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Valpy: Six years to get back where we started for Aurora College

With a new Aurora College board now appointed “at long last” as Minister R.J. Simpson said with considerable pride, it’s important to remember what brought us here.
The $500-million polytechnic college plan proposes a new $364-million campus in Yellowknife on Tin Can Hill. That represents 73 per cent of the capital budget for Yellowknife and 27 per cent for the rest of the NWT, a familiar unequal split when it comes to graduation rates and GNWT employment rates for Dene, Metis and Inuvialuit.

With a new Aurora College board now appointed “at long last” as Minister R.J. Simpson said with considerable pride, it’s important to remember what brought us here.

The college has robust roots and held a lot of hope for a lot of people through the eighties and nineties through to today. Its staff of almost 300 can be proud of the students they have served, despite the cloud over the institution.

In 2013, Mark Cleveland, a retired deputy minister with decades of experience in the education department, was hired to assess the college. He noted something significant happened in the early 2000s.

GNWT headquarters in Yellowknife decided the college’s diploma programs for teachers, social workers and nurses that got Dene, Metis and Inuvialuit into our community schools, family support offices and medical facilities weren’t good enough. The GNWT decided to only hire people with degrees, which meant mainly people from the south, where the provincial education systems produce university graduates by the barrelful.

As Cleveland pointed out, this forced Aurora College into some major changes to meet the academic requirements of degree programs.

But while the GNWT hiring practices changed, the Aurora College student body didn’t. Community students were the majority and the K-12 system didn’t prepare them for degree programs. They needed upgrading, diploma programs and trades training if they had a hope of getting a job with the education the K-12 schools gave them.

So as the degree programs failed, the Dept. of Education in Yellowknife lost interest in Aurora College. Even though the department was in total control, only one staff person was assigned to oversee college management in Fort Smith, even to the point of approving press releases. (There’s now seven staff for the Aurora College Transformation) Then the budgets were squeezed and college campuses around the NWT were neglected in capital budgets, as Cleveland pointed out in so many words.

Frustrated, in 2017 the education minister of the day fired the college board. The college president left in 2018 so the education department could take over everything. That never should have happened. If anybody was to be replaced, it should have been senior staff in the department.

Not satisfied with Cleveland’s recommendations, an accounting firm in Edmonton was hired to give different answers. The accounting firm gave much the same answers with one exception — polytechnic transformation. That’s where the polytechnic idea came from in 2018. It didn’t come from Aurora College, It didn’t come from the communities or Indigenous governments, it didn’t come from the legislative assembly, it came from a southern accounting firm.

Six years later, we have a new board, a new president, tons of money spent and planning done but you know what? We have the same students in the communities who need the same support and programs they needed in the eighties, nineties and 2000s to now.

At least the previous president was enlisted to bring the degree programs option back. Perhaps it can be done properly this time.

The new board will have to keep this history in mind as it navigates forward. The biggest barrier to the college’s success is the failure of senior staff in the education department and the minister to understand the community K-12 is not yet preparing the majority of community students for degree programs.

Could it be that educational outcomes won’t improve until we build proper housing and offer community based healing options? Those are two keys to education success we haven’t tried and what I will be running on in the NWT election in 2023.

Bruce Valpy is a longtime Northerner living in Yellowknife and former publisher/CEO of NNSL Media. He has declared his candidacy to run for MLA in the Oct. 3, 2023 territorial election. His platform can be found at