Leaders in Yellowknife and Fort Smith are digesting the territorial government’s initial plan for transforming Aurora College into a polytechnic university.
On Friday, Education Minister Caroline Cochrane said the territory would keep a three-campus model and would not, at least for the time being, choose a “main campus” from Yellowknife, Fort Smith, and Inuvik.
That news was welcomed as a relief in Fort Smith and considered a disappointment in Yellowknife, though both communities concede plenty of room exists for the territory’s plans to change in future.
Cabin Radio spoke with politicians from both Yellowknife and Fort Smith immediately after the territorial government outlined its university plans on Friday, while Cochrane and senior education staff addressed reporters about their ambitions and the detail of what happens next.
Below, you can read a series of key excerpts summing up how communities reacted and how the territorial government is explaining its vision.
Caroline Cochrane has been the Minister of Education, Culture, and Employment since April this year, one month before an independent review into Aurora College was published.
On a three-campus approach: It’s not about being the safest option to take. I’m an MLA for Yellowknife. If I was just doing this based on politics, I’d say, ‘This is what we’re doing,’ because I’d get votes here. But it’s not my job as minister.
If we have programs working in Fort Smith and Inuvik, why would I move everything to Yellowknife? It doesn’t make sense. We will look at each community’s strengths and weaknesses to decide on programming.
Some people in Yellowknife are not going to be very happy [but] I came here for change.
Every single community was taken into consideration. Fort Smith was scared – I would be scared. I knew the reaction I got would be based on fear, because nobody likes to have something thrown in their face. I also got a lot of support from Inuvik and Yellowknife.
I am committed to making Fort Smith’s campus as strong as possible – not taking away, but building on their strengths.
I haven’t committed that we will have a main campus, even. Do I need to move their finance, their communications? I haven’t figured out that I do. We need time to look at it. We have a lot of work to do. This isn’t a phone call once a month. This is serious meetings.
Fort Smith was based on fear, saying 70 people [may lose their jobs]. I don’t know where they got that. I would never do that to a community. I would do it if it was the best thing, let me correct myself. But I’m not convinced that is the best thing. I will be going into all of the regions as soon as this session is over.
They need to know, at this point, my commitment is to not take away from any of the campuses. Anything that we do will have that focus in mind. I can confirm to Fort Smith that if we made that decision [to headquarter the university elsewhere], it would be based on best practice. We would look at every other option. We would meet them prior to it. But I am not saying that is an issue at this point.
On the suspended social work program at Aurora College: Our students have not been receiving skills adequate to access the field of social work.
We need to talk to students who went south. Why? What was not working for them? I am not going to start a program that’s starting out on a bad foot. I appreciate the work our professors have done, but we need to make sure we have quality programs based on best practices, because the need in the NWT is huge. We cannot do sub-standard services any longer.
It is not OK that children are at risk [through social work failings and a lack of staff]. I need to do my part as education minister.
Councillor Julian Morse chairs the City of Yellowknife’s post-secondary advisory committee.
I’m a little bit disappointed but not surprised by the response. What I’m seeing is all the major decisions are being put off until the new associate deputy minister of post-secondary renewal is appointed.
To a certain extent I can see why they would do that. The minister wants somebody qualified to make these big decisions and they are looking for somebody who has expertise in transitioning a college into a university. I think that makes sense. And if people were expecting the government to answer all the big questions, that would be unrealistic.
It’s no secret whatsoever what I’ve been advocating for. I wanted to see the territory get behind a strong vision for a reinvigoration of post-secondary education in the NWT and a polytechnic established in Yellowknife. They haven’t committed to that yet.
I do feel the door is still open to do something bold. At some point, they need to establish and implement a bold vision. I don’t see this response as necessarily the final word on this, I think it’s the first word.
If you change nothing, then nothing is going to change. Right now, the response talks about changing a few, very minor things, but it doesn’t talk about any of the big changes. If this response ends up becoming the action plan of the government, I think there could be some major problems. But I don’t think that is necessarily going to be the case. I remain tentatively optimistic.
Fort Smith very much rallied together as a community in its response and I think, at some point, Yellowknife needs to do the same. I’m hoping the feasibility study gives us a foundation to do that, to really get people behind it. We need that community support.
For the most part, Yellowknife’s MLAs have been fairly quiet on this subject. They need to get together and get behind a bold vision.
Kevin Smith is the Town of Fort Smith’s deputy mayor.
I think it’s a more measured and mature response than we heard in June, when I think the minister was ready to send a fleet of moving trucks to Fort Smith and board up buildings. Things are toned down a bit and I think it’s nice that the government recognizes they need a real plan.
I guess we are cautiously optimistic, but there are still a lot of issues to work through.
Asked if he was expecting to open the report and find it favoured Yellowknife: Yes. That has been the concern. Relocating the headquarters, as was recommended in the review, would have a very negative economic impact on the community.
We were worried the government would keep charging ahead with this aspiration without having a clear vision about what they wanted to do, and I don’t think that does anybody well. It is positive that they are slowing down and realizing they need more substance to the plan.
Now, the worry becomes the existing, suspended programs. We’ve got to get those programs reviewed and up and running again. We can’t wait four or five years for all these plans to happen. The worry is this could drag out to endless reports.
We are going to watch out for position creep. I think it’s a myth that the associate deputy minister is going to fix all the problems. They are going to be in Yellowknife – all of a sudden are they going to have four, five, six staff working with them? It’s incremental, we have to watch for that.
One thing I’m really concerned about is that the future of post-secondary in the NWT meets the needs of residents, communities, and families. I’m not a big fan of this “destination education” argument. We have low completion rates in the high-school system across the NWT, and I think we need to spend a lot more time and resources fixing our own education system before we worry about attracting other people to the North.
What the minister said in June created a lot of uncertainty. I don’t know that a 90-page report that slows things down necessarily addresses all of that; until those questions are answered, the uncertainty remains.
Chris Joseph is the Department of Education, Culture, and Employment’s project lead for the territorial government’s official response to the Aurora College Foundational Review.
The main thinking is we are building on existing infrastructure and existing human resources. One of the strengths is the fact the college is spread across three communities, which improves the accessibility of education to all northerners.
There are problems with the way the college’s campuses are currently configured. There wasn’t an overarching plan of how the campuses come together to connect. We have committed to make sure we have a coherent plan at a territorial level, and an institutional level, that helps guide future decisions.
[A university split between several campuses] is not something new that’s being proposed for the NWT. We see universities with distributed campuses [elsewhere in Canada], and at each campus there’s a clear understanding of specific programming. That helps students understand why they should be going to that particular campus; it’s about developing a strategic marketing plan.
It’s not a novel idea to have a small university. We do have unique circumstances but we’re quite confident that the model that’s been proposed can be effectively implemented.
Part of this plan is that we’re going to have an institution that’s going to attract more students from inside and outside the NWT.
There is a great deal of work to be done in defining what we’re doing, going forward, and a new leader will be responsible for coordinating those activities. We suspect that there is going to be give-and-take on [the deadline to open the university by] 2024.
There has been and continues to be a need for physical infrastructure around programming in Yellowknife. Any decisions … will be informed by the preliminary steps that we talked about.
One of the considerations going forward will also be a rebranding of the institution … not only its character, but the name of the institution as well.