Why colleges in Canada are ’hard-wired’ to the communities that surround them

Colleges, which are in Canada’s biggest cities and smallest towns, work closely with local industry and community groups when designing their programs and research projects
Byrne (left) measures bull kelp near Campbell River, B.C., with NIC graduate Sally Enns (Photograph by Melissa Renwick)
Allison Byrne measures the length of the bull kelp blades as Sally Ends records the data within the Philips Arm and Frederick Arm, near Campbell River, on Vancouver Island, on August 4, 2020. (Photograph by Melissa Renwick)
Assiniboine’s meat-cutting facility (Courtesy of Maple Leaf Foods)
Assiniboine’s meat-cutting facility (Courtesy of Maple Leaf Foods)

It all started when Maple Leaf Foods added a second shift to its plant in Brandon, Man., the company’s flagship facility in Canada, and needed more employees. It was able to find some workers locally, but international recruiting became a big part of its strategy—and Assiniboine Community College, also in Brandon, saw a way to help.

“We decided we were going to go down the path of building a food processing centre for animal protein,” Assiniboine president Mark Frison says. In the past, the college had provided language training for Maple Leaf’s international recruits, as well as those hired by HyLife, a Manitoba-based pork producer. But a full-fledged training facility that covered everything from sausage-making to smoking meat to what it’s like to be on an actual meat-cutting line would help those companies expand their pool of applicants. Maple Leaf decided to invest, as did the province of Manitoba and the federal government. UFCW Local 832, the union that represents workers at the Maple Leaf plant, invested, too. The result was a 3,000-sq.-foot facility that opened in 2019.

This wasn’t just a smart business decision; it was also about the needs of Assiniboine’s community. Colleges are uniquely connected to the towns and cities where they’re located, and administrators often try to provide value to local residents, whether through industry-related research, services or job training. According to Denise Amyot, president and CEO of Colleges and Institutes Canada, this is partially because of sheer numbers. “Ninety-five per cent of Canadians and 86 per cent of Indigenous people live within 50 km of a college,” she says. That means colleges are literally everywhere. Unlike universities, which tend to cluster in major centres, colleges can be located in tiny communities. New Brunswick Community College, for example, has a campus in Fredericton, the provincial capital, but it also has outposts in St. Andrews and Woodstock. And B.C.’s Selkirk College has campuses in West Kootenay’s biggest cities—Castlegar, Nelson and Trail—as well as a learning centre in Kaslo (population 968). This type of proximity makes it easier for students to attend class, but it also means members of the wider community can access libraries, gym facilities, green space and other services.

At Assiniboine, the first class to learn in its brand-new meat-cutting facility were all international students—and they overwhelmingly wanted to stay in Canada once their training was done.

“Most of our students who come to us from other countries, their goal is really to be in Canada,” Frison says. “And so, this is not only a way that they can learn that skill, it’s pretty seamless for them then to be able to go work for those companies, or in other parts of the sector, such as retail.”

According to Amyot, about half of the international students who study at Canadian colleges plan to apply for permanent residence upon graduation. But what is unique about Assiniboine’s meat-cutting program is that it isn’t just a vehicle for students who come to Canada to stay here. The school also began receiving inquiries from overseas family members of Maple Leaf employees, who saw the program as a way for them to immigrate, too.

“Right now, we have an interest list of 147 folks associated with people who already work in plants,” Frison says. “A lot of our international [recruitment] strategy is based around supporting the province’s immigration and population strategy.”

Students at the college’s brand-new Food Processing Centre for Animal Proteins (Courtesy of Assinibione Community College)
Students at the college’s brand-new Food Processing Centre for Animal Proteins (Courtesy of Assinibione Community College)

The meat-cutting program is also reflective of colleges’ ability to coordinate with employers and industries. Programs are often built in consultation with local professionals, a fact that contributes to these institutions’ high rates of post-graduation employment. “College is hard-wired to the community,” says Frison. “We’re hand-in-glove with how things work in the economy and the social fabric of the community. Every program that we would have has an advisory committee, made up of people from industry, typically in the province, who provide advice about how that program should meet the needs of the occupations and the sectors that it serves.”

