Frustrated Fort Smith residents tell minister Aurora College should stay in community

Some residents said they were offended by a review of Aurora College and the insinuation its headquarters would need to move to Yellowknife for the school to offer better programming.

Residents say N.W.T. government reneging on federal promise made over 50 years ago

Many Fort Smith residents don't agree with the Aurora College foundational review's recommendation to move the school's headquarters to Yellowknife. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

A public meeting in Fort Smith on Monday gave residents a chance to let the Minister of Education, Culture, and Employment know what they think of the recent Aurora College foundational review.

The review suggests transforming the college into a polytechnic university, and building its headquarters in Yellowknife — an idea that didn't sit well with many Fort Smith residents. Aurora College's main campus is currently located in Fort Smith.

The review was tabled in the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly on May 30.

Some residents were wearing stickers to show their support for the college. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

Residents wanted the N.W.T government to stay committed to a federal government promise made more than 50 years ago to name Fort Smith the capital of post-secondary education in the territory.

"I think everybody in this room would say you gotta honour those commitments," said former Thebacha MLA Michael Miltenberger. "We're saying there was an agreement to us, like a treaty, like a land claim, that was a commitment."

Jack Van Camp, a former instructor for Aurora College, said the notion of moving the headquarters away from Fort Smith "really goes to the founding principles of the Northwest Territories."

"We have a consensus government that's at the core and the basis of the fabric of the Northwest Territories," he said. "And I don't see that reflected in this report."

He said he was offended by the report and the suggestion that the headquarters would need to be based in Yellowknife in order to provide quality education.

That's a sentiment echoed by longtime Fort Smith resident Janie Hobart.

Janie Hobart said many of the college's faults are caused by a lack of support from the territorial government. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

"Many of the faults and concerns that were identified in the review, I believe, are not the fault of Aurora College," said Hobart. "I believe that they are a direct result of [Government of the Northwest Territories] underfunding or ... inaction."

What did the minister have to say?

Minister of Education, Culture, and Employment Caroline Cochrane opened by saying that, upon first seeing the report, she did not want to table it.

Cochrane said she saw the report "as a bad thing" because it bluntly identified the truth without addressing both the good and the bad about the college.

She said the promise made 50 years ago was from the federal government — which has historically made promises that it does not back up with funding.

"There's a lot of promises that were made by the federal government that the territorial government could not keep, because we weren't given the resources to do that," she said.

Minister of Education, Culture, and Employment Caroline Cochrane said the federal government has made many promises, but has not followed up with funding. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

Cochrane said closing down the Inuvik and Fort Smith campuses would be "the worst thing any politician or any human being would do."

"I am not about taking down communities," Cochrane said. "I am the opposite."

MORE NORTH NEWS | Fort Smith councillor warns Aurora College move could 'decimate' town's economy

She said she recognizes both communities benefit economically from the college campuses, but she's looked at the numbers for the college and they're not good.

She said enrolment and graduation numbers are decreasing every year, because students hear they can get a better education in the South.

With files from Kirsten Murphy

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