A beautifully expressed letter about the town of Athabasca, and Athabasca University's place within it

The staff and students of AU are currently on tenterhooks, awaiting the results of the AU Board of Governors’ briefly postponed deliberations on how it responds to the Albertan government’s demands on AU’s future, so I have (personally) held back a bit on further commenting or adding fuel to the debate over the past couple of days. The contents of this post, though, have already reached the relevant parties, so I don’t think there is a need to delay posting it.

Over coming days, depending on how the situation develops, I may be posting a compilation of some of the comments provided by AU staff in our recent letter to the Albertan minister for advanced education and to our own board of governors. This one comment, however, written in the form of a letter, deserves its own post.  It is extremely personal, it is passionately and compellingly written, and it written by someone who loves the town of Athabasca and who cares about its people and its future. Many thanks go to its author, both for writing the letter and for giving me permission to post it in public. It is a brave decision to allow this: they have asked me to withhold their name but they are fully aware that their identity may be obvious to those who know them. 

I think it is a brilliant letter that flows from the heart directly to the page. I hope you do to. I am proud and humbled to have this person as my colleague.

As much as possible I have tried to present this almost exactly as written, but I apologize for any mistakes I may have made when converting it from the original PDF.

Greetings,

Subject: Athabasca University

I live and work in Athabasca because I choose to live and work here. I moved to Athabasca in May 2005 from Newfoundland with a 2-year plan to find employment, pay off my student debt and move back to the province where I was born and raised, a province that I dearly love.

My first year in Athabasca I worked at Scotiabank as a Customer Service Representative. In May 2006 I was hired as the Benefits Administrator for Paramount Energy Trust now known as Perpetual Energy Inc. an oil and gas company where I spent 12 years of my professional life. I loved my job however the economic downturn in the oil and gas industry forced Perpetual Energy to downsize resulting in the closure of their Athabasca field office and a decision to liquidate most of their assets in Northern Alberta. In October 2016, Sequoia Resources Corporation acquired Perpetual’s remaining assets in the North as well as some in the Central region of Alberta and as a result my position with Perpetual was terminated and I was hired by Sequoia Resources Corporation which lasted 18 months before the company became insolvent and eventually claimed bankruptcy.

During my 17 years in Athabasca, I have seen significant changes in the local economy. When I moved to Athabasca it was a thriving and prosperous town, with a flourishing economy due to the presence of oil and gas companies. However, in 2007/2008 there was a downturn in the economy and many of the oil and gas companies were forced to restructure, downsize, and implement cost reducing measures to ensure their continued presence in Athabasca. Tough decisions were made, all debt reduction measures were exhausted and many of these companies (directly or indirectly involved with the Oil and Gas Industry) were forced to close their doors and/or file for bankruptcy which negatively impacted the local economy. Following is a list of companies/business and organizations (and their current operating status) that operated in and contribute/d to Athabasca’s prosperity and viability during my 17 years here:

  1. Athabasca University
  2. ALPAC
  3. Miller Western – Closed
  4. Athabasca County
  5. Aspen View Public Schools
  6. APL – Bankrupt
  7. CNRL
  8. Husky – Closed
  9. Paramount Energy Trust (now known as Perpetual Energy Inc.) – downsized dramatically; field office closed/majority of Northern Properties sold
  10. Syntech (merged with Tarpon)
  11. Tarpon (acquired by PTW Energy Services)
  12. Pyramid (now known as PTW Energy Services)
  13. IEC – Bankrupt July 2019
  14. Pronghorn ?
  15. Sequoia – Insolvent/Bankrupt Spring 2018
  16. Pioneer Sales & Rentals – recently closed

The downsizing, restructuring and closures of many of these businesses not only affected the employees but as well the local economy.

