Why is Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides suddenly in such a rush to relocate 500 Athabasca University employees now scattered across Canada to the institution’s namesake town in the aspen forest 145 kilometres north of Edmonton? 

Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides (Photo: Twitter/Demetrios Nicolaides).

Just eight months ago, not long after AU President Peter Scott was wooed away from an academic post in Australia, Dr. Nicolaides appears to have been just fine with the distance-education institution’s idea of going full-on virtual campus and possibly even closing or selling off existing facilities in the town of 2,800. 

The big switch seems to have happened between then and late March, when Premier Jason Kenney showed up in Athabasca with Dr. Nicolaides in tow and promised residents at a crowded town meeting that “we have directed the Board of Governors to strengthen its physical presence in the Town of Athabasca by consolidating executive and senior administration offices in Athabasca at the earliest possible opportunity.”

Well, the government had been lobbied by a professional with United Conservative Party connections not to let AU pull any more workers out of Athabasca, but that hardly explains Dr. Nicolaides’ current haste toward the end of his government’s mandate. 

Even in March, the UCP Government’s big idea didn’t appear to involve the influx of 500 or more people into Athabasca, which, even if they didn’t bring partners and children, would increase the size of the town overnight by almost 20 per cent.

In a blog post published on March 24, hours after Mr. Kenney made his comments at the town meeting, the former president of the Athabasca University Faculty Association said he’d been told by Dr. Nicolaides that “AU staff outside of Athabasca are not included in the above mandate and that will be for the university to decide.”

Athabasca University President Peter Scott (Photo: Athabasca University).

David Powell wrote then that the minister also told him, “Our assumption is this will mean status quo for all who currently live outside of the area.”

That assumption now appears to have changed dramatically. 

In March, Dr. Nicolaides gave AU until June 30 to come up with a plan. 

Dr. Scott said nothing had changed, AU would continue to move toward the virtual campus. 

When Dr. Nicolaides didn’t like the plan AU gave him, he ordered the university’s board to come up with another by Sept. 30. This one had better include everything he’s been demanding, he implied. 

He threatened to cut off the AU’s operating grants of $3.45 million a month if the university wouldn’t knuckle under to his demands. 

Dr. Scott warned that would soon bankrupt the place. He said that the government’s “1980s thinking” could put the university on the “path to destruction.” 

Now, according to a Canadian Press report over the weekend, Dr. Nicolaides says the government is so anxious to see the Big Move take place that it’s willing to fork over extra cash to help the 500 employees move.

Former AUFA President David Powell (Photo: Facebook/David Powell).

So what is it about the next two years that makes it so essential to the minister to immediately relocate as many as 1,000 people when you include households to a town of fewer than 3,000 in a region where, at the moment, there are fewer than 60 real estate listings on the market?

You’d think UCP members would have other matters on their minds right now, what with the battle to replace Mr. Kenney unfolding across the province.

And where are these poor folks supposed to live? In tents?

In case you missed it, it gets cold in Alberta in the winter – even with global warming. 

And right now there are no houses or apartments for them to move into. 

This sounds like a municipal planning disaster in the making. 

In the CP interview, Dr. Nicolaides responded to accusations the UCP is just trying to attract rural votes by describing his plan – if it can be called a plan with so few details available – by trying to sound reasonable. 

“I don’t believe we’re asking for anything new,” he told CP’s reporter, just continuing down the “path of excellence “AU’s been on for decades. 

Actually, it’s probably true that this isn’t about courting rural votes. Remember, this is a government that not long ago told oil companies they didn’t really need to pay their taxes to rural municipalities. And as things stand, the UCP will probably win in the riding anyway, no matter what they do or who then choose as a leader.

Has anyone thought about the planning that will be necessary to ensure the developments required are not an instant rural slum? And who is going to pay for it? It seems unlikely the town now has the planning capacity to carry out work of this scope. 

So what’s actually going on? Who’s going to slap up the housing that will be needed to make this plan reality? Where’s it going to go? And what’s the hurry? 

Join the Conversation

31 Comments

  1. Perhaps some one has land in the area they want to develop and how better to create a market than by moving a thousand people in. Of course where they would stay in the interium could be a problem

    If all these workers arrive in town, where will their kids go to school? Any one consulted with the school board.

    Every where there are doctor shortages. Does the area have sufficient doctors and hospital beds or do they expect those people not to get sick or if they get sick, just up and die.