That’s also the case at Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ont. Its City School program makes college education accessible to local residents who are experiencing poverty. They access workshops, career exploration modules, non-credit courses that run for just a few weeks, and longer, for-credit courses. All are free, down to the cost of equipment and safety gear. Mohawk faculty develop these courses in conjunction with employers. “If an employer comes to us and says, ‘Look, I have a need for a fitter welder position,’ we will customize the curriculum to meet those specific skills,” says James Vanderveken, dean of the Centre for Community Partnerships and Experiential Learning at Mohawk College.

The program owes its existence to “Code Red,” a Hamilton Spectator series that debuted 10 years ago and looked at the ways poverty impacted the city’s residents. One news-grabbing stat revealed by the project: residents of the wealthy Hamilton neighbourhood with the highest life expectancy lived, on average, 21 years longer than residents of the poorer neighbourhood with the lowest life expectancy. Faced with those statistics, “the college made a critical decision that we wanted to be a catalyst,” Vanderveken says. “We wanted to function as a leader in the community to address these issues.”

Mohawk’s City School offers training, such as this welding class, inside modified transport trucks (Courtesy of Mohawk College)
Mohawk’s City School offers training, such as this welding class, inside modified transport trucks (Courtesy of Mohawk College)

City School, which emerged out of this resolution, started as a mobile classroom program. Instead of asking people experiencing poverty to literally cross the city’s railway tracks to come to one of Mohawk’s three campuses, the college went to its potential students, offering free introductory courses for skilled trades. City School opened its first location at the Eva Rothwell Centre in Hamilton’s North End in 2015. Over the next five years, the program would open three more locations—one at Hamilton Public Library’s central branch, and the other two inside souped-up transport trucks. So far, the program has served almost 2,300 students. And while employment is an important goal, the courses can also help students find a pathway to college. In fact, nearly 200 former City School students have transitioned to full- or part-time studies, academic upgrading or language instruction for newcomers to Canada at Mohawk.

The project has been so successful that Vanderveken has started expanding City School beyond Hamilton. So far, the school has provided some services in Burlington, Ont., and has reached out to contacts in Caledonia, Ont. But the program might be getting much, much bigger. “We were invited by the Future Skills Centre [an arm’s-length government program run by Ryerson University, the Conference Board of Canada and Blueprint ADE] to consider launching our programs and engaging other communities across Canada,” he says.

Colleges are also playing a part in reconciliation. In B.C., North Island College’s Centre for Applied Research, Technology and Innovation (CARTI), is working on a research project on wild sea kelp with Kwiakah First Nation, the second-smallest First Nation in the province, with only 23 members.

In 2014, the Nation realized there had been a profound change in the eelgrass beds in its territory. “We had a lot of talk with the Elders, and they made us aware that in the past, [eelgrass] was really abundant everywhere in our territory. But when we were out in our boats, we could hardly see any eelgrass beds,” says Frank Voelker, band administrator and economic development officer at Kwiakah First Nation. “So, we knew there was a discrepancy, over the last 100 years, [between] the abundance we have been told about and what the reality is.”

The Nation commissioned an environmental survey, and results proved them right: the eelgrass had basically vanished. While this was disappointing news, it was important information to have; Indigenous people’s traditional knowledge is often considered anecdotal evidence by Western scientists, and Voelker hoped this survey could help bolster the First Nation’s observations. And that would soon become necessary. In 2018, the provincial government started accepting applications from businesses that wanted to harvest wild bull kelp. (Kelp is a $10-billion industry—it’s used in food products, makeup, toothpaste and even pharmaceuticals.)

