Cutting Aurora College teacher, social work programs unfairly targets women, supporters say

Some people in Yellowknife say cutting two female-dominated programs at Aurora College would be doing a disservice to many women in the N.W.T., who rely on the programs as some of their only post-secondary options.

Supporters say proposed cuts to female-dominated programs would affect women's access to higher education

Dawn McInnes, a board member with the Association of Social Workers in Northern Canada, has been advocating to keep the social work program at Aurora College. (Alyssa Mosher/CBC)

Some people in Yellowknife say cutting two female-dominated programs at Aurora College would not only undermine the college's connection to Indigenous culture and communities, but it would also be doing a disservice to many women in the N.W.T.

In February, the territorial government said it was cutting funding to Aurora College by $1.9 million, leading the college's board of governors to suggest eliminating the teacher and social work programs.

The government has since agreed to review the programs (to be completed by fall 2017) before cutting funding.

Supporters of the programs are now pointing out that cuts will affect one sex more than the other.

"We believe that these proposed cuts unfairly target women," said Dawn McInnes, a board member for the Association of Social Workers in Northern Canada.

"Women play many critical roles as caregivers to their children, to their families, to extended families. They may have to work in addition to their studies, they may have leadership roles in their communities.

"So for some women coming into the program, particularly women coming from our Northern communities, the Aurora College Social Work Program may be the only higher education opportunity they have."

Teacher and social work programs are dominated by women across the country. The latest numbers from Statistics Canada say 67 per cent of students in social work programs are women, while 76 per cent of people in education programs are women.

'A completely wrong move'

Hermina Joldersma, a retired professor and administrator at the University of Calgary who's lived in Yellowknife for the past five years, says removing programs dominated by women is shortsighted.

"I thought, 'this isn't right,'" Joldersma recalled when first hearing about the proposed cuts.

Joldersma spent three years as the advisor on women's issues for the president of the university. She says female-dominated programs, like social work and teaching, aren't associated with many awards and so sometimes can be overlooked. 

"In social work what you get... as kudos is maybe a thank you at a potluck to which people bring food into a church basement," she said.

"And if an administrator was looking to cut, they may think, well, this is prestigious and this is not and we'll cut that. And yet there's such a clear gender bias there." 

Students don't need to graduate to make a difference: Joldersma

Education minister Alfred Moses has cited low graduation rates as one of the reasons to cut the social work program at Aurora College.

With 17 students enrolled in the second year of the two-year program, student Elycia Nimegee says only three students — all female — are on track to graduate in April.

"Well-trained social workers and teachers are critical to... the people of the Northwest Territories now," Moses said in an email to CBC News. 

"The current programs aren't helping us meet that need.

"We believe we would be better served by ensuring resources are being used efficiently and effectively to train social workers and teachers, rather than continuing to run programs with significant dropout rates."

But Joldersma says the success of the social work program in particular shouldn't be judged by the graduation rate.

"I think that the government needs to rethink what kind of social workers it wants.

"The effect of the program ought to be measured by looking at all the people who've been in it and what they're doing now," she said.

Hermina Joldersma in a radio studio in Yellowknife. She used to be an advisor on women's issues to the president of the University of Calgary. (Juanita Taylor/CBC)

Joldersma says she knows a woman from a community in the Northwest Territories who wasn't able to finish the social work program, but still makes a difference in her community.

"My guess would be that the women who want to go into social work want to because they see the need for it. They've experienced the need for it. And that's what they want to do," Joldersma said.

The government is putting more emphasis on a diploma than the education itself, she says. 

"As a society, we do agree that there is trauma that needs to be healed, so let's support the healers who want to heal that trauma.

"I hope that the program will have the freedom to educate people — if to graduation that's terrific if not to graduation that's also fine — and have those people make a difference back in their communities."


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