The Northwest Territories' new polytechnic university could offer degrees in mine reclamation, a leading government official has said.
Tom Weegar, the man guiding Aurora College's transformation into a polytechnic, raised the possibility at a conference in Inuvik.
"One of the low-hanging fruits, potentially, for us is the idea of a mine reclamation degree," Weegar told delegates at the town's Arctic Development Expo.
Weegar cited Sudbury's Laurentian University, which operates a Mineral Exploration Research Centre in part focused on reclamation, as a possible model to follow.
"The ability [exists] for us to bring a proven degree up here, say from Laurentian, one of the few universities that does some pretty substantial mine reclamation programming," he said.
"So much of what we do has to be driven by the needs of employment and jobs at the end."
For years, the territory's economic authorities have forecast a small boom in the "remediation economy" – driven in large part by efforts to clean up the toxic former Giant gold mine on Yellowknife's doorstep.
Full-scale remediation work at Giant is due to begin in the next year or two, creating hundreds of jobs. The economic impact has been compared to that of a small mine opening.
Meanwhile, the NWT government has embarked upon the process of reinventing Aurora College – the subject of a recent, critical independent review – as a polytechnic university. The year 2024 has been earmarked as a potential date for that university to launch, though ministers have talked mostly in terms of a gradual transition.
Weegar was appointed in February to lead that process. One of the first tasks his staff will undertake is a comprehensive review of programming offered by Aurora College now, and possibly by a polytechnic in the future.
Paul Betsina, business development manager at the Det'on Cho Corporation, described mine reclamation as a key sector for the company.
Speaking at the same conference, Betsina said: "It is right in our back yard. It goes further than Giant Mine; we have many, many reclamation sites that are already happening or going to be happening. Many mines out there need to be reclaimed and fixed.
"We realize that. That's why we created a company to help us develop that and be part of reclamation projects throughout the NWT, wherever we can have an impact."
Michael Muller of Hemmera, a remediation firm active in the NWT, added in the same conference session: "If folks want their job to be meaningful, the idea of cleaning up the place you live and use is a pretty powerful motivator.
"I think there are a lot of people up here that care about the place that they live," said Muller, addressing Weegar during a question-and-answer session. "Here's an opportunity to take a liability and make it better. I think you can sell that."
The federal government, which holds responsibility for the clean-up of many contaminated NWT sites – including Giant Mine – hopes remediation work will lead to the growth of Indigenous businesses.
"We see some capacity development and transfer of knowledge that will hopefully, over time, build those Indigenous companies into world-renowned remediation companies that can export that activity to other sites," Matthew Spence, regional director general for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, said at the same conference.
Yet concerns have been raised regarding the extent to which Indigenous and northern workers are currently involved in remediation work.
A contractor works at the Tundra Mine remediation project in September 2015. Photo: Delta Nahanni Joint Venture
Earlier this year, the Giant Mine Oversight Board – an independent body charged with monitoring the federal clean-up of the mine, and the work of related contractors – noted a lack of local training opportunities.
"It appears that local companies have had some success in getting contracts," the oversight board wrote in its latest annual report, published in April.
"However, not enough local residents have been hired for available jobs," the board continued.
"None of the parties has provided the training and career development needed to help locals residents prepare for job opportunities.
"This seriously affects the local economy and community wellness, and efforts for reconciliation with Indigenous people."
Plans for the new university's programs are at an early stage. Weegar has indicated a number of existing programs, like nursing, will be maintained in some form.
In a later session at the same conference, Weegar described the importance of ensuring programs are designed to give each of the university's campuses – Yellowknife, Inuvik, and Fort Smith being the three main hubs – a unique focus.
"Each of our campuses should be distinguished from the others as centres of specialization in one way or another," he said, without indicating where a mine reclamation degree program might be based.
Weegar suggested a mine reclamation degree could play an important role in developing the new university's international footing. Attracting a certain number of international students is seen as important to the university's long-term financial sustainability.
A mine reclamation program, said Weegar, could see NWT students and their knowledge sent to places such as Chile, where similar remediation work is ongoing, through partnerships with local institutions.