I understand and respect some of the issues and concerns that the Municipal Governments and the Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University campaign has brought forward. However, one of the arguments that KAAU has regarding the near virtual initiative that I struggle and disagree with is the out migration of AU employees because of the opportunity available to them to work from other locations in the province and beyond. There are people migrating out of Athabasca but not all of them are AU employees, a lot of them are people and families who have depended and thrived on the oil and gas companies, and they are following the salaries that have afforded their families a lifestyle that a lot of the remaining businesses in Athabasca can’t provide or compete with. I know this personally through my involvement with the Oil and Gas industry and my continued relationships with those that worked with me in that industry. Of the sixteen businesses listed above 11 of those were directly or indirectly involved with the oil and gas industry, four of them closed, three of them went bankrupt and three businesses merged into one. I feel like the KAAU group, the town and the county through their campaigning and lobbying are placing the responsibility of Athabasca’s success and survival on one industry/business/corporation and that organization right now is Athabasca University and that is not realistic.

A town/county needs a contingency plan for the long-term. Placing all your eggs in one basket (or relying on one or two industries) will not provide the economic security and stability required for long-term success. Local municipalities need to focus on running their towns/counties like a business and finding ways to diversify and attract new businesses if they want to be viable. A couple of years ago AU put forth a proposal to work with TED, the Athabasca Rotary Club, the Town, County and Chamber of Commerce through an AU Research project on Rural Development and Sustainability to identify and assist Athabasca with achieving this, however these organizations and committees were not receptive and did not embrace the opportunity. If these groups had engaged with AU and combined their talent and resources, the Town would already have a long-term plan promoting the abundant opportunities and amenities of rural living available in Athabasca. Financially, I try to support the local economy as much as possible, but the reality is even people that live in Athabasca do not support the local economy. Many Athabasca residents will travel to the city to get groceries and necessities because prices are lower, and the selection is wider especially for people that have different dietary and lifestyle needs.

I am discouraged and disappointed by all the misinformation and disinformation circulating on social and in print media regarding AU’s intentions/plans relating to the near virtual initiative. The personal attacks and negative comments directed toward coworkers and individuals that I respect is hurtful, everyone is entitled to their opinions, but it is very unprofessional and disrespectful to intentionally tarnish another person’s reputation, integrity, and credibility because you disagree with them. There are diplomatic ways for everyone to have their voices heard and I wish everyone would convey their messages and ask their questions in more professional and respectful manner.

The individuals involved in the Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University Group, as well as the members of the Town of Athabasca & Athabasca County are campaigning and lobbying the government based on their views, but these views are not held by all Athabasca residents or AU employees. I understand and respect their stance on the issue and the goal that they are trying accomplish but as an AU employee, a long-time resident of Athabasca and someone who supports the near virtual initiative, no one from the KAAU advocacy group, the municipal council/s or the UCP Government (including my own member) has ever contacted me or any member of the Team that I work with at AU to ask for our opinions and views on how working virtually has impacted and improved our work-life balance.

The Article published in the Town and Country regarding the Town Hall meeting held at the Athabasca Multiplex on March 24, 2022, whereby the Provincial Government more notably The Premier, Mr. Jason Kenney and The Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides as well as the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Rural Economic Development Nate Horner announced that the Alberta Government was giving Athabasca University a deadline of June 30, 2022, to:

“develop and implement a comprehensive talent development, attraction and retention strategy, by June 30 of this year, to maintain and grow a broad range of employees in Athabasca, and to develop and implement a reopening strategy for the Athabasca campus to resume most employees working onsite, and to allow public access to services like registries, student support and specialized services,” Kenney said.

The most concerning statement for me was “to develop and implement a reopening strategy for the Athabasca campus to resume most employees working onsite”. I am a resident of Athabasca and I choose to live here; I have proven (since March 2020) that my job can be successfully executed virtually from my home office. My work-life balance has improved significantly because I can work from home. If the Provincial Government forces AU and its employees to return to place-based work at the Athabasca campus it will have a negative impact on my work, home life not to mention my mental health and well-being. My Grandmother always told me that it takes a village to raise a child. I never fully understood this until my daughter was born, I don’t have a village (my immediate family lives on the East Coast of Canada) and my husband works outs, so when my daughter is home from school sick working virtually allows me the opportunity to provide her with the care that she needs without lost time from work and it does not infringe on my vacation time, meaning that I do not have to use “our” (as in my family’s) vacation time to care for my sick child. If I were place based at the AU Campus, I would have to use my vacation to care for her which would significantly decrease the amount of vacation available to me if not completely exhaust my allowable annual vacation. Last year alone my daughter was absent from school a total of 26 days due to illness, annually I am entitled to 23 days of vacation. With the 2022-2023 school year fast approaching this is concerning, I am the sole care provider for my daughter and as mentioned above I do not have a village that I can rely on for support when my daughter is sick at home. Therefore, if the 2022-2023 school year produces the same number of absences due to illness as the 2021-2022 school year, I will end up owing AU 3 days for overused vacation. Annual vacation is imperative for Mental Health and Well Being, what do you recommend I do if I have no vacation time for rest and rejuvenation during the year. In addition, lost time from work not only affects me but my entire team which causes an additional array of problems and issues.

