The NWT government appeared to cool just slightly on its plan to turn Yellowknife’s Tin Can Hill into a polytechnic university campus during a legislature exchange on Thursday.
Aurora College, the NWT’s largest post-secondary institution, is being turned into a polytechnic university, a process due to be largely complete by 2025.
Part of that transformation involves a planned new campus in Yellowknife, to replace a downtown building considered by both students and officials to be ageing and uninspiring.
There’s no telling when or if the proposed facility will actually be built – the plan appears to rely on finding more than $350 million that the NWT government does not currently possess.
But even before reaching that stage, there has been a protracted argument over where to put the new campus.
The territorial government has selected Tin Can Hill, a green space popular for dog-walking, as its preferred location. There are plenty of residents and experts who agree with this choice, but others say it will ruin an area that currently serves vital purposes.
In the legislature on Thursday, Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby said building on Tin Can Hill would ignore the “potential emotional and physical impacts on residents’ health and wellbeing at the loss of such a treasured, valued green space.”
The NWT government says Tin Can Hill would offer great views for students alongside a host of other benefits – and says all the other locations it looked at were worse.
On Thursday, education minister RJ Simpson made clear that the Tin Can Hill space is still the leading contender for a new facility.
However, in an exchange with Nokleby, the minister acknowledged some uncertainty as to whether it’ll stay that way.
“Right now, they are undertaking a phase two environmental assessment. The phase one assessment showed there is moderate potential for contaminated soil or groundwater,” Simpson said, noting the latest assessment was delayed by the city’s evacuation and is now set to wrap up in the spring of 2024.
“Once that information is in, that will be provided to the board and to the college,” he said. “They will look at it and make a determination if they want to pursue that spot or not.”
Asked by Nokleby why there was not more public engagement occurring, Simpson said: “At this point, engagement isn’t necessary, because we don’t even know if that’s going to be the location.”
Nokleby suggests an alternative
In the past, the site has been spoken of in terms that suggested little chance of going elsewhere.
A memorandum of understanding signed with the City of Yellowknife last year named Tin Can Hill “the intended site.”
Chris Joseph, leading Aurora College’s transformation into a polytechnic, said at the time he would not discuss the merits of any other locations “because, at this point, we’re not presenting alternatives – we’re presenting what is optimal.”
That report stated Tin Can Hill presents “a great opportunity to develop a striking and unique campus identity.” It also insisted the vast majority of existing trails and green space could be preserved, with the campus initially set to take up about a twelfth of the overall available land – though the facility would be expected to expand in later years.
Nokleby says putting the new campus on Tin Can Hill will greatly increase traffic in an area that won’t cope, and place huge strain on housing in an area already “sitting at practically zero vacancy with overcrowding issues.”
She wants the Capital Area – the stretch of land around the museum and legislature – to be considered instead.
That “represents a more sustainable and strategic parcel of land for the university, not only from a traffic growth and housing perspective, but also from a recreational land use perspective,” Nokleby argued.
Simpson replied: “There are reasons why [Tin Can Hill] was the preferential site. There are some locations around the legislature here where the land was not, perhaps, of the size that would allow for future expansion.
“We wanted to be close to downtown, close to transit, close to places that people can live, but all in one place so that students can live near the school – and somewhere near outdoor areas as well, so that people maybe coming from the smaller communities might feel a bit more at home.”
The minister said next steps will be determined by the spring’s results from the phase two environmental assessment.
“Before there are any shovels in the ground, there will be a significant amount of engagement,” he promised. “Hopefully, partnerships with Indigenous governments. Hopefully, economic opportunities that will be realized.”