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Keyano College: A Brief Glimpse at the First 50 Years

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The 4th of October 1965, Day One – The ‘Alberta Vocational Centre, Fort McMurray’ (AVC), opened its doors and prepared to welcome the hordes of students eager to learn, thirsty for knowledge and excited to prepare for a future in the most dynamic new industry in the world. There were four ATCO trailers on the corner of Franklin and Morrison, two admin staff, five instructors...and four students.

Four students. After all the effort that had been put into setting up this rudimentary educational institution, it must have been a bit of a letdown to see just four students walk in to register that first day. The staff had all moved to Fort McMurray from other places and jobs, filled no doubt with the enthusiasm that comes from being pioneers and the fulfilment of starting something new. Yet in coming north to create this new place, had they endangered their careers?

It’s hard to be an educator if you have no one to educate, a position the Alberta Government holds to today as well as 50 years ago. It must have been a weary staff that left after that first day and walked across Franklin to their temporary lodgings at the hotel, wondering if they’d all made a huge mistake, wondering if they would still have jobs come Christmas?

 Statistically four students was about .3% of the regional population. Extrapolating to today, that same percentage would equate to about 360 students on our current population of about 120,000.  Back then the population was about 1,300, although the advent of major oil sands mining would soon change that.

 Fortunately the records show that soon the stream of students increased. By the end of the week there were 30 and by the end of October there were 70. The college was full up and by the time the official opening happened in January of 1966 there was a waiting list of 150 and the idea of starting a college in Fort McMurray was vindicated.

 The college has a record of the names of those first years’ students, though the actual number is 84. One can only assume that the capacity of 70 was augmented by drop outs and replacements. It is impossible to tell from the records who those first four students were, but some of those names from the first year still live in the region. The list reads like a history of the community in many ways and some of the names are as familiar as the streets named after them: Berard, Boucher, Janvier, Cardinal, Flett, Golosky, Harpe, McKay, Mercredi, Paquette and Tuccaro.

That Keyano College has been able to rise from such beginnings is testament to the vision of those early pioneers and to a government who saw the potential of the province and wished to do whatever it could to turn the potential into reality.    

Jack Shields, who would later become the Member of Parliament for the area, was the first Principal of the College and a man who believed in the value of this educational experiment. He moved his entire family and their belongings up to Fort McMurray by rail in time for the first semester, leaving his furniture in storage. His son Clarence remembers the time well. “We stayed across the street in the ‘Riv’, the Riviera Hotel, because our house in Block X was not quite ready. I have fond memories of those early days.” Block X is not as sinister as it sounds. It was a tract of land that the Government of Alberta allocated for staff housing to be built and is the near part of the Alberta Drive loop off Franklin, by the hospital.  Those early houses still exist, subsumed into downtown suburbia some years later.

In 1967 Jack Shields was moved to run Newstart, a program aimed at furthering the adult educational reach into farmland Alberta. It also changed the focus from industrial skills to lifestyle focus, and Keyano became a place where you could learn welding and sewing, carpentry and cooking. This was the first step on the road to what Keyano is today, a community college focused on the needs of the residents that offers training compatible with the best anywhere.

Newstart led to the Advanced Education Establishment Plan for Keyano College, something that had the support of the new leader of AVC Fort McMurray. Doug Schmidt arrived in the early seventies to find that the institution, after its first bountiful years, was in decline. There were only 20 students enrolled in 1970 and so he set out to turn the place around. He opened the college facilities to the community, beginning a pattern that still exists to this day. Doug recognized that academic excellence was paramount, and that a college fenced off from the community it served created an unnecessary distance. The college became instead the focal point for the community and the long artistic and theatrical history of Keyano began under Shields. Sheets were plundered and hung on rope across classrooms to create the first amateur dramatics stages, musical acts were encouraged, and the college settled into its dual life; education by day, social centre by night.

The final step that saw the transformation of Keyano from educational oddity to the respected College it has become was a paper presented by provincial government. It was called the ‘Establishment Plan for Keyano College’. The Minister of Advanced Education announced the establishment of the post-secondary institution, taking over the AVC that had served the community for 10 years and catapulting it into the continuous growth phase it has never really stepped away from in the 40 years since.  It also defined 1) the origin of the name as well as 2) setting out the process to define the mandate of the college through discussion between the government and the educators already in place.

On the first point, they wrote that Keyano ‘is one of the more common pronunciations of the Cree word Kenkeyanaw, meaning any of: this is ours, we, our, us. Loosely interpreted Keyano College means “This is our College”.

