NWT education minister Caroline Cochrane has sought to reassure Fort Smith residents regarding the future of higher education in their community.
At a public meeting in the town on Monday, Cochrane faced residents angry at the conclusions of a recently published report – which recommends closing Aurora College's Fort Smith headquarters and replacing the college with a Yellowknife-based polytechnic university, while maintaining a campus in the town.
Since the independent report's publication last month, residents have voiced grave concerns over its methodology and recommendations.
In particular, former college staff and governors have been outspoken in their belief that the territory's Department of Education, Culture and Employment held back the college through a series of decisions and delays – a factor they feel the report underplays.
On Monday, Cochrane told residents her government had made no commitments regarding the report other than to evaluate the college's current programs, hire someone to lead a project based on the report's conclusions, and examine the feasibility of building a university.
A formal response to the report from the territorial government is due in the fall – which is also expected to be the first time anyone puts a price tag on the cost of a university.
Throughout the meeting, which lasted for several hours, residents questioned the report's view that a university could only be successfully run from a Yellowknife base. The report contends only Yellowknife can offer the right facilities to attract students – such as quality housing, a range of social options, and access to childcare – while also allowing university staff ease of access to government leaders.
Former territorial finance minister and ex-Thebacha MLA Michael Miltenberger told the meeting Fort Smith had long been told it would remain the territory's seat of higher education in return for Yellowknife assuming the designation of territorial capital in 1967.
Miltenberger added it would be 'arrogant' to assume an institution could be better run in Yellowknife than in Fort Smith.
Responding to similar concerns, Cochrane said: “We need to work in partnership together. I don’t care where this goes, in that I don’t care whether this is in Yellowknife, Fort Smith Inuvik, or Tuktoyaktuk. What I care about is quality of education for our students."
Louis Sebert, the present Thebacha MLA and justice minister, took a slightly different line as he concluded the meeting by telling residents: "I hear you loud and clear that whatever happens ... you want the headquarters for the program here."
Cochrane opened the meeting by acknowledging the report contained harsh words for Aurora College's leadership, adding she understood there were real people behind the positions. Jane Arychuk, the college's president, resigned in the days leading up to the report's publication.
Cochrane clarified her earlier remark to reporters that she was 'ecstatic' about the report, saying she felt change was needed but did not necessarily like the report's contents.
Among criticisms of the report, Fort Smith residents highlight its apparent inability to successfully survey the college's own students. An appendix to the report suggests, out of almost 1,500 Aurora College students, only 15 in total and just three from the Fort Smith campus filled out a survey distributed by the report's authors.
"I run the canteen at the college," Anna Kikoak told the minister. "I wanted to know what kind of coffee students wanted to drink. All I had to do was give them cinnamon buns and I got 75 responses."
One student who spoke, Karen Lepine-McFeeters, said she had been unable to convince others to come to the public meeting.
"They don’t have believe or have faith in this process, because they tried to be heard before and they don’t feel like they’re being heard," she said.
"We need to make that partnership and that connection, because if we don’t have it then Aurora College is going to fail no matter what it does – because it needs to be here for the students first."
Don Jaque, former publisher of now-defunct town newspaper the Northern Journal, asked Cochrane why the territory had made the report public before assessing the potential cost of a university.
"I’m surprised that someone as competent as you is supporting this report when there has been no investigation into potential student numbers that would come to a university in Yellowknife. I am shocked that this is public and there are no price tags involved," he said.
Cochrane now travels to Inuvik, site of an Aurora College campus, for a series of similar meetings. The education minister will then work with all ministers and MLAs to develop a "whole-of-government" response to the report for publication in the fall.
With files from Sarah Pruys.