Education minister Caroline Cochrane insisted a proposed new university in Yellowknife "won't close down" Fort Smith, even as the town's mayor told residents more than 70 jobs could be lost.
At a public meeting on Tuesday night, Lynn Napier-Buckley – Fort Smith's mayor – told more than a hundred gathered residents: "We need to fight."
Napier-Buckley forecast 71 administrative and support positions based at Fort Smith's Aurora College campus could go if the territorial government replaces the college with a Yellowknife-based polytechnic university, as proposed in an independent report published last week.
She added the ripple effects of such a move would cause the town to lose volunteer firefighters, volunteer paramedics, and teachers; reduce Fort Smith's funding from the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs; lower property values; and increase property taxes.
Napier-Buckley was asked to resign from Aurora College's board in February last year, having written a letter opposing cuts to its teacher education programs.
"I was removed from the board because I fought against this decision. We need your help tonight," she told residents.
"We need to go to the territorial government with a strong message that we cannot be crippled as a community."
'Pot of gold'
In an extensive interview with Cabin Radio, Cochrane acknowledged the community of Fort Smith "is not happy" but played down the consequences for the town if the report's proposals become a reality.
"This isn’t about closing down Fort Smith, or Inuvik, and bringing everything to Yellowknife," said Cochrane.
"This is about centres of excellence, about making sure the three campuses are actually providing quality services so people throughout Canada will want to come to the territory for education."
While Cochrane said she had heard "only positives" from the community of Yellowknife and had already been approached by city councillors to begin discussions, one resident at the Fort Smith meeting called the city the "black hole of the North."
In the same vein, Grant Paziuk – who works as the college's campus counsellor – said: "Where has this pot of gold been hidden to build a university [in Yellowknife], when we haven't been given what we need to make the college better?"
Paziuk said the roughly $500,000 cost of producing the report "could have done a lot of good for the college right now."
Asked by Cabin Radio if the territory had reached a preliminary figure for the cost of building a polytechnic university, Cochrane said she had "no idea at this point."
However, she said she expects the university's leader – when appointed, assuming the territory goes ahead with the plan – to take charge of acquiring funding for the project, and that could include a public-private partnership (P3) arrangement.
"There is no university college out there in Canada, except for ours, that solely relies on their provincial or territorial government," said Cochrane.
"That administrator needs to look for federal money, territorial money, and industry funding as well. There are a lot of industries that might want to take part in this P3s, or scholarships, or just a big advertisement on the door when you walk in."
In a letter to Cabin Radio last week, Sydney O'Sullivan – former chair of Aurora College's board of governors – challenged Cochrane's assertion that a single leader would be crucial to the success of a future university.
O'Sullivan suggested the Department of Education, Culture and Employment had actively held back the college's department in the past and should examine its own practices.
On Tuesday, speaking before the public meeting in Fort Smith took place, Cochrane told us an internal review will happen.
Cochrane, who recently moved to the department from Municipal and Community Affairs, said: "One of the first things I told them when I first walked in – they were talking about accountability frameworks for all of their education districts, so I told them, where’s ours?
"So I am expecting that we will be looking at our own accountability framework, how we evaluate programs, how we provide support to programs, and how we do that better in future.
"At this point, we are still figuring out the fine figures on this. We are not sure if it’s going to be a separate department altogether – the report talks about a deputy minister – or if it’s going to be an administrator."
'This could make a name for them'
Cochrane maintains finding an outstanding leader will be key to answering the question of why the Northwest Territories can build a successful university where it could not improve a community college the report characterizes as struggling.
"We are looking for the best. We are looking for a different leader, someone who has the knowledge and ability to run an accredited university," said Cochrane.
"Accreditation, in itself, addresses a lot of the gaps that were missed with Aurora College. Accreditation means you would be transparent, you would have measurable outcomes, you would do regular evaluations, you would do regular stakeholder engagement, you would have caught these things a lot sooner, and you would have a work plan to address them.
"That’s why we are looking for the right person – not to do all the work but to guide the ship, give direction, follow through, and make sure things are done properly.
"I’m sure somebody really qualified will step forward because this could actually make a name for them as well, if they came into the Northwest Territories and made it a destination polytechnic university. That’s incredible for anyone’s resumé."
In Fort Smith, residents tore into the report's findings and its methodology – while the local Thebacha MLA, justice minister Louis Sebert, sat at the front of the hall and listened.
"They haven't even consulted the entire community. They have input from 15 students," said Napier-Buckley, referring to data buried in the report's appendices which shows 15 out of 1,421 students – only three of whom were from Fort Smith – responded to a survey on which the report is partly based.
"That's what their numbers are based on. I was given a multiple choice survey. I sent back a written report because I thought that was ridiculous," she added.
Cochrane, speaking earlier that day in Yellowknife, acknowledged basing any action on the input of three Fort Smith students would be absurd.
"Absolutely," she said. "It’s not OK that students didn’t put a voice in when we reached out to so many youth. We need to do a better job."
Sebert, challenged several times regarding the awkwardness of his role as both territorial minister and local champion, refused a call to step down from his ministerial position in order to represent the community.
"You were elected to protect our interests, not just pass on our concerns," one community member told Sebert toward the end of the night.
Sebert did, however, concede "there are certainly errors in the report" in his view. He believes he can best represent Fort Smith from his present position in Cabinet.
'She will listen'
Cochrane has a range of commitments involving Aurora College and Fort Smith in the coming days. She will meet a number of community leaders later this week after speaking at a graduation ceremony for the college's Northern Leadership Development program on Wednesday.
Another public meeting, this time with Cochrane present, will take place inside Fort Smith's recreation centre on Monday, June 11, at 6pm.
At this week's public meeting, speakers appeared confident Cochrane would at least take time to understand their many concerns.
"She will listen," said Chief Frieda Martselos of the Salt River First Nation.
Cochrane, meanwhile, said she will not let the report's ambitious proposal and timeline be watered down by her "whole-of-government" approach to ensuring as many MLAs as possible are on board.
"There is no such thing as watering it down at all. This cannot be watered down, this cannot be another document that sits on the shelf," she said.
"Consensus government doesn’t mean that every single person will agree, that is impossible in life. However, it is a majority. I am looking for majority votes on this."
With files from Sarah Pruys in Fort Smith.