Future of Aurora College takes centre stage at Fort Smith candidates forum

Louis Sebert, Frieda Martselos, Don Jaque and Denise Yuhas all say, if elected, they’ll make sure Fort Smith is the education capital of the Northwest Territories.

4 hopefuls vying to represent Thebacha riding in 19th N.W.T. Legislative Assembly

At Monday's forum, the candidates were in agreement: Aurora College's main campus should be located in Fort Smith. (Emily Blake/CBC)

All four candidates vying to represent the Thebacha riding in the N.W.T.'s next Legislative Assembly agree — Aurora College's main campus should be located in Fort Smith. 

The school's future loomed large at a candidates' forum hosted in the community Monday night. And each individual MLA hopeful believes they provide the best odds to make that happen.

Louis Sebert, Frieda Martselos, Don Jaque and Denise Yuhas all say, if elected, they'll make sure Fort Smith is the education capital of the Northwest Territories.

Last year, the Department of Education, Culture and Employment released a foundational review of Aurora College, which recommends transforming the post-secondary institution into a polytechnic university.

The college currently has campuses in Fort Smith, Inuvik and Yellowknife. Troubling to many Fort Smith residents, the review also said the headquarters should be stationed in the territory's capital. 

"Decentralization from Yellowknife has got to take place," said Martselos, former chief of the Salt River First Nation, to a packed crowd at the Roaring Rapids Hall on Monday. 

Many people came out to hear what the candidates had to say. (Emily Blake/CBC)

Some critics in Fort Smith have said centering a university in Yellowknife would be devastating to the town's economy, which is home to more than 2,500 people. 

Back in Yellowknife, there are people rooting for the change. The Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce recently asked candidates running for the city's seven MLA positions to support that aspect of the review.

"[The] Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce [and] City of Yellowknife do not make the decisions for what happens in education in the Northwest Territories," said Yuhas, who worked as a constituency assistant for former Thebacha MLA Michael Miltenberger. 

"Those next MLAs will. Community members will." 

She criticized the review as a "shaky foundation" for creating a university in the territory. Yuhas said it failed to centre the voices of program providers.

Incumbent candidate Sebert, who served as minister of lands and justice in the 18th Assembly, also said he was "troubled" by the review.

He noted, however, that while the territorial government accepted the recommendation to create a polytechnic university, it plans to continue with the three-campus model. The location of the main campus still remains undecided.

"It's going to be decided by the next cabinet," Sebert said. "I hope to be a member of that cabinet and bring my voice with your concerns."

We've got to get our act together

Yuhas and Martselos both said they want to maximize the potential of the Thebacha campus, which has more than 300 full-time students. 

"That college now should be thriving, and it isn't," said Martselos, citing what she sees as a lack of strong leadership in the riding as the issue. 

Don Jaque, former publisher of the now-shuttered newspaper Northern Journal, said the community of Fort Smith needs to come together under strong leadership to fight for the campus. 

"Yellowknife is shopping for a campus right now," he said. "We've got to get our act together here because we are getting left in the dust."

The candidates also addressed a number of issues facing ridings across the territory, including child care, the chronic underfunding of municipalities, attracting and retaining health-care professionals and gender equality in the government.

The N.W.T. election is scheduled to take place Oct. 1.


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