Town of Fort Smith creates special committee in response to Aurora College review

Pam Coulter, Senior Communications Advisor at the Department of Education, Culture and Employment (left) and Caroline Cochrane, Minister of Education, Culture and Employment (right) at the media briefing for the Aurora College Foundational Review in May.
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At its regular meeting of Council on June 19, the Town of Fort Smith created a Special Committee to help coordinate a response to the Aurora College Foundational Review and “work to ensure that Fort Smith continues to be the headquarters of post-secondary education in the NWT”, the town announced in a press release this morning.

The committee will be made up of Mayor Napier-Buckley and Councillors Ron Holtorf, Anna Kikoak, Brenda Tuckey, and a few members of the public.

The Aurora College Foundational Review report was prepared by  Calgary-based accounting firm MNP LLP, and recommended the college transform into a Northern Canada Polytechnic University (NCPU) over the next six to eight years.

It was also recommended that the main campus of NPCU be located in Yellowknife, a move decried by Fort Smith Town Councillor Kevin Smith in a Facebook post.

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“The Town of Fort Smith has always been a strong partner to post-secondary education in the NWT and the Town hopes to work in partnership with the Government of the Northwest Territories to ensure the evolution of post-secondary education happens in a way that benefits all NWT communities for a sustainable, decentralized future,” the press release from the town states.

But Minister of Education, Culture and Employment Caroline Cochrane said the recommendation to move the headquarters is not about centralization but “developing centres of excellence.”

Some of the tasks of the town’s new special committee will include quantifying the economic impacts of having the NWT’s post-secondary education headquarters remain in Fort Smith and supporting the ongoing need for Territorial Indigenous Governments’ input and Regional Representation in the discussions and planning for the NWT post-secondary institution.

“The Town of Fort Smith fundamentally disagrees with some of the findings and recommendations of the Aurora College Foundational Review, which is based on poor methodology, flimsy statistics, and doesn’t impartially present the facts of post-secondary education in the NWT. The recommendation from the Foundational Review to move the Headquarters to Yellowknife appears to be pre-determined and driven by a political agenda, ” the press release states.

Another part of the newly formed committee’s role will be “correcting some of the mistaken and misleading findings of the Aurora College Foundational Review, including the post-secondary student experience in Fort Smith”.

The press release did not specify which parts of the review the town took issue with, but page 77 of the report describes various infrastructure and safety concerns at the college’s Thebacha Campus in Fort Smith.

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For example, there are no security cameras on the Fort Smith campus or residences, and “a number of significant (violent) incidents have occurred in the residence as well as a break-in and vandalism at the campus building,” the report states. According to the report, part of the challenge is the location where students are from, with a historical clash of “northerners versus southerners.”

The report states that Breynat Hall, the main residence, is old and “outdated and does not conform to generally accepted student housing standards,” and it is unclear whether the college is responsible or the Department of Infrastructure.

A senior communications advisor at the Department of Education, Culture and Employment (ECE) said that Breynat Hall residence is an ECE asset that belongs to Aurora College, but maintenance services are provided by the Department of Infrastructure.”

The Department of Infrastructure has yet to respond to questions about whether these maintenance services include security, or whether there are plans to renovate the college residence.

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Breynat Hall is also labelled as a residential school under the terms of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.

“This historical fact contributes to the general opinion that students do not want to attend the Fort Smith campus for their studies,” the report states.

When asked if the government anticipated this reaction after turning a former residential school into a college residence, ECE said that “Breynat Hall was established as a residence in the 1970s to house students attending the Adult Vocational Training Centre (now Thebacha Campus). In communities with minimal existing infrastructure, repurposing a building associated with a residential school into something positive for the community is consistent with the approach taken in other jurisdictions,” and gave the Inuvik Community Greenhouse as an example of another such building.

The Special Committee has already met and will be meeting regularly in the upcoming weeks.

The town of Fort Smith and MNP LLP have yet to respond to requests for comment.

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