‘University will fail’ unless communities unite, mayor warns

Signs brought to a public meeting over Aurora College's future by Fort Smith residents
Signs brought to a public meeting over Aurora College's future by Fort Smith residents. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

The mayor of Yellowknife says her city is doing all it can to “avoid a battle” with Fort Smith and Inuvik over the future of the NWT’s polytechnic university.

The territorial government has committed to launching a polytechnic university, appearing to indicate last year it will do so through a gradual transformation of the existing Aurora College.

Fort Smith residents have voiced fears Aurora College’s headquarters in the town will be lost in the process, although the territory insists it has made no decision on where any central university campus will be located – or if there will even be such a hub.

On Monday, a feasibility study commissioned by the City of Yellowknife was presented to councillors.



The study – not associated with last year’s review of Aurora College, which sparked the proposal to create a polytechnic university – placed a price tag of around $80 million on creating the new institution.

Chris Loreto, from consultants StrategyCorp, told councillors: “In our estimation, you have no choice but to do this. It’s essential for long-term sustainability of the city.”

In full: Read StrategyCorp’s study (pages 6-94 of the linked PDF)

StrategyCorp’s feasibility study waded into the delicate political dance over where the university is based by boldly declaring “it is a matter of time” until Yellowknife is announced as the main campus.



“Yellowknife has an ecosystem that is hard to replicate in other parts of the territory,” the study claimed. “This would help drive many essential parts of a successful university, including research (a core function of any university) and student success.”

Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty backed away from that assertion in an interview with Cabin Radio prior to Monday’s presentation.

Alty pledged to work with, not against, her equivalents in other communities as the project unfolds, and advocated an approach where no one community is interpreted as the priority.

Listen to Rebecca Alty’s full interview in the January 14, 2019 edition of Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News.

“We don’t want it to become a battle between the communities,” said Alty.

“I think if we’re still stuck in that old mentality of just one location – that people aren’t fluid and working from a variety of locations – then I think our university could fail, because we’re not in 2019 and beyond.

“I know there’s the discussion of where the president should be located and I don’t think it necessarily has to be Fort Smith or Yellowknife. You know, when I think of the diamond mines, it’s not like the president stays up at the diamond mine all the time. They are between Yellowknife and the mine. So I think the same could happen with the university.”

Alty suggested a new flight school in Fort Smith was an example of a program which was “better served in Fort Smith” than at Yellowknife’s busy airport, adding that nursing students were probably better-off in Yellowknife with a “giant hospital which offers … the opportunity to practice there.”



“So I think there are opportunities and we don’t have to go to battle,” she said.

‘We are united’

Late last year, a meeting of Fort Smith town councillors provided some insight into behind-the-scenes discussions between the communities.

At the December 4 meeting, Fort Smith Mayor Lynn Napier-Buckley said the City of Yellowknife’s representatives “weren’t looking for the headquarters,” according to minutes published by the Town of Fort Smith, and “their idea for the college becoming a university was somewhat different than what the department was pushing forward.”

Another councillor indicated, stated the meeting’s minutes, that “being in the conversation, he thinks Yellowknife is feeling played in this and would like to have a united front moving forward.”

Sure enough, a news release jointly issued by Yellowknife, Fort Smith, and Inuvik last Friday declared: “We believe that no decision should be made that would be a detriment to any NWT community.”

It added: “We are united in seeking to advance a post-secondary education framework with a governance model that reflects academic best practices and is arms-length from government.”

In particular, the communities are seeking clarity from the territorial government on the scale of the territory’s ambition when it comes to a new university.

There is a significant difference, the communities feel, between renaming Aurora College and instituting some program upgrades, and creating an entirely fresh university with new campus buildings.



“How big do we want to go?” Alty asked. “Do we want to just continue to offer the current programs in Yellowknife? Or do we want to have that grander vision and chase that?

“We want to work with Inuvik, and Fort Smith, and the rest of the NWT communities to really say, what does an expanded vision look like here in the Northwest Territories?

“It is part of the Department of Education, Culture, and Employment’s process to have that visioning exercise – we just want to make sure that it’s including the three main hubs as well as the rest of the communities.”

With files from Sarah Pruys