Education

Aurora College celebrates past, looks to uncertain future


Staff and students celebrated Aurora College’s first 50 years last week, with many people wondering what the future holds for the institution.

“That’s the sixty-four thousand dollar question,” college interim president Jeff O’Keefe told Cabin Radio at the college’s 50th-anniversary drum dance at the Chateau Nova Hotel.

“We’re sitting on the precipice of a very exciting time for us,” said O’Keefe. “As we move forward and explore what all this means, I think it’s very exciting for us.”

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In May 2018, the Aurora College Foundational Review made 67 recommendations to address issues of governance and course direction – and to eventually transform the college into a polytechnic university, a recommendation later accepted by the territorial government.

“A lot of work has to be done to figure out how we get there,” said O’Keefe. “It’s a good growth opportunity for us. It signifies more investment in our post-secondary system, which is exciting for us.

“In the theme of self-determination, the Northwest Territories is going to play an active part in achieving a higher level of education for Northerners. The anticipation is getting there fast, but I think this is going to take a while.”

New investments?

The territorial government hopes its new polytechnic university will improve the quality, and kinds, of education and training opportunities across the NWT.

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When the review was released, Caroline Cochrane – the territory’s education minister – stated the creation of a polytechnic will “create new and exciting opportunities for growth of the knowledge economy moving forward.”

A child is attracted by the display of photos and memorabilia at the Aurora College 50th Anniversary Drum Dance last week at the Chateau Nova in Yellowknife.
A child is attracted by the display of photos and memorabilia at Aurora College’s 50th-anniversary drum dance held at the Chateau Nova in Yellowknife. James O’Connor/Cabin Radio

The minister also stated a polytechnic will help meet existing labour demands, while “encouraging innovation and attracting new and increased investments in northern research.”

A few former students Cabin Radio spoke with said they enjoyed their time at Aurora College – it meant they didn’t have to get their education down south – and hoped the Foundational Review marked a fresh beginning for an institution struggling to overcome conflict over its governance in recent years.

Ten percent take a program

The early stages of the transformation into a polytechnic university are beginning to take shape, though it is unclear when the process will be complete, how much money it will cost, or how the eventual campus – or network of locations across the NWT – will look.

While that unfolds, Thursday’s reunion and celebration presented a time to socialize and have fun for several hundred people with ties to the College.

“It’s been 50 years and we really wanted to celebrate what we’ve done well,” said Jayne Murray, manager of communications and college relations. “We have tens of thousands of people over the years who have gone through Aurora College.

“Every year, approximately 10 percent of the adult population of the NWT takes a program, a course or a workshop through Aurora College. Every year.”

The Yellowknives Dene Drummers perform last week at the college’s reunion and celebration.
The Yellowknives Dene Drummers perform at an Aurora College reunion and celebration in January 2019. James O’Connor/Cabin Radio
Aurora College alumni Lori Dashney, a nurse, Vivienne McQueen, left, a social worker, share a laugh over old class photos from their days at the school. College marketing and communications officer Jeff Turner shares in the moment.
Aurora College alumni Lori Dashney, a nurse, and Vivienne McQueen, left, a social worker, share a laugh over old class photos from their days at the school. College marketing and communications officer Jeff Turner shares in the moment. James O’Connor/Cabin Radio

With so many people having some connection to the college, it was felt a series of celebrations should mark the institution’s half-century.

Each campus was invited to do something special, said Murray. The Yellowknife/North Slave campus chose a drum dance.

There are usually about 600 students at the college for full-time programs. Part-time or continuing education numbers range from 2,500 to 3,000 people.

With three campuses across the territory – the college’s Thebacha headquarters in Fort Smith, plus locations in Yellowknife and Inuvik – and 21 community learning centres in smaller communities, the college is not a traditional, centralized post-secondary institution.

A child is the centre of attention at the college dance.
A child is the centre of attention at the college dance. James O’Connor/Cabin Radio

The first program offered by its original incarnation was heavy equipment operation. Graduates of that program “literally helped to build” the Northwest Territories, said Murray.

Heavy equipment operator, bachelor of science and nursing, and environment and natural resources technology are currently the three most popular courses.

“They lead directly to jobs,” said Murray.

The personal support worker program is expected to gain in popularity as several facilities are built in the NWT, including the conversion of the old Stanton Territorial Hospital building into a long-term care institution.

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