    Perhaps the new head of the organization wants to build an empire

    what ever is going on it certainly doesn’t make sense. Hopefully some one will have some answers because it is doubtful any of those living elsewhere will re locate to the area and perhaps it is a ploy to simply have all the staff quit.

    1. I don’t suppose I could persuade you to take over for Jason Kenney, could I? You at least ask the right questions. I’d take a random homeless guy over anyone in the CPC at this point.

  2. The more this story percolates, the more it’s beginning to look not unlike that instance in 1989, when Premier Don Getty, defeated in his own Edmonton riding in a gravely miscalculated early election, pulled up stakes and moved to Settler, AB and home to his new riding. The weird and highly questionable sudden move was more to save Getty’s face than anything else. But it did bring a boom to Settler in the form of the moving of Western Canadian Lotteries office, as well as a host of other goodies and perks meant to reward the town folk. At last, someone actually glad to have Getty around.

    The whole debacle to move about 1,000 AU staffers to the Town of Athabasca would surely be welcomed by the locals. It will massively increase its population and bring a building and explosion of commercial activity once thought impossible. Now, if Kenney could only dream up a way of moving the entire populations of St. Alberta and Sherwood Park to Red Deer, Alberta would have a brand-new megacity that would vote UCP forever and forever. This is how Jason Kenney thinks big — really big.

    There seems to be a lot of these big ideas spinning around in CON circles these days. Both Danielle Straitjacket and Skippy Pollivere have latched onto the notion that a brand-new monster oil export terminal can be built at Hudson’s Bay, thus giving Western Canada the access to tide water as proclaimed in the Bible — or somewhere. This big idea’s genesis was at one of those Wexit events, where a Hawaiian shirt wearing Buggaloo boy declared this big, big plan. At the time, Wexit leader, Peter Downing, called the plan “achievable” and best way to wreck Ottawa once and for all. And it was also apparent that no one with any engineering background, let alone actually having been to Hudson’s Bay and surrounding region, could take this idea seriously. Yet, the idea is still floating around, and it has now become the Big Vision that’s driving Smith and Pollivere’s respective campaigns.

    Big ideas are great. They also, like a Hudson’s Bay oil export terminal, will cost hundreds upon hundreds of billions — incalculable billions of dollars. Apart for somehow reinforcing the thousands of square kilometres of unstable muskeg to support the pipeline infrastructure, an entire massive section of Hudson Bay’s shoreline will have to dredged up to accommodate the hundreds of super-tankers that are expected to dock at the facility. The whole thing will take decades to build, cost trillions of dollars, and will surely have a widespread impact on the entire region’s ecosystem. It’s a disastrous white elephant in the making.

    But the CON mind takes an orgasmic delight in these big ideas, because think big, be big.

    1. Let’s not forget that Hudson Bay is frozen over for at least eight months of the year. Are the Cons planning on a pipeline extension across the ice?

  3. Yes, you have to wonder why the Minister seems so fixated on the 500 figure, that seems unrealistic given the current real estate market and capacity of that town.

    If it actually happened, it would create a bonanza for real estate speculators or developers who had the right political connections. Likely whomever this is would not be a local company, but some bigger company from Edmonton or Calgary or elsewhere. I wonder if someone has been or is buying up land near to the Town of Athabasca.

    Of course this could all be a pretext, setting up unrealistic goals that the President of Athabasca University can’t meet. This would then provide an excuse to get rid of him or cut funding to the University, or probably both. Perhaps the UCP already has someone in mind to buy a slightly used, battered educational institution cheaply. Of course, after the government funding is cut, this buyer getting a bargain would be heralded as a savior by the UCP and as a bonus for them, the troublesome Dr. Scott would likely be gone. The government would likely then pore in additional money perhaps supposedly to cover relocation costs. This would go with the UCP philosophy that in order to fix things, you have to break them. First education, next stop, health care.

    Of course, there is no reason the UCP couldn’t be trying to both benefit real estate speculators and privatize educational institutions. However, whatever their hidden plans may be, the 500 figure still seems an arbitrary number with no historical context and unrealistic, which is probably exactly why the UCP is so fixated on it. They are setting up Athabasca University for failure.

  4. So many questions, so few answers. I can see the end result now….

    Some 500 to 1500 souls have taken up residence along the shores of the Athabasca River, where they live in a massive trailer encampment. If it’s good enough for oilsands workers, it’s good enough for uppity professors. Much like the residents of Ralph’s Trailer Court in Fort McMurray in the 1970s, they’re avoiding all the pitfalls of urban life, like paved roads and sidewalks. Think of all that free time, no longer wasted shovelling snow! Why move to Victoria, when you can have that carefree lifestyle right here in Alberta?