I also have some underlying health issues with adverse symptoms that sometimes prevent me from going to the office however working virtually allows me to work in the comfort of my own home managing the symptoms that otherwise I would have to take a sick day for.

COVID has introduced a new reality to many including my immediate family. I have asthma, my husband has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (Cancer) and is immunocompromised so cohorts and ensuring that all our contacts are vaccinated is a new part of our reality. As a result, minimizing contact is of the utmost importance as we strive to mitigate the risk of infection and the resulting consequences that it could have on my family.

My workspace at AU isn’t ideal, privacy is limited with five co-workers working in a common space, it is a high traffic area with lots of distractions. Every member of our team has different working habits and routines some people enjoy listening to music while they work, others enjoy using diffusers and essential oils, however when you’re working in an common area you have to be cognizant and respectful of your coworkers some might not like background noise, other people may have allergies and asthma etc. so using diffusers and essential oils is not recommended, which is totally understandable and acceptable. Then there is the issue of trying to regulate the temperature/air conditioning to accommodate everyone which is extremely difficult. Working virtually provides individuals the opportunity to control these variables as each employee has the freedom when working virtually to customize their workspace by implementing mental health and well-being practices that contributes to a peaceful and calm working environment which enhances creativity and productivity.

We are supposed to live in a democratic society where everyone’s voice is heard. However, if AU’s current situation and the COVID Pandemic has taught me anything its that the loudest voices which accounts for approximately 20-25% of the population seems to be the only ones listened to. Their comments and influence carry more weight than the remaining 75-80% of the population which is discouraging and is not in line with the democratic process. Maybe the UCP Government more specifically Demetrios Nicolaides, Minister of Advanced Education and Glenn Van Dijken, Athabasca’s MLA along with the Municipal Council’s and lobby groups should focus on and make more of an effort to contact the front line employees at AU, who are also constituents who will be impacted the most by this decision and take into consideration the positive and negative aspects of the Near Virtual Working Environment and how it has enhanced Work-Life Balance for many employees.

I’m tired of my voice not being heard which is why I decided to compose this letter. I’m tired of being told, I’m tired of the lobbyist/activists, Municipal and Provincial Governments not respecting the voices on the “other side”. I believe some of the asks that the Athabasca Municipal Governments has imposed on AU is unreasonable “500 jobs”? How do the local Municipal Governments and the lobbyists propose on addressing the impending issues associated with a population increase upwards of 1000 people? To my knowledge the town has not provided a contingency plan to the current residents on how they intend to accommodate the influx of an additional 1000 people. Has any consideration been given to the human impact and quality of life? Where will these people be housed? How do the town/county plan to address infrastructure? Is there a plan to recruit and retain new Doctors, there is a shortage here now and as recent as July the Hospital in Boyle had to close their emergency room for a month due to Doctor shortages? What about our schools? Our new high school which was opened in September 2018 has already resorted to using trailers attached to the school.

Mandating employees to return to placed based work is not the solution, I’m confident it will only create more problems. Some of AU’s current employees have already been approached by recruiting companies because of the attention that this issue is getting in the media. It is estimated that upwards of 30% of AU’s current workforce will resign if this mandate is enforced which will significantly diminish our talent pool. I’m not sure if the KAAU members or Local Municipal Governments have contacted Professional recruiters to determine how difficult it is to recruit talent, but that conversation might be worth having.

Regards,

[redacted]

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and two growing-up grandchildren. I live in beautiful Vancouver.

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