Fort Smith airs university criticisms as minister gives HQ reassurance
Fort Smith’s mayor worries a new NWT polytechnic university won’t reflect the “diverse and predominantly Indigenous communities” that are home to most students at the existing Aurora College.
The criticism came as education minister RJ Simpson gave the territory’s strongest suggestion yet that the university’s headquarters would remain in Fort Smith – where Aurora College is based – as opposed to Yellowknife.
Simpson said in the legislature: “If there is already a headquarters in Fort Smith, I don’t know why we would build a headquarters somewhere else.”
Writing to Simpson this week, the Town of Fort Smith expressed strongly worded reservations about his plans for the polytechnic, calling for more Indigenous and regional representation on its proposed board.
Mayor Lynn Napier’s letter responded to two discussion papers published by the NWT government – one on how the university could be governed, and one on the courses it may teach.
The letter was copied to nearly every MLA, mayor, and chief in the territory.
“The new board of governors must be 100 percent NWT residents with no less than 50 percent Indigenous members,” Napier states.
The town later adds no more than 50 percent of the board should be Yellowknife residents.
“The Aurora College transformation team must reduce its significant membership of GNWT bureaucrats in favour of knowledgeable residents,” the letter states.
The GNWT’s discussion paper on governance had suggested a board of governors be created later in the transformation process. The Town of Fort Smith, on the other hand, said that should happen sooner rather than later.
“The transformation process would greatly benefit from independent, transparent leadership and oversight mechanisms,” the letter tells the minister.
“This is currently not possible, so long as the GNWT’s Department of Education, Culture and Employment makes decisions in private. This process cannot be driven by a closed-door desire to create a ‘Destination U’ for southerners and non-resident academics.”
The town characterized the current leadership as a “team of 10 Yellowknife bureaucrats … forging ahead with decisions that will determine the direction of the new polytechnic, absent any arms-length independent leadership and oversight that would be provided by a board of governors.”
The territory sacked Aurora College president Tom Weegar, who had been leading the transformation into a polytechnic, in January. Andy Bevan, an existing NWT government employee, was promoted to replace him.
Fort Smith asks the minister what happened to a 2015 commitment from Aurora College’s then-governors to use an Indigenous Education Protocol, a list of seven principles designed to prioritize needs of Indigenous students, staff, and communities.
After listing those principles, the town writes: “The absence of these principles in the discussion papers dismisses the importance of [the NWT government’s] commitment to Indigenizing education, governance, support, and learner success. This is a grave step backward from where we were five years ago and amounts to pedagogical colonialism.”
Meanwhile, the town says the NWT government’s second discussion paper – on potential classes that could be taught – sets out only a “narrow path forward” that does not draw on residents’ expertise.
The territory’s paper suggested the university focus on teaching skilled trades, mining, environmental protection, northern health and education, and business management.
Yellowknife’s mayor, Rebecca Alty, has already criticized the same paper, saying those areas would fail to attract students to the NWT from outside the territory – a part of the plan considered key to the university’s financial viability.
Fort Smith struck a different note in its own criticisms, writing: “Publicly funded post-secondary education in the Northwest Territories must focus, first and foremost, on the needs of all NWT communities and northern residents.”
The letter calls for education and social work programs to be reinstated as they “fulfill immediate northern labour market needs,” and urges that reviews of the two programs be swiftly completed.
The NWT government’s window for feedback on both discussion papers is now closed.
Minister questions why HQ would move
Any discussion of Aurora College’s future as a polytechnic is sensitive in Fort Smith, which is the college’s present headquarters and which fears losing that status to Yellowknife once the university appears.
For Fort Smith, the consequences extend beyond the town’s status to its economic wellbeing, which may suffer if some students and staff are lost to another region of the territory.
Yellowknife, meanwhile, sees the university as central to its drive to reinvigorate the city’s downtown. Many more students, a new vibrance to city life, and maybe a new campus building are all envisaged.
The town has long insisted the institution’s headquarters must remain in Fort Smith regardless of what else changes. The territorial government has, in turn, spent years tiptoeing around the issue of where the university’s main campus will be, suggesting instead that each campus will be improved and helped to foster its own strengths.
Some of that ambiguity remained in Simpson’s statement to the legislature on Thursday, but he suggested there was no GNWT desire to move the headquarters.
“I’ve never heard any discussion from within the department about moving the headquarters. If there is already a headquarters in Fort Smith, I don’t know why we would build a headquarters somewhere else,” Simpson told the Thebacha MLA, Frieda Martselos, who represents Fort Smith.
“A lot of people, in their minds, still see a big, single building made of brick with ivy growing up the walls and a big quad where students are sitting out in the sun reading, but that’s not the way things are these days,” the minister said.
“I want to dispel the notion that a polytechnic university is going to be one single campus in one single community. The plan is to strengthen all of the campuses in the territory, and the community learning centres, and the presence of the college in all communities.”
Martselos had earlier criticized Yellowknife for its approach, saying city councillors were, “in their arrogance, already operating under the assumption that the headquarters of the future polytechnic university will reside in the capital.”
Asked by Martselos if he considered the city’s views “problematic,” Simpson replied: “I’m sure they have a desire to have infrastructure built in the community. I mean, any community leader does. I expect that.
“But I think there is, maybe, confusion about what a university has to be, these days.”