However the evolution of the college from an adult education centre in a few ATCO trailers to a modern 21st Century educational institution is in essence a reflection of the changes in the municipality. Keyano College has grown with the region, hard put most of the time to keep up, but trying nevertheless. This growth reflects the needs of the people of Fort McMurray and its satellite communities. As the community has grown a hundredfold in 50 years, the courses offered by Keyano have also grown apace. Teaching, nursing, environmental studies and business courses nestle in with trades and industrial training aimed at the industries of Fort McMurray. That is the true goal of a community college, to cater to the needs of the people. You would probably not come to Keyano to study medieval German poetry, just as you would not go to Gottingen University to learn to drive a 400 ton truck. And that’s as it should be.

Keyano College has come a long way in 50 years and remembering its proud history is a way of honouring the pioneers who started the college as well as all who teach there today. What they all have in common, both past and present, is a conviction that they are doing right by the students, doing their best for the community and paving the way forward for the next 50 years into the future. 


The First Students

Joseph Harpe

Joseph Harpe who is front and centre in the picture of Keyano’s first graduating welding class has led a life worth reading about.  In 1966 he lived in downtown Fort McMurray across the street from the AVC, what is now Keyano College, and was one of the first of twelve welding students; back then, Keyano College consisted of four portable classrooms and a kitchen all housed in trailers. “The interview went well. Even though the recruiter suggested that I take carpentry and ended taking the course that I was interested in; welding.” The Centre offered pre-employment training in welding, carpentry, mechanics, heavy equipment operations and academic upgrading. “The welding program was sponsored by the pipefitters Union in Edmonton, while the Carpentry program was sponsored by the Carpenter’s Union,” says Joe. “Rannie even flew up to present us with our certificates!” The Honourable Randolph “Rannie” H. McKinnon was the Minister of Education from 1964 to 1967.

That same year Joe finished his training he joined the Fort McMurray Boxing Club and rose to the ranks as an official referee. For ‘Smokin’ Joe’ it was a career gave him the opportunity to meet travel North America, meeting boxing legends like Muhammad Ali, Archie Moore, George Chuvalo and Floyd Patterson. In 1980, Joe finally put the welding tickets that he got at the AVC to use and began working at Clearwater Welding & Fabrication. He still works there today.


Richard Golosky

“Ninety day welders; that’s what they called us,” chuckles Richard Golosky. Richard was born and raised in Fort McMurray. In 1966 he enrolled at the Alberta Vocational Centre and was also in the first welding class. “The (welding) program was only 3 months long and after we finished that we were sent to work in the GCOS.” In 1967, the Great Canadian Oil Sands plant (now Suncor) opened in Fort McMurray. “I was walking (home) from the Snye with my dad when we bumped into (former RCMP Corporal) Terry Garvin. He worked for Syncrude. He told me to take a welding course,” explains Richard. He joined the Pipefitters Union in 1972 and was with them for 38 years. Now, his daughter is a Welding Inspector in Fort McMurray and his younger brothers Doug and Bob attended the College’s second training course. Doug went on to establish Clearwater Welding & Fabrication. In 2012, Doug was inducted into the Alberta Business Hall of Fame and a cousin, Jack Golosky, was once the Dean of the heavy industrial division at the College. Today, you can find a street named after the Golosky family a block over from Keyano College, and Richard’s grandfather, who emigrated to Fort McMurray from the Ukraine in 1903, donated his original home to Heritage Park where it still stands today.


Peter Grandjambe

“Grandjambe! Life won’t give you to many chances, so take this one!” Peter Grandjambe laughs as he tells how his friend Jack Shields told him about the Alberta Vocational Centre. Peter was enrolled in the first Heavy Equipment Technician Course. “I had my doubts. Jack said he had dozers and graders coming in. He told me to come down and practice (operating) them. He said ‘at least if they kick you out of here, you can be an operator’. Yes sir, I became an operator! I was an operator for 30 years.” Larry Boucher, also one of the original students from 1965 currently lives down the road from him. Interestingly enough, Peter lives in Fort MacKay, across the road from Keyano’s Fort McKay campus. “That was the road they used was a practice run for operators in training back in the day. Vern Gordon was the mechanic instructor and Clifford McLachlan was the (senior shop) instructor for the heavy equipment operation course,” he happily explains. “I didn’t realize at the time that we were actually building Syncrude, ten years before they started mining.”


Contributions by Melissa Herman


Kevin has been writing for YMM since the first issue. Many of his articles have been pseudonymous, hidden behind the tags Keyano writer or YMM staff. Kevin has been a columnist for many years, working for some of the leading newspapers of the world, including the New York Times and the Devon Dispatch.