    Best of all, they’re waterfront properties. Who needs a ocean ? Who can resist a view of the water? Besides, they’re mobile homes, so you can just pick them up and move, right? The rental pads on which these homes rest belong to Athabasca’s biggest property developer, so what happens to the property if the river floods is his problem, right?

    https://www.townandcountrytoday.com/athabasca-news/deluges-from-days-passed-2556293

    And then one day, someone spots a sasquatch.

    https://podcasts.google.com/feed/aHR0cHM6Ly9mZWVkcy5hY2FzdC5jb20vcHVibGljL3Nob3dzLzYyNDcxZjliMzBmYjYxMDAxMjAwMWRkMA/episode/NTE0ODEyZWMtZGE5ZC00MzI3LWI0NGUtZTA3MGRmZjE4YzE4?ep=14

  5. This mess has been very informative. I’ve learned that a chunk of the tuition AU students pay is not to finance their education, but to pad the pockets of a town of entitled grifters. I would not consider enrolling in a university like that. I’ve learned that the town of Athabasca is economically unviable and I completely support the withdrawal of this and all other handouts they are getting in return for their choice to live there. The sooner Athabasca becomes a ghost town, the better off the Albertan taxpayer will be. I already knew the UCP was composed of reactionary, corrupt, sleazy grifters, but I guess it’s nice to have that confirmed?

  6. You have raised excellent points, David.

    The housing issue is something Dr. Nicolaides obviously has not considered. Given that most people affected by this policy will not be happy about being required to move, I expect they will be looking for rental accommodation, rather than something to buy. What entrepreneur would build an apartment block to meet a demand that has been created exclusively by government fiat, knowing that a change in government, or a revised government policy, could quickly convert the investment into a stranded asset?

    Another issue that really needs to be considered is how well non-housing issues are prepared to meet the demands of a sudden influx of people. Are medical, fire and police services ready for the increased population? Are existing residents prepared to pay higher property tax to meet the increased infrastructure demands, especially when the increased demand will result in them getting poorer service? (A Calgary urban planner once estimated it takes up to 35 years for the taxes from a new development to finish paying for the cost of building it.)

    As I understand it, at this point the primary industries for the Town of Athabasca are forestry and agriculture. Neither industry will benefit from an increase in the town’s population, but the residents will certainly feel the affects from full restaurants and overwhelmed services.

    Aesop warned, ‘Be careful for what you wish for, you may get it.’ Its true.

  7. Housing!!!! First you need land bought from some others, accommodation for all the workers, then clearing, then stripping of topsoil [to be sold back for a second whack at profiteering], then clay removal to accommodate space for basements, surveys for lots that were produced by engineering bunch with or without town planners, then underground for sanitary sewers with lines in for each lot, storm sewers, water mains [with an increase in the capacity of the existing system for all those extra ‘houses’], paved roads with or without curbs and sidewalks, natural gas lines, electric lines [preferably underground], maybe fibre optic lines, and more. Newer and bigger services for food, gas, and other things people just might need – built in a hurry too!!!
    What could possibly go wrong about what these UCP bullies desire?
    Yes, tents may be an option, but then, who among all those now dispersed people will pick up from where they are? I fear for any future for AU!!

  8. Once again, we clearly see that the UCP doesn’t know what they are doing, because they haven’t got any clue how to run things. They make matters worse. Who should find this a surprise?

  9. My beloved Alberta – so much mystery. Sometimes I find myself too close to a problem and am unable to grasp any solution, so I will offer some possibilities from the Atlantic seaboard. Before discounting any of the following conjectures, note they originate in the Fatherland of Peter MacKay – an outstanding example of Honourable Duplicity – we have a little experience with perplexing behaviour. In Solidarity:

    1. When accompanying his Honourable Dog on its “business trip” one morning recently, Nicolaides forgot to don his Cosmic Ray Deflector Helmet. This allowed a couple of rogue neutrinos to penetrate his skull, where they still reside, bouncing about and disrupting his Honourable Gland and Synapse. I am not a physicist, but I gather this is not normal neutrino behaviour, so he must be a very special person.
    2. While on vacation in north-eastern Alberta, he mistook a tar sands tailing pond for a pristine lake, decided to take a skinny dip, thereby absorbing heavy metals (possibly radioactive!) through one of his Honourable Orifices. I’ve read that this could cause cognitive dysfunction. You should rush him to a nearby Emergency Room – if you can find one that’s open.
    3. While enjoying the beach at the same pond, he plucked the lone growing shrub and began practicing drawing lines in the sand. He found this so edifying, he decided to employ it everywhere, on everything.
    4. He is purposely shaking up the functionality of the AU to create a vacancy he will then fill with himself, thereby bolstering his credentials. He is a UCPer, after all, and we can see how concerned they are about the (their) future.
    5. He has a chronic tummy ache.
    6. Has anyone checked the Honourable Liquor Cabinet? Some nefarious actor may have spiked the Honourable Whiskey Jar with an hallucinogenic substance, or even replaced the whiskey with absinthe.
    7. Applying the principle of simplicity is often the best explanation, Nicolaides is just a Compleat Orifice, albeit an Honourable one.

