This column was written by Don Jaque, a longtime Fort Smith resident and the former publisher of the Northern Journal.

The pandemic has cheated the Aurora College graduating class of 2020 of the ceremony and celebration of their great achievement. But there is more to it than the impacts of the virus. Aurora College, plagued with uncertainty over the constantly changing plans to create a polytechnic university, is adrift. There is no direction, no plan forward. A polytechnic is still a pipedream, mired in the bureaucratic “transition team” in Yellowknife. Too much of the college system’s priorities and budget is taken up by their ruminations. The students, it seems, are no longer the priority.

This is the backdrop to something much worse. A tragedy has unfolded in the termination of the Teacher Education and the Social Work programs. The 2020 grads from those programs are the last ones. The programs are done – finished. Those programs will be born again once the plan for a Polytechnic has been formulated and invoked, after which new plans for each program will have to be devised by consultants, instructors hired, course work organized and then students recruited. A hopeful estimate is all that will take about a decade. A two-year social work course may be spun up sooner, but it is my calculation that it will be at least ten years before we are graduating our own teachers with university degrees again. That is a travesty.

Think about it. For the next decade the NWT will only be able to recruit teachers and social workers from the south. After 40 years of progress, we are back to that again. “Travesty” is putting it mildly. What has been done to those programs is frustrating, terrible, and I have to say, incompetent.

Please consider these three points:

  • The plan to create a Polytechnic University – is it justified, warranted, appropriate and affordable?
  • Has the exercise to rationalize, plan and create a Polytechnic been done well?
  • In planning a Polytechnic, did the Teacher Education and Social Work programs have to be terminated and lost?

That critical first of these three points has never been properly addressed by the people of the NWT. It needs to be.

The second, having the future of higher education for the NWT decided and planned by southern consultants – an accounting firm no less – with no process and no input by the people of the NWT, was ridiculous. The fact that the report was poorly done, yet still accepted and promoted by those who commissioned it, makes the whole process suspect. Were consultants hired to write an expensive report with the conclusions preconceived – essentially a sham? But worse still, it was a return to past colonial, racially-biased ways of doing things. In my view, how and why it was done that way points to systemic problems in the way our government is run.

Number three needs immediate attention. The over-used analogy, “Throwing the baby out with the bathwater” is perfect; but here the bath water was tossed out and then the poor baby was kicked purposely into the back alley and left to die by the dumpster. What was done with TEP and the Social Work programs, and how it was done, was a catastrophic failure.

Please consider what the graduates of the Teacher Education Program represent. Almost all are indigenous. Most are women. Many are moms who attended classes, studied and learned while bringing up their families – something virtually impossible if the courses were not offered in the NWT. All are from different NWT communities. Isn’t everything about that positive – even wonderful? Why get rid of it? For each aspect of who they are, it is important to note one thing; they were born and raised in the NWT and will return to their home communities to teach. They will stand in front of classes of Northern children and relate to them through their own culture, be able to teach indigenous languages, and will have intrinsic knowledge of the land, community, people and ways. All, like no others could, will connect with and inspire young Northern boys and girls, that they too can achieve at the highest level – bringing confidence, pride and purpose.

We have lost all that now, which is profoundly sad.

For the last 35 years as a journalist in Thebacha/Fort Smith, I proudly watched Aurora College evolve and grow, from a start-up trades college to a quality academic institution. Academic programs worked hard to affiliate with universities from the south and slowly, carefully, incrementally over time, the quality of education progressed and they were able to grant degrees. All that is being thrown away. And yet the obvious way to create a polytechnic, if the NWT should even have one, is to build on the foundation of what has come before. The College has had its issues over the last ten years, and it badly needed a good make-over, but throwing away decades of dedicated efforts by capable professional educators is a tragedy.

Please join me in demanding the immediate return of a made-in-the-NWT Teacher Education Program and Social Work Program, as quickly as is humanly possible. That must be a priority over the creation of a Polytechnic University, or it will take forever. Talk to your MLA, bitch about it on social media, shout it from the rooftops – do whatever you do. What is being done is not in the best interests of the NWT. We must fight it.

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  1. Sheesh! After 35 years, I no longer live in the NWT but find this horrendous. I don’t know the background of recent Polytechic discussions. But I do know the tremendous value of northern trained teachers and social wokers. As a southern trained former northern teacher, most who come in are good thinkers and have their heart is in the right place. But with few exceptions it takes considerable northern immersion to have the gut feel for northern youth and family needs so necessary in the classroom of small communities. I agree with this journalist wholeheartedly.

  2. The first TEP, started in 1968
    by the esteemed educator, Audie Dyer, pretty well turned out well educated candidates for multiple government departments including Education. Some of the best educated adults of their generation. And Aurora College
    built on those beginnings. Seems
    a backyard step to stop a successful program while a new program is being designed. Tweak it once the blueprints are done not cancel while debate is still going on about the possibility of a PolyTech!

  3. get it going start a epetition at the legislation website. i did one a few years ago about the state of education and lack of resources for rural northern communities.

  4. Having been part of the process over 35 years as Counsellor, Instructor, Life Skills Coach, Adult Educator, agree
    fully with Don Jaque’s assessment.

  5. Very cogent argument! Years ago a student of mine completed a study confirming the positive impact of training local personnel on dental health. Mining companies have also discovered the value of preparing local Human Resources. It seems eminently rational to continue the Teacher/Social Work program while the long term plan for a polytechnic is Developed. Good luck on both counts.

  6. Máhsi for this article so much. As a graduate and someone who is Indigenous and a woman who lives and works in her home community. This is not good for northerners. For one it was hard going back to school with kids in tow. Not only that to be away from home, but Fort Smith was close enough that I could go home if I had wanted. The Teacher Education Program was culturally relevant to me as an Indigenous person because it allowed me to question western style teaching practices and allowed me to open up a Culture Room for those who may be home sick. It allowed us to be acknowledged and recognized as indigenous people from all walks of life. I’ve made life long friends and community connections. This is a travesty. As an Educator who lives in the north who had to fight to become an educator in her home community it just feeds an already antiquated outdated colonialist style of education where Indigenous students are still below par compared to southern schools because we need to meet the needs of our learning styles not the other way around. Máhsi Cho.