When Minister of Children & Family Development Katrine Conroy stopped by the Selkirk College Castlegar Campus in mid-June to announce funding for 24 new seats in the Early Childhood Care & Education (ECCE) Program, she felt right at home. It’s no wonder the veteran political leader was at ease, Selkirk College has played an important role in her life since she was a little kid.
A Selkirk College alumna and former instructor, Conroy knows the power of close-to-home post-secondary and how it can change lives. Now a minister in the hallways of power in Victoria, Conroy continues to see grassroots community building as the key to economic, social and cultural success in rural British Columbia. You can read about the recent ECCE Program announcement here.
Minister of Children & Family Development Katrine Conroy (right) chats with Selkirk College employee Amy Byers and her son Griffin at a recent announcment at the Castlegar Campus.
When Selkirk College celebrated its 50th year in 2016, one of the projects coming out of the golden anniversary was the coffee table book Journey’s Taken: Selkirk College – The First 50 Years which tells the story of inspiring post-secondary in the West Kootenay and Boundary. One of the vignettes in that book takes a closer look at Katrine Conroy. This story was written in 2015, prior to the NDP forming the current government and is written in that context.
Katrine Conroy: Leading the Way Through Generations of Learning
Over its first 50 years in the West Kootenay and Boundary, Selkirk College has enriched the lives of local families by providing generations of learners the opportunity to explore post-secondary in their own backyard. The empowerment of education has created many leaders over the decades who have an intimate understanding of the core values of rural mountain life.
On Selkirk College’s anniversary year, Katrine Conroy represented the region provincially as MLA for Kootenay West, a post she was first elected to in 2005. Raised in the Castlegar region, Conroy’s connection spans three generations and building towards more.
“We have all grown because of it and the community has grown because of it,” Conroy said. “It’s a real jewel for our region… I can’t imagine Castlegar without Selkirk College. It has made us an education town and with that comes all the creativity that it provides. So many people come to our region because of Selkirk College and they stay, raise their family, and become important contributors to our communities.”
Conroy’s parents—Ben and Ingeborg Thor-Larsen—were Danish immigrants who arrived to the West Kootenay in 1962 with their growing family that included four children. Ben got a job at newly opened Celgar pulp mill and eventually strengthened his education in the Millwright Program on Nelson’s Silver King Campus. Ingeborg took Russian language classes the year Selkirk College opened its doors in 1966 and in the early 1970s was the college’s book store manager for three years.
The story on Katrine Conroy is featured in the commemorative coffee table book Journeys Taken: Selkirk College - The First 50 Years.
Having already spent plenty of time with her mom roaming the hallways of the Castlegar Campus as a kid, Conroy didn’t hesitate to enrol in the Selkirk College School of University Arts & Sciences when she graduated high school at Stanley Humphries Secondary in 1975. As she prepared to enter post-secondary, Conroy landed a summer job at the Celgar steam plant where she was the first female to work in the demanding environment. After a year-and-a-half at Selkirk College, Conroy took a break to travel to Europe and upon her return resumed her post at the mill.
In 1979, Conroy returned to Selkirk College as a member of the very first Early Childhood Education Program cohort. By this time she had met and married Ed Conroy—himself a Selkirk College charter student—and the two had a young and growing family of their own. After working hands-on in local daycares, Conroy became the executive director of the Kootenay Columbia Childcare Society (now Kootenay Family Place) where she helped grow opportunities for affordable childcare and expanded affordable family programming throughout the region. While in the position she joined forces with Selkirk College leadership to help get The Children’s Centre on the Castlegar Campus built in the mid-1990s. In 1997—when Ed Conroy was representing the region as MLA—she added to her depth at Selkirk College by taking on a part-time teaching position.
“It’s a healthy situation because you are teaching students, but at the same time they are teaching you. It was a great experience because I took what I learned from students and brought it back to my position.”
On behalf of Minister of Advanced Education Melanie Mark, in mid-June Minister Katrine Conroy announces the 24 additionally funded Early Childhood Care & Education Program funding at the Castlegar Campus.
With politics in her blood since a very early age, Conroy made the jump to public life in 2005 when she was elected as MLA. Carrying forward the ideals her parents planted from an early age and carrying on the political legacy of her husband, she is committed to building stronger rural British Columbia communities.
All four of Conroy’s siblings spent at least some time at Selkirk College and all four of her own children did the same. When nieces and nephews are factored in, there are few programs at Selkirk College that have not been touched by her extended family. With two 16-year-old grandchildren nearing post-high school decisions, it won’t be long before four generations of the Thor-Larsen family connect with Selkirk College.
“Selkirk College has been such an important part of my life and so important in the lives of our kids. They recognize how lucky we are to have this post-secondary option right here in the region. It’s an institution that feels like home, it’s a comfortable place to be.”
In her travels around the province, Conroy is quick to let others know of the importance of post-secondary close to home.
“We can’t forget how important a community college is to our region. This is the region’s college and it is critical to so many important parts of what happens in our communities.”
Journeys Taken: Selkirk College – The First 50 Years is still available for sale with proceeds going towards the 50th Anniversary Student Legacy Award that creates scholarships and bursaries for students. Find out more about the book here.