Fort Smith community leaders told MLAs to focus on “the real issue” as they presented their formal response to an independent report on Aurora College commissioned by the territorial government.

Aurora College is headquartered in the town. The report, released in May, recommended the territory close the college in favour of a new, Yellowknife-based polytechnic university, which would retain a Fort Smith campus but end the town’s role as an educational hub.

Since its publication, residents and college staff have taken issue with both the report’s conclusions – which were in places damning, dubbing Aurora College an “institution of last choice” – and its methodology. Local politicians forecast dozens of job losses if the report’s recommendations are followed.

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A public meeting featuring the territory’s education minister, Caroline Cochrane, took place in Fort Smith in June. On Tuesday, Fort Smith’s mayor and deputy mayor delivered a formal presentation to MLAs.

“We weren’t there to repeat rhetoric about job losses or community in crisis; we wanted to tackle some of fundamental issues in the review, and some of the problems with the methodology and the research that supports the recommendations,” deputy mayor Kevin Smith told town councillors following the presentation.

“Aurora College was probably positioned to be a polytechnic university about 10 years ago and the [education] department has continued to interfere: they fired the board of governors, they’ve suspended programs without consultation, they have stalled the strategic planning process, the department has called for a foundational review.

“So the question we wanted to have [MLAs on the Standing Committee on Social Development] start thinking about is: what is the real issue behind this? Is it the college that’s the issue, or is it the relationship between the department and the college?”

‘Not the end’

The town’s presentation broke its response into themes such as the report’s methodology, post-secondary education trends, impacts on the community if the college headquarters is lost, and what the town termed a “lack of knowledge” in the report’s review of college operations.

Smith characterized the meeting as a “positive discussion,” adding: “We’re still at the beginning of a very long process. This was an opportunity to present some concerns … but it’s by no means the end.”

According to Smith, MLAs themselves had some reservations about the report and its conclusions. (Another formal response to the report, this time from the territorial government and the education minister, is expected in the fall.)

Smith said: “The analogy, I think, was that we’ve started building a large road without understanding where we’re going or how much it’s going to cost – or who’s going to build it.

“Unfortunately, that analogy didn’t go over very well, because the Government of the Northwest Territories has done that a couple of times recently.”