“So now, knowing that ocean plants overall don’t do so well anymore in our coastal waters, and hearing that the government is actually supporting a wild harvest without having the means to monitor what these harvesters actually would do, we didn’t think this harvest actually was justified,” Voelker says. Around that time, he read an article about North Island College (NIC) and its work farming kelp. “I just made a cold call and said, ‘Would you be able and willing to work on a project with us to see what the real situation of the kelp is now in our territory?’ ”

Byrne (left) measures bull kelp near Campbell River, B.C., with NIC graduate Sally Enns (Photograph by Melissa Renwick)
Byrne (left) measures bull kelp near Campbell River, B.C., with NIC graduate Sally Enns (Photograph by Melissa Renwick)

That was two years ago. In the time since their initial meetings, Kwiakah and CARTI have been building a relationship and hashing out the project’s goals and objectives. Their plan is twofold: first, lead researcher Allison Byrne and her team will create an inventory of the wild kelp resources in Kwiakah’s traditional territory using a combination of drone, aerial surveys and boat surveys. They will be measuring and weighing kelp. Then, they will provide Kwiakah First Nation with information about the kelp’s role in carbon sequestration in the ocean. (Kelp is highly effective at carbon sequestration; it absorbs carbon dioxide and other forms of carbon from the atmosphere. In fact, kelp is better than trees at improving air quality.)

“We’ve really seen this as an opportunity to help [Kwiakah] diversify their economic businesses in a sustainable, long-term and traditional way,” says Randall Heidt, NIC’s vice-president of strategic initiatives.

Meanwhile, NIC benefits from access to the Nation’s traditional knowledge. “As a researcher, I really enjoy going out and doing these projects and working in a collaborative team with members from the Nation and NIC students and industry personnel,” Byrne says. “And I think it’s just been an excellent learning opportunity. Every time we go out, we exchange knowledge.”

This isn’t the first time NIC has partnered with neighbouring First Nations. It has completed kelp aquaculture trials with First Nation-owned businesses, and it has received grants to send its nursing students into communities where they work on language revitalization and traditional ways of learning and knowing. From the college’s perspective, these projects “help us to answer some of the calls that were issued in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report for community colleges to support capacity building and achieve some of those outcomes,” says Naomi Tabata, manager of the college’s Centre for Applied Research, Technology and Innovation.

In times of trouble—like the COVID-19 pandemic—colleges are uniquely positioned to pitch in. Colleges and institutes across Canada “supported the local health needs of the community with personal protective equipment that they had, because they are teaching in the health sector,” Amyot says. “And they were able to graduate students faster, [so they could start to] work faster. But if there was not this synergy with the community, it would not have happened like that.”

In April, Yukon University launched Pivot, a three-month program meant to help local businesses of all sizes and stages survive the pandemic. Participants were able to lean on a team of experts who helped them “rework, re-envision and revamp” their companies. At Cégep de Trois-Rivières in Quebec, 38 nursing students graduated early so they could work on the front lines, while Red River College loaned 14 students from its health information management program to Manitoba Health, where they collected and tracked data about COVID-19 throughout the province. And Canadore College in North Bay, Ont., did its part to keep its community occupied during the pandemic by offering modules from six general education courses free of charge. Topics ranged from astronomy to the science of everyday life, and with no marks or tests, the intention was purely to help people pass the time.

Back in Brandon, Assiniboine’s next intake of meat-cutting students is getting started on their education. Part of their course will be delivered online because of COVID-19, but the college is working with employers to make sure their 12-week work placements still happen—after all, students can’t really practise their meat-cutting skills at home.

“Eventually, they’ll have to be in the shop,” Frison says. “And that’s how we’re plotting our next year, as well. We expect that folks at the end will be able to step out in the industry.”

And that includes newcomers to Canada. “Part of our interest in international students is to help pave a pathway for them to come to Canada and Manitoba, and for them to find ways to live and work here,” he says.

This article appears in print in the Maclean’s 2020 Canadian Colleges Guidebook with the headline, “A hand-in-glove partnership.” Order a copy of the issue here. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.