Aurora College needs a new board, not another bureaucrat: Fort Smith councillor

Fort Smith town councillor Kevin Smith says he’s cautiously optimistic about the government’s commitment to create a polytechnic university in the N.W.T., but 'very skeptical' about the decision to hire a new senior bureaucrat to get the job done.

Kevin Smith says government's response to college review doesn't address political interference, transparency

People in Fort Smith protested earlier this year after a review of Aurora College recommended moving its headquarters to Yellowknife. Friday the government announced it's pursuing 51 recommendations from the report, but hasn't made a decision about the location of the headquarters. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

Fort Smith town councillor Kevin Smith says he's "cautiously optimistic" about the government's commitment to create a polytechnic university in the N.W.T. — but "very skeptical" about the decision to hire a new senior bureaucrat to get the job done.

On Friday, the N.W.T. government released a response to a foundational review of Aurora College, accepting 51 of the 67 recommendations in the report — the biggest being the transformation of the college into a northern Canadian polytechnic university.

The government also said it hadn't decided yet about another recommendation with big implications for Fort Smith — moving the campus to Yellowknife

Fort Smith councillor Kevin Smith says people in the community aren't opposed to the idea of transforming the college into a polytechnic university, but he's concerned the government plans to hire another senior bureaucrat, based in Yellowknife, to lead the process. (Submitted by Kevin Smith )

"It's nice to see the government has kind of slowed down on the rhetoric that was out in June about immediately moving ahead, unilaterally making decisions without really considering the impacts," Smith told CBC's Loren McGinnis on The Trailbreaker Tuesday morning.

However, Smith, who used to work for the college, says he's concerned that "we'll be back at the same thing fighting against re-centralization in Yellowknife" in another six to 12 months.

"I don't think anyone in Fort Smith is opposed to the idea of the college evolving into some kind of polytechnic university," Smith said.

Concern about political interference

Another of Smith's concerns is that that Friday's announcement doesn't address one of the recommendations he agrees with in the foundational review — that the college needs to be arm's length from government.

It's really hard for the college to move forward when it's senior bureaucrats in Yellowknife that are heavily involved in making decisions- Kevin Smith

"They say they are going to hire an associate deputy minister who is going to work with the deputy minister of education and the minister of education to kind of sort all of this out behind closed doors in Yellowknife ... But where is the transparency there?"

He says that the college has suffered from political interference in the last three years.

"Going back to the strategic plan, the department halting the strategic plan, and then the … funding cuts which affected teacher education and social work ... and then the programs were suspended, they weren't cut — it turns out the college posted a surplus ... and then the board of governors were fired, and and then the foundational review came along.

More than 100 people came out for a public meeting on June 5 in Fort Smith to talk about the recent review of Aurora College. It's still not clear what will happen with the reviewer's recommendation to move the college's headquarters to Yellowknife. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

"It's really hard for the college to move forward when it is senior bureaucrats in Yellowknife that are heavily involved in making decisions"

Need for a board of governors

Smith used Yukon College as an example of how the college could make a successful transition into a polytechnic university.

"It took the Yukon 10 years to go from making a statement that they want to become a university to being able to offer university level courses. But they have a board of governors that hires a president, and it's distanced from the politics of the Yukon government."

Smith says the N.W.T. government should appoint a new board of governors for the college, "made up of of a cross-section of people that are very experienced across the North ... leadership that can then be tasked with reinvigorating post-secondary education and improving programming and facilities in Inuvik, in Yellowknife, and Fort Smith."

Ongoing uncertainty for Fort Smith

Smith says it's frustrating that there is no feasibility study or costing for the government's plans.

"This is people's lives, right? They don't know what the future of their jobs is." 

At Friday's technical briefing, the project lead for the college transformation said there were still too many things to work out first before deciding where the headquarters will be located.

With files from Loren McGinnis


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