Fort McMurray’s Keyano College sends arts to tailings pond

By Frank Moher

The sacking of four instructors in the Visual and Performing Arts Department at Keyano College in Fort McMurray is creating an uproar well beyond the city better known for its resource extraction talents. Artists, of course, are well aware that their masters — whether they be cabinet ministers or academic administrators — can swoop in at any moment and remove the struts that support not only individual work but entire cultural communities. What’s prompting the shock in Alberta’s artistic community (and give it a day and I expect it will be nationwide) is the way in which the swooping was reportedly done.

According to this blog post, the four were given 15 minutes to gather belongings from their offices, then escorted off campus by security. An anonymous comment confirms the account. It adds that a total of 19 staff were given notice — or whatever you call being told the job you thought you had when you woke up that morning is gone — with more targetted for tomorrow, Monday. So before artists start venting, we’d do well to remember that we’re not the only ones considered expendable in the halls of power these days. But since this is the Arts section of, I’ll focus on the VPA Department purge.

In an “open letter” published on Keyano’s website today, the school’s Vice President Academic, Ann Everatt, denies that the employees were marched off campus, at least by guards. “In only one instance was security asked to assist in escorting a faculty member off the premises and that was only because the human resource manager involved had another appointment to tend to.” She didn’t address the 15-minutes-to-get-out allegation. Russell Thomas, the College’s Director of Marketing and Communications (who happens also to be an actor, not to mention a blogger), couldn’t tell me if it was true, though he did acknowledge that the faculty had been advised of their firing that morning. I spoke with one of them this evening, who would not confirm the information, off-the-record or on, because “it might affect my severance package.”

In any event, Keyano’s open letter contains enough information and self-justfication to tell us what’s happening here. “If we left the VPA courses as they were,” says College President and CEO, Kevin Nagel, “declining low enrolments would eventually continue to all-time low levels, our theatre and arts related assets would continue to be under-utilized while concurrently, we would not be able to deliver the new engineering technology programs or the 4-year business degree program that we are planning to introduce this coming September.” Of course, a lot of this is projection, or, as the psychologists like to call it, “catastrophizing” — there are ways to arrest declining enrollments in particular areas, some of which Thomas tells me they’ve tried — but the Prez’s priorities are clear, and they aren’t the school’s arts “assets.” And is anyone surprised by this, coming from the President of a college plunk in the middle of the most avaricious example of asset exploitation on the planet — especially one who was, before this, Dean of the JR Shaw School of Business and who bills himself on his linkedin page as “a transformational leader, business consultant and post-secondary education administrator who brings extensive experience and a global business perspective into the board room and classroom”? (By the way, that grin-and-grip photo to the right shows him meeting oil sands apologist Ezra Levant, when the SUN News Network jihadist visited Fort McMurray in January to give a speech. Dr. Nagel seems very, very pleased to be shaking Levant’s hand.)

Keyano claims they will shuffle any remaining arts offerings into their “Conservatory” program, which is what they call Continuing Ed. courses in these areas. (Interestingly, the URL for the “Conservatory” is Yes, folks, it all comes down to workforce development.) The problem is that, when Keyano similarly decided a year ago to “suspend” its music program, it was supposedly in order to redesign and reintroduce it. Thomas tells me that never happened. So why they expect anyone to believe them about what will happen with their visual and performing arts programs beats me.

Fort McMurray got itself all into a tizzy when, in March, the British edition of GQ magazine published an article that depicted it as nothing but a drug- and prostitution-riddled magnet for hosers on the make. And quite rightly — as drive-by journalism goes, it was too easy. But Keyano’s actions don’t do much to help us see past that caricature. In fact, if this keeps up, pretty soon it won’t be one.


  1. says

    Insightful. Accurate. Right on point. Thank you for writing and posting this.

    (I’m a former music professor at Keyano College.)

  2. says

    No Megan, the college’s 2 year diploma program was not, and is not, the only haven for artists in Fort McMurray, be they Musicians, Actors, Dancers, or Visual Artists. HOWEVER, how many people in Fort McMurray are truly given the opportunity to focus solely on their craft, hone their muse, and expand their artistic skills? How many of them are stuck working for big oil, having to push their passions to the wayside, and curtail them to being a hobby, all in the name of making a living for themselves? I would venture a great deal more on a per capita basis than most other cities of comparable population.

    In addition, Fort McMurray is not the only source of students for the college; many VPA students come (well, *came*) from areas north of 60. Keyano held the distinction of being the northernmost college in Canada to offer full, university-transferable diploma programs in the arts. Now, Northern artists will be stuck going even further from home just to get that same education.

    On top of everything, Canada has lost it’s only education-based (as opposed to unofficial, non-Red Seal “apprenticeship”-based) Musical Instrument Repair program. It was the only one on the continent to offer a full, rounded cohort of classes, including repair, music, and business, with many credits transferable to other programs as well.

    Pat McIlveen
    MIR Year 1 ’02
    Music Diploma ’04

  3. Megan Storrar says

    There are hundreds of talented artists who will continue their creative work in Fort McMurray. Arts and Culture in Fort McMurray will continue to grow even without a college program to support it. It is currently driven by hard working volunteers, not the college. That GQ “caricature” will never be accurate. Your response is valid on some points, however there are many artists already settled here and we aren’t going anywhere. You seem to think the only artists in town were associated with the college program?

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