College asks Fort Smith: Why don’t students want to come here?

Aurora College’s president has challenged the Town of Fort Smith to better sell itself to students who currently don’t want to study there.

Glenda Vardy Dell made the comment while addressing Fort Smith’s council and Indigenous leaders earlier this week, immediately after the college’s new board of governors had been announced.

Fort Smith is one of three main Aurora College campuses alongside Yellowknife and Inuvik, and community leaders have long sought to guard against any slippage in the town’s status as the college headquarters and education capital of the NWT.


The town’s deputy mayor, Jay MacDonald, alluded to that fear at Tuesday’s meeting when he described – as the college undergoes a transformation into a polytechnic university by 2025 – a feeling of a “change in direction where the college seems to be more centralized around Yellowknife.”

Vardy Dell repeatedly stressed the college’s commitment to growing all of its campuses while providing services that help smaller communities, for example by returning skilled workers home after their studies.

Attempting to demonstrate that commitment, she said the college currently has 93 staff in the Beaufort Delta and Sahtu, 99 in Yellowknife and the Tłı̨chǫ region, and 144 in Fort Smith and the South Slave.

But attracting students to Fort Smith, she told councillors, is a problem.

“My question to you as a town council: Please tell me why students from the Beaufort Delta don’t want to come to Fort Smith?” Vardy Dell asked.


“Facilities are excellent. We bring high school students … down to see the facilities, so the students see it. But at the end of the day, they don’t want to come. I don’t have an answer. And I think maybe you can help me with that answer.”

Citing a federal $2.4-million investment into apprenticeships in the Tłı̨chǫ region, Vardy Dell said: “What I couldn’t do with $2.4 million if the students would just come. And so I don’t know why they won’t come to Fort Smith, but our trades numbers are small.

“I know we have an excellent staff. We have excellent facilities … but we can’t get the students to come from some of the other regions. I don’t have an answer for you. We’ve tried all kinds of things.”

President Allan Heron of the Fort Smith Métis Council suggested the “pitiful” quality of Aurora College’s student housing in the town may be the main issue. Vardy Dell allowed that housing “may very well be” part of the problem, but said the town could do more to attract students.


“I don’t think we sell our communities where our campuses are very well. I don’t think we do a good job of that,” she said. “As a town council, if you wanted to produce something that says how great Fort Smith is – or what’s available in Fort Smith for students, that lets students know what they’re coming to – that might be something that would encourage students from other regions to come to Fort Smith.”

MacDonald said the town was “working on a rebranding program to better sell the community” that might help to achieve that goal.

‘Told I should be in Yellowknife’

Meanwhile, scrutiny continues over where the college’s president is headquartered – one metric used by some Fort Smith residents in determining the extent of any shift toward Yellowknife.

Vardy Dell said the president had been Yellowknife-based since she began working at Aurora College, despite the presence of an office for the president in Fort Smith.

“I was told that the president would be in Yellowknife until the transformation was completed,” she told councillors, referring to the proposed completion of Aurora College’s transformation into a polytechnic university by 2025.

“I was told clearly when I took this position – or when I was asked to take this position on – that for the remainder of the time until transformation happened, I should be located in Yellowknife, based on the ties to the transformation team and to the government departments that I was going to have to be working with on an ongoing basis.”

Until this week, Aurora College was led by a government-appointed administrator, Denny Rodgers. Rodgers is now handing over power to a newly appointed board of 13 people plus Vardy Dell.

“The public administrator has always said that when the board of governors is in place, if they wish to bring the issue up again and decide that the president needs to live somewhere else, then that’s perfectly within their purview,” Vardy Dell said.

MacDonald, responding, said: “I think that’s the first time I’ve actually heard someone associated with the college or the territorial government say that the president will reside in Yellowknife.”

Vardy Dell quickly interjected: “That was the direction that I was given until the college transforms. Please don’t go back to the media and say that the president said she lives in, you know, she’s in Yellowknife. I think you have to understand the context that I presented to you. So I hope you do understand that.”

“So there’s still hope,” MacDonald replied.

Earlier in the meeting, the deputy mayor said Mayor Fred Daniels had written to education minister RJ Simpson expressing concerns regarding the college, only to be told by the minister that he was no longer responsible as the college moves toward arm’s-length status away from the NWT government.

Daniels told Vardy Dell he wished Fort Smith community leaders had been offered a seat on the new board of governors, though there was praise for the inclusion of three Fort Smith-based governors on that board.

Addressing programming concerns, Vardy Dell said Aurora College will look to introduce a general arts and science program in the coming academic year.

“We know that there are a large portion of students who are choosing to go south because we don’t have a general arts and science,” she said, “so that will certainly, I think, help to keep some of the students that automatically feel they have no choice, they’re going south.”