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Building Relationships With Education: Keyano in the Wood Buffalo Region

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When you think of Keyano, the College’s main Clearwater Campus in downtown Fort McMurray is often what comes to mind. However, Keyano’s reach goes much farther. Did you know the College operates a Fort Chipewyan campus? And, has learning centres in Gregoire Lake, Janvier, and Fort McKay? All of these learning centres flourish on synergies with surrounding communities.

Fort Chipewyan

Keyano’s history in Fort Chipewyan goes back more than 35 years. It’s a history built on creating relationships by fostering mutual understanding. It’s a relationship built on trust, and timely delivery of courses that meet the community’s needs.

The College built the Fort Chipewyan Campus on September 20, 2011. It was constructed at a cost of just over $3.5 million. The facility was built to replicate the Keyano logo and is about 800 square metres. While student numbers fluctuate, thanks to new staff working on community collaborations, there were 46 students enrolled this year.

Programs offered include Pre-employment Trades (Carpentry and Welding), GED Plus (Upgrading credit courses and GED combined), Health Care Aide, Heavy Equipment Operator, and numerous Community Adult Learning Programs.

Janet Lowndes, Chair, Aboriginal Education & Regional Stewardship, Keyano, explains more on programming.

“The most significant contributor to the recent successes in Fort Chipewyan is a change in the way in which we steward the regional delivery.  Regional stewarding staff is actively working on building better relationships with community representatives in the community to identify training needs,” noted Lowndes, who has been with Keyano’s Aboriginal Education department for 10 years.

For example, Mikisew Cree built an Elder Care Home and needed culturally aware operational staff trained before opening. By working with aboriginal employment training partners, Keyano delivered a culturally sensitive training program that incorporated two weeks of language and cultural sensitivity training by Cree and Dene elders along with the technical skills courses. A Health Care Aide online course has since allowed staff to upgrade.

“GED Plus has opened the doors to post-secondary programs for students who couldn’t afford the time and cost of upgrading. And, Community Adult Learning Programs, which is offered free of charge in all regional communities, address the literacy crisis common to remote northern communities” explains Lowndes.

Michael Becker is the Manager for the Fort Chipewyan Campus. He started with Keyano two years ago and enjoys being able to make a difference in the remote community.

“The campus is unique in that nearly all of the students are First Nation or Metis. Fort Chipewyan is primarily an Aboriginal community made up of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, and Metis Local 125. In one aspect Fort Chipewyan is a remote community, accessible by winter road for only three months of the year, meaning it is accessible only by small plane the remaining nine months. However, it is not technologically remote, as high-speed Internet, satellite television, and cell phone coverage are available,” he shares.

 “One of my responsibilities and the role of the College is to work with our First Nations, Metis, and Municipality partners to deliver programs to meet community needs. Recently this has been achieved by providing pre-employment programs such as welding and carpentry. Sometimes students do not qualify academically for one of our projects but are otherwise solid candidates. In those cases, we have special programs such as Community Adult Learning Programs and GED Plus so candidates can acquire the necessary academics.”

Thanks to Becker, who rearranged staff schedules so the school is open through the evening as well, the campus has become a community hub.

“We are providing space for gatherings, meetings, and workshops. Community members have access to the library, computers, skill centre, and assistance from knowledgeable staff who are long-time community members. This year, we also hosted the outreach program operated by Athabasca Delta Community School,” Becker adds.

Starting in September, Fort Chipewyan Campus will offer Pathways to Bachelor of Education, a three-year program for future teachers. The first year is a bridging program and subsequent years will offer the first and second year courses of the B.Ed. program. There will also be community-based programming for Environmental Monitoring, which will be a braiding of western and traditional indigenous science, including co-instruction by local Indigenous knowledge holders and faculty from Keyano’s environmental science department.

“Having a campus in Fort Chipewyan brings educational opportunities to the community rather than having students move for educational opportunities. One focus of the Pathway to B.Ed. is to provide the opportunity for local community members to study in Fort Chipewyan with the goal that successful graduates will take teaching positions in the community in which they live. Their local knowledge and understanding of traditions will benefit the education of future generations.”

Additionally, the community-based Environmental Monitoring program acknowledges that traditional science has the same value as Western science, that the two different approaches to environmental monitoring complement one another: they are inclusive, not exclusive. Post-secondary institutions, such as Keyano College, are being called upon, through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Recommendations, to support the nation-building efforts of Aboriginal people, and for the Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations, that means building capacity and opportunities in the community of Fort Chipewyan,” Becker notes.


