you know what Yellowknife and Fort Smith are like.
You’re getting some housing and a few other bits and bobs.
In Inuvik, the plan mostly focuses on new, more appropriate housing for students who have families. Fifteen such housing units are planned, with 10 homes for staff and researchers.
There’s also more storage space to “improve functionality for field research.” And a couple of million dollars is set aside for landscaping.
The total cost estimate for Inuvik is just short of $60 million.
In the longer term, the GNWT suggests an academic facility expansion in Inuvik might create space for a multi-use crafts studio, trade shop and other programming.
What is my community going to get?
This is a good question but also a sprawling one, because there are so many college facilities (community learning centres, to use the GNWT’s term) spread out across the territory.
When we asked for a summary of the GNWT’s vision here, Vardy Dell said the university’s main aim would be to create what she called a better “student pathway.”
“You may start with a single course or some upgrading but you’re wanting to move into the ENRTP program, for instance, and that’s held in Fort Smith,” she said, taking a student in Fort Liard as an example.
“We would figure out what that pathway looked like and see what could be delivered to you in Fort Liard – because I hate to say the word Covid, but Covid has taught us a lot about about how we can deliver differently. And so we’re looking at hybrid models for many of our programs. You may be able to get some of your coursework in Fort Liard that will then feed into your program, which helps to build your self-confidence and your path along the way.
“We haven’t done that in the past. I think it’s important we recognize that the bulk of our students are going to come from those small communities and we need to help people identify their success pathway that they want to go through.”
And more generally, what’s this about helping students with families?
This was a theme across the answers provided by officials on Friday: a desire to recognize that many of the future university’s students are going to have families of their own and need better supports.
As an example, childcare facilities will be built into new student services centres in Inuvik and Fort Smith and into the Yellowknife campus, too.
That’s also why there is such a focus on housing for students who are bringing families with them, and it’s even a factor in the development of outdoor spaces around facilities.
Officials on Friday said spaces next to classrooms where on-the-land programming can be held would make it easier for students with kids to attend, when those students often cannot go on longer trips into the bush without a struggle to secure childcare first.