    All the best.
    Sincerely,
    Atlantic Seaboard

  10. It should also be noted that Dr. Nicolaides is also putting the UCP government on the hook for the investment in housing and all sorts of other goodies that will be needed with the Town of Athabasca’s population explodes by a third. Nicolaides is an educated man, so he should be able do math — did he just commit Alberta to (maybe) several billion dollars in development funds for Athabasca? Considering the amount of housing that must be built for AU staff, as well as the commercial and public infrastructure needed to support such a sudden and massive population bulge, this just cannot happen easily or inexpensively.

    This is little more than a pipedream, at its most hilarious. (And there must be some really good stuff involved, too.) It’s also a good setup for dissolving AU into the U of A’s institutional bloat. Since AU can in no way meet the obligations imposed on it by the Minister, its funding will be reconstituted into the U of A’s budget, the Athabasca Campus buildings will be sold off to whomever, and no one will breathe a word of this ever again.

  11. The primary mission of a university is and must always be the education of its students. It is not a job-creation enterprise, although jobs and economic activity are a pleasant side effect of having a university in a town. (My wife & I just got back from a vacation in Nova Scotia, during which we spent some time in & around Wolfville, home of Acadia University, and boy a prettier, more pleasant little town would be hard to find).

    But it’s completely absurd beyond belief to require that a 100% virtual university, with no students on campus, have all of its faculty live in that town. Making the economic benefit of the town the primary mission of the university is a classic example of the tail wagging the dog. It’s a VIRTUAL university. What part of that does Nicolaides not understand?

  12. Usually, you provide a name and credit for photos in your articles. Who is the bearded person? Or am I not seeing a reference?

    1. John: Thank you for pointing out this unintentional omission. It is former AUFA President David Powell, quoted in the story. The photo is from his Facebook account. The proper caption and credit have been added below the image. DJC

  13. I wonder what the folks in Athabasca think of this whole mess? The town’s web site says there are 2,965 people living there, “and it’s growing.” True; Alberta government figures report 2,805 residents in 2021, declining steadily since 2013 (3,177). So how do folks REALLY feel about adding a few hundred people to their town in two years?
    http://www.athabasca.ca/p/Town-Administration
    https://regionaldashboard.alberta.ca/region/athabasca/population/#/?from=2017&to=2021

    I strongly doubt the town will grow by 500-plus; I’d expect most of those distance-learning teachers will quit rather than take orders from the UCP—starting with Dr. Scott. (On second thought, he may be gutsy enough to make them fire him, then sue for wrongful dismissal.) Kenney’s reputation is shot, and Danielle Smith is either a demagogue or bat-shit crazy. Who in his right mind would move to Oilberduh into the middle of the UCP’s War on Doctors, Nurses, Teachers and Lawyers?

    Others have pointed out that everything from grocery stores to schools will have to expand (forget about hospitals; that’s not gonna happen). I really wonder how folks will react if, repeat IF, the UCP manage to bully/ cajole/ bribe enough people to make a difference?

    So, just how much support is there in Athabasca town for this stupidity? The whole town? Just the business owners? A real-estate developer plus his family and friends? I dunno, but the whole thing is gonna get much worse before it gets better—if it ever does.

    1. If there are adults in Athabasca embarrassed or upset by this fiasco, it behooves them to make their voices heard. The idea that an entire town only exists because of taxpayer handouts is absolutely outrageous. Even by Albertan standards that ought to be unacceptable.

