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Booming Fort McMurray's college is at a crossroads

Michael Durocher, shown at Campbell's Music Store on May 9, 2012, was laid off from Keyano College in Fort McMurray where he taught musical instrument repair.

Jacquie McFarlane for The Globe and Mail/jacquie mcfarlane The Globe and Mail

As the heart of the oil sands, Fort McMurray continues to boom. But the rosy outlook stops at the door of one of the city's institutions – its college, where pink slips are being handed out.

While demand for trained labour remains high in the community of some 80,000 residents (a population that's doubled over the past decade), Fort McMurray's lone post-secondary institution, Keyano College, is at a crossroads. Government funding can't keep up with rising costs, and administrators are faced with a pivotal question: Should Keyano continue to be a broad-based community college, or focus on the trades?

Alberta has Canada's lowest rate of post-secondary participation in the age group 18 to 34 because young people in the province often defer school in favour of work. And when they train, it's increasingly as skilled labourers – no area of study in Alberta is growing faster than trades and technology.

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One week ago, Keyano (Cree for "sharing") cut 20 positions, including the chair and half the faculty of its small fine-arts program. Trades were left untouched. The move sent a clear message that Keyano, opened as a vocational institute in 1965, is returning its focus to the practical training government and industry demand.

"I think the reality is we are part of the larger government organization, and we need to be able to respond to their priorities, as well as some of the priorities that we have here as a community," Keyano president Kevin Nagel said. "The demand that we feel here is quite significant. Even if we were totally a trades-oriented institution, we wouldn't have any, any, any chance of meeting the demand."

Alberta colleges recently signed a three-year funding deal with the government featuring 2-per-cent annual increases. But expenses are growing more quickly than that – particularly in remote, booming Fort McMurray, where labour and supplies cost more – and colleges are now cutting. At Keyano, with about 1,400 students, the 20 cuts included 12 academic staff, mostly in fine and liberal arts. Another northern college in Grande Prairie cut 28 positions, but just four in academics, and none in the arts.

While Keyano's doomed fine arts programs are modest in scope – 10 people graduated last year – critics say the cuts are symbolic of a larger problem: an energy-rich community that's starved for culture.

"It's pretty clear that the president and administrators don't really have any concept of what we do in the arts, and don't understand how important it is," said Alex Rushdy, 20, who graduated in 2010 from the visual art and design diploma program and works as a videographer in Fort McMurray. "I'm not sure I'll be able to stay and do the business I'm doing," he said.

The cuts also mark a turn away from higher learning, said Dennis Westergaard, a political science and economics professor who, after seven years with the college, was among last week's casualties.

"If we don't develop a university here, then what's going on? It just shows a lack of vision, a lack of commitment to higher education," he said. "It is quite shocking if you think about it."

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Melissa Blake, mayor of the municipality that includes Fort McMurray, feels conflicted about the cuts. Her city needs trades, she said, but called the arts cuts regrettable. "They've got a target that makes sense with what the community has to offer in terms of employment after," she said.

Dr. Nagel, Keyano's president, indicated that the college will offer non-diploma arts programs – either certificate courses or one-off classes – after the cuts: "There's no less commitment from Keyano's college as it relates to the arts. Certainly not."

Meanwhile, he said, government and major institutions need to work together to address the skills shortage by overhauling training, immigration and other departments. "I just think that without this kind of transition, it would be absolutely impossible to meet the needs of the region."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More

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