'Bulging at seams,' Yellowknife will get new campus building

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The NWT government gave its clearest indication to date that a forthcoming polytechnic university will come with a new campus building for Yellowknife.

Addressing MLAs on Wednesday, education minister Caroline Cochrane said the territory hoped to acquire land from the City of Yellowknife and funding from the federal government.

No details of a planned campus building, such as its location or size, were provided.

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Cochrane also expects her department to create new student residences in Fort Smith and Inuvik as the present Aurora College gradually transforms into the polytechnic, which is yet to be given a name.

"We know we need residences – our student residences are not OK in Inuvik and Fort Smith, we need to work on that – and we know we need a campus in Yellowknife," the minister said.

"We don't need a brand-new [campus] building in Fort Smith and Inuvik at this point, but we are bulging at the seams in Yellowknife.

"Once we've figured out what we need, and we hopefully get the land that we want from the City, at that point we'll be writing a proposal and seeking federal government money."

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Cochrane said this would be a "good time" to approach Ottawa as it has shown increased interest in northern education, adding: "They have provided support to Yukon College, so it's time for us."

New hires, new plans

In the same meeting, the minister announced her government is also looking into the hiring of a director of Indigenous education – a position which currently does not exist.

"Indigenous knowledge is critical to the North and we need to honour that," said Cochrane, addressing remarks from Dehcho MLA Michael Nadli regarding the inadequate, often traumatic historical experience of Indigenous northerners in education.

"We have to be very careful. Half of our population is Indigenous," said Cochrane. "Northern people have been severely impacted by residential schools and colonization.

"But the North also has skills. We don't put up, enough, the strengths that Indigenous peoples bring.

"We're just in the process of looking at hiring a director of Indigenous education as a new position, and forming an Indigenous advisory committee this fall."

That committee will be among a range of plans and frameworks being introduced to guide the conversion of Aurora College into a polytechnic university, a plan approved by the NWT government last fall after a review criticized aspects of the current college's operations.

On Wednesday, Cochrane and Aurora College's new president – Tom Weegar, who will lead its conversion into a university – listed the steps his team will take in the immediate future.

An overarching "post-secondary education framework" will set out the territory's "vision and goals" for the college and other institutions based in the NWT.

Residents attend a public meeting in Fort Smith to debate a report into the future of Aurora College

Residents attended a public meeting in Fort Smith in June 2018 to debate the report into the future of Aurora College. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

The territorial government said it had received 743 survey responses from residents to help build that vision, almost 200 of them from residents aged under 29.

The final framework, designed to guide how the NWT invests in post-secondary education up until the transformation is complete, is expected to be published in August.

It will be joined by a strategic plan, guiding the college's planning and operations, to be developed starting in October. That strategic plan will be accompanied by an implementation plan.

On top of that, a "program review framework" will be devised to provide guidelines for the creation, or deletion, of Aurora College – and, subsequently, polytechnic – programs.

Cochrane said she expected nursing to be at the core of future programming, and said social work and education programs would be the first to be fully reviewed.

"Getting all of our programs reviewed properly, and following a clear and transparent process, is really critical to our long-term success," said Weegar.

'Bringing back trust'

Lastly, an "academic advisory council" featuring representatives of other post-secondary institutions is being put together.

The council is expected to meet for the first time in August. It'll feature a representative of Yukon College, which Weegar called "leaders in post-secondary in the North."

"I admire the work they are doing and we can learn a great deal," he said.

Cochrane stressed she remains committed to "strengthening all three campuses and the community learning centres" as MLAs asked about the future of the college in individual communities, such as Fort Smith.

The minister said it was too early to provide any concrete answers regarding which programs would be based where, or how campuses would evolve.

Cochrane said students in all three main campuses had made clear they liked where they studied and would not want to move elsewhere.

"That told us we need to keep the processes we have and make those stronger," she said, advocating for focus on using technology to connect campuses, rather than promoting a single, "main" campus.

Addressing a question about perceptions of the college, Cochrane acknowledged last year's review had implied some considered it a "college of last resort" – and pledged a promotional campaign aimed at changing that.

Cochrane said the campaign would focus on students who have used the NWT's higher education and succeeded.

"The student that went into university and made it. The student that struggled, maybe dropped out, and went back to school at Aurora College, that made it," she said, providing examples. "The person that went into trades and made it.

"We're looking for success stories of students that use our programming, to start to get back that trust from people. Bringing back that trust is important."

It's still not clear what name the polytechnic university will have. "We definitely can't call it just Aurora College, because it's not," said Cochrane. "We're going to need to find an appropriate name."