  14. Anonymous They have never ever gotten anything right. At the provincial or federal levels. Harper made such a fool of himself even Ralph Klein and Ed Stelmach warned us about his hidden agenda to privatize health care even though Klein was trying to do the same thing here. That’s how stupid they are. After creating a massive debt for Canadians Harper in true Reform Party fashion looked at trying to dump the cost of health care onto the backs of the people , just like Klein tried to do after giving away hundreds of billions of dollars in tax and oil wealth and Jason Kenney wants to follow what Klein did, and has found that Albertans aren’t willing to let it happen again. All the whining about a huge shortage of doctors and nurses in Canada yet none of these politicians are smart enough to figure out that maybe they should treat them with the dignity and respect that they expect. After all they are the most important people in our lives. They didn’t spend all this time in universities running up huge student loans to be treated like third class citizens by idiots who didn’t even finish their education. You certainly didn’t see Lougheed treating them this way. I never heard any of my friends and relatives in the medical field whining about how Lougheed was treating them, did you?

  15. Hi Jerrymacgp,
    As an aside, I am sitting in Wolfville drinking a cup of tea, just down the street from Acadia University. We used to live here.
    Acadia is one of the oldest universities in Canada, starting as a Baptist college in about 1828.
    From what I understand, Acadia U has had its share of financial struggles over the years. The Irvings (shipbuilding, forestry, oil refinery and service stations etc.) have invested in Acadia including the Environmental Centre and the botanical gardens which were built about 20 years ago.
    Housing is an issue here, even though there are student residences.
    Although it might be nice to have faculty and staff move to Athabasca, I wonder how practical that would be, even if the housing, education, infrastructure, and other concerns could be addressed. The costs to do this would be extremely high.
    If Acadia, which has been located in Wolfville for almost a hundred years, has financial difficulties along with housing concerns, it doesn’t seem logical to simply place a large number of people in Athabasca without adequate supports for housing and other necessities.
    Wolfville is in the Annapolis Valley, which is famous for its apples and also has market gardening and other agriculture. It is on the Minas Basin, part of the Bay of Fundy, which has some of the highest tides in the world. Right next door is Grand Pre the location from which the British expelled Acadian settlers in New France, even though many Acadians had hoped to remain neutral.

  16. A point that needs to be made is that, if my understanding of the situation is correct, is that the Town of Athabasca has not even asked for these 500 employees. The Town’s ask was that the government just stop the exodus of workers, and keep things as they have been. It appears the dynamic duo of Kenney and Nicolaides took it upon themselves to give the Athabasca more than it asked for and, I expect, more than it can handle.

    I wonder what the Town officials are thinking about the situation now.

  17. Off topic, but… https://www.msn.com/en-ca/news/canada/alberta-awards-prize-to-essay-that-argues-women-should-pick-babies-over-careers/ar-AA10uxeU?ocid=entnewsntp&cvid=7b8a240e656c44a48f48dbd4ea1c844c
    …because of course they did. Some of the least subtle misogynistic and white supremacist dog whistles I’ve encountered in some time, hell, they barely even count as dog whistles. And, of course, nobody can say who was responsible or how this happened. smh

  18. Follow the money. Who owns the vacant land? How are they related by blood, marriage or business to the UCP. It is physically impossible to increase the number of dwellings by almost 40% in the short term. ( see Stats Canada). Why now change Canada’s pioneer online legitimate public owned degree granting u.?
    Can the Athabasca town utilities like water , sewer, etc, or the services handle this even over ten years. Follow the money! Which professors have peed off someone with their anti fossil fuel or pro environment research? The local MLA farms, but not in the towns proximity, what does he want? And while the UCP financially attacks rural Alberta communities with fewer grants, privatizing government services so they relocate to Edmonton or Calgary, thus reducing the number of living wage jobs in small urban communities, there likely is a method for this madness, but I still suggest, follow the money

  19. These are all excellent questions that deserve an answer from the UCP. If I lived in Athabasca I would be quite concerned.

    Funny that you’ll ask all these questions when its your political opponents moving Canadians around but if anyone asks these exact same questions about the Feds importing millions of Muslims a year, you call them racists.

    1. Brandon: You’re really comparing apples and oranges here. Athabasca’s infrastructure is clearly not equipped to handle a 20-per-cent increase in population overnight without provincial funding and assistance. The annual increase to Canada’s population from immigration from all sources is hardly on that scale. In 2021, which had the largest intake of population from immigration in Canadian history, it was about 1 per cent of population. So you are quite wrong that that immigration amounts to “millions of Muslims a year.” Permanent resident immigration from all sources in 2021 was 401,000. This is expected to rise to about 451,000 by 2024. This is from all sources including Europe, North America, Latin America, Asia (including the Middle East) and Africa, and, quite obviously, not all of those people are Muslims. At present, the percentage of the Canadian population that is Muslim is under 4 per cent. DJC

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.