Fort McKay

The hamlet of Fort McKay is located about 58 kilometers north of Fort McMurray. Serving the Fort McKay First Nation, Keyano’s Fort McKay Learning Centre moved from the Dorothy McDonald Learning Centre to the Fort McKay Band Office this January.

“Our coordinators in Fort McKay are actively engaged in building community relationships. Whether it’s working with the elders, or job placement, they are ready to assist,” says Lowndes.

For Nyssa Papertzian, Community Access Coordinator, Fort McKay Learning Centre, the most beneficial contribution that Keyano College has made to the community is by “being a stable adult education institution.”

“In a small community, it can be very difficult for youth and adult community members alike to obtain a high school or post-secondary education. The presence of Keyano College in Fort McKay makes it possible for residents to accomplish their educational goals without needing to leave their community.”

Papertzian, who has been with the learning centre for two years, has seen a variety of programming offered that has “provided positive life changing experiences to community members,” she feels.

“The GED Plus program has opened up new employment and educational opportunities to graduates. The Heavy Equipment Operator program (HEO) made a lot of community members more employable for industrial employment positions. The Health Care Aide program is training Fort McKay’s own community members to be employed in their new Elder Care Facility. Lastly, the Community Adult Learning Program offers a variety of different programs to meet the needs of community members. It has offered Pre-GED courses, Basic Computer Literacy, Test Preparation for Class 7 Driver’s Licence, and Money Matters financial literacy courses. The Community Adult Learning Programs not only focus on strengthening community members’ literacy, they also serve to improve students’ self-confidence. Keyano College has a big role to play within the Fort McKay community as an educational institution and an even bigger part to play in increasing its’ students’ personal growth and self-achievement,” she enthuses.


Gregoire Lake Learning Centre

Nestled in the heart of the Fort McMurray First Nation #468, the Gregoire Lake Learning Centre is located in Gregoire Lake Estates about 35 kilometers southeast of Fort McMurray. It is overseen by Veronica Doleman. She is also the regional Community Adult Learning Program Coordinator.

She believes the learning centre is able to serve a variety of learners no matter what is going on in their lives.

“I was so lucky to bear witness to an amazing GED Plus cohort this year and got to see a wide variety of learners. These individuals came together to support one another towards the completion of their personal goals. Nothing prepared me for the excitement I would feel as students would come in to the learning centre to share their successes. You become personally invested in the success of each of the students and getting to see them accomplish such a variety of achievements is an absolute honour,” Doleman shared.


Janvier Learning Centre

Alice Fontaine is the Community Access Coordinator for the Janvier Learning Centre, which serves the Chipewyan Prairie First Nation. Janvier is about 120 kilometers south of the city. Keyano has been in the hamlet since 1995, and Fontaine joined the centre in 1996.

“Keyano’s presence has allowed Janvier community members to earn a high school equivalency diploma and they contribute to the community workforce. For the last couple of years, we’ve been offering free foundational instructions to students that were below the grade 10 level. Family literacy (Books for Babies and Rhymes That Binds) programming through the Community Adult Learning Program was a plus,” she shares.

“I just went to the Athabasca Tribal Council conference and there was a former student who was in our program about 10 years ago. He spoke about his experience at Keyano in Janvier and how the instructor and I helped him and encouraged him to finish his program and graduate. At the end, he personally thanked me for being there for him. I was honoured to be a Keyano employee. I feel we contribute the most when we have staff in the classroom teaching and supporting the students. It is inspiring to see former students that found jobs or went on to further their education. I feel we’re there to help them on that journey.”

Indeed, Keyano has been touching lives, and helping with educational journeys throughout the region. It’s a promise the College keeps, and delivers on – daily.


About the photo

The Fort Chipewyan Pre-employment Carpentry students, under the direction on carpentry instructor Kevin Breen, recently donated four double-chair garden benches, which they built as class projects, to the Kahkiyow Keykanow Elder Care Home in Fort Chipewyan. The elder Care Home placed them on their outdoor patios to be used by residents and visitors. The 10 week Fort Chipewyan portion of the program ended on May 12 and the students are now finishing their studies at Clearwater Campus.