ATHABASCA — The local advocacy group working to keep Athabasca University jobs in Athabasca is making progress with government officials, representatives told Athabasca County councillors at their last meeting.
At the first regular meeting for the rookie council Nov. 9, Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University (KAAU) member Mavis Jacobs and Town of Athabasca mayor Rob Balay reminded them of the history before providing an update that included the possibility of conducting an impact study.
“I was serving on the (AU) Board of Governors when they decided to go near-virtual and the biggest thing that I think the board was – I would say almost misled on – was the fact that near-virtual was supposed to be introduced as a means to close the campuses in Edmonton, Calgary and St. Albert and save hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Balay.
“And when I pushed the president at that time, Neil Fassina, on what the impact to the Athabasca campus and loss of jobs in Athabasca would be, he said it would be quite the opposite; that all those positions that were considered place-based in those other locations where they held leases would actually have to relocate so Athabasca would actually expand the employee and community footprint for Athabasca, so I saw that as a possible benefit.”
Balay said when enrolment dropped 1.5 per cent, there was “panic” and Jacobs noted registrations have dropped far lower during a time and situation when they should be increasing.
“(The Board of Governors have) quite insulated themselves, partly because they're really wrestling with COVID, distribution, staff environment, and it's complex,” said Jacobs. “Registrations at the university have dropped 11 per cent this year, that is major.”
Jacobs added KAAU met with David Powell, president of the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA), who she said is “very, very concerned.”
“Right now, there are five arbitrations dealing with a multitude of issues, but in any one year there was rarely more than one arbitration,” she said. “So, there's a lot of issues with working conditions and unfair treatment of staff, and in some cases, unfair working conditions.”
Balay noted that when the previous Athabasca County council got on board, the message really started to have an impact.
“Mavis did allude to the fact that the turning point for our campaign was actually when the county got on board, because that sent a message,” said Balay. “Previous to that they were saying, ‘Well, why is the town on board and not the county?’ So, that kind of solidified our campaign and from that point forward, community members and the provincial government and the MLA started to pay attention.”
Another good sign came in the form of a letter from the Alberta government suggesting a study should be done.
“The Alberta Labour and Immigration department also reached out and the minister, (Tyler Shandro), suggested that we should possibly do a labour impact study and there might be a grant available for that,” he said. “There are going to be a couple partners needed for that but it's probably 80 to 90 per cent funded by this grant.”
Balay added spending for the group to date is about $32,000 including $7,500 each from the town and county and $18,000 from community donations.
“We've made a lot of headway and thank you, to the county for creating some of that momentum for us. We need to keep lobbying; we need to keep the pressure on,” he said. “We are going to have to extend this campaign so just to plant a little seed that there will probably be a request coming forward for more funding to extend this for a few more months.”
Balay added KAAU will be looking for a couple of partners, outside of the municipalities, if possible, to help get the grant for the study.
“It could be anyone; it could be a service club,” he said. “It's just in order to get the grant they want to show that someone else is willing to put a little bit of skin in the game for them to invest their money to carry out the study.”
During the Alberta Municipalities (formerly Alberta Urban Municipalities Association) convention Nov. 17 to 19, Balay stood up and spoke about AU, giving some history and making a request.
“We believe Premier (Jason) Kenney when he says he’s committed to job creation and development in rural Alberta,” he said. “With a single decision, his government can do both.”
Environment and Parks minister Jason Nixon acknowledged being on the board – Balay’s term overlapped – and taking a couple of courses, but it was associate minister of natural gas and electricity Dale Nally who hammered home the importance of the university.
“I have two degrees from Athabasca (University) so it'll always have a special place for me because I was a single parent for eight-and-a-half years,” Nally said. “I would not have a university degree if it was not for Athabasca so it's very meaningful for me.”
Balay said in a phone call Nov. 21 he will be reaching out to both Nixon and Nally to arrange meetings.
“We have to line something up with the chiefs of staff,” he said. “Both of them came over after (the speech) and we exchanged contacts, so I’ll give them a call on (Nov. 22) and we’ll set something up and have a chat.”