The doors opened to a new era of post-secondary learning 50 years ago when Selkirk College welcomed students seeking a brighter future from across the West Kootenay and Boundary region.
When the residents of six school districts—Trail, Nelson, Castlegar, Slocan, Grand Forks and Arrow Lakes—voted in a referendum on February 25, 1965 that stated the provincial government would pay half the cost of building and equipping a regional college with the taxpayers of the six districts assuming the other half, the commitment to the future was sealed with 72.5 per cent in favour.
After it was approved by voters of the six regional school districts though a referendum in February, 1965, planning for the West Kootenay Regional College—what it was known as before Selkirk College—began. In November, 1965 the college’s first principal Gordon Campbell took part in a groundbreaking ceremony where he provided the vision for what would become the Castlegar Campus.
“It was that moment in time that our region took a bold step and showed confidence that post-secondary close to home would make a difference in the lives of all residents,” says Selkirk College President Angus Graeme. “Over the last 50 years, thousands of graduates have received a quality education at Selkirk College and gone onto make significant contributions to our economy and our society.”
Rural resilience was required from the first day of classes in September, 1966 and helped set the tone for the next five decades. Due in part to both a railway and carpenters’ strike, construction of the Castlegar Campus was delayed and not ready for opening day.
Recent construction of the first pulp mill in the interior of the province meant Celgar had four abandoned bunkhouses on its property. The company offered Selkirk College the opportunity to begin the Fall Semester just up the Columbia River from Castlegar, averting a disastrous start.
The charter class of 458 students started their post-secondary studies in temporary classrooms with the offering of the original four programs—University Arts & Sciences, Forestry, Electronical Technology, and Business & Commerce.
“Without Celgar, I’m not quite sure where this college would have been,” says Terry Moon, a member of the charter class who grew up in the Trail area. “What they did for this college was nothing short of phenomenal. They helped the base of this place to be established.”
A New Campus and a Growing Future
On January 13, 1967, students and staff commemorated their time at the Bunkhouse Campus and celebrated the now finished campus by staging what has become known as The Great Trek. On an overcast winter morning, students and staff took down the flagpole at the Celgar site and made a three-hour trek to the new campus at the confluence of the Columbia and Kootenay rivers.
The trek included a parade of bands and floats that made their way through Castlegar much to the delight of community supporters who lined the street. The flagpole was raised outside the beautiful new campus and classes began for all those who had learned through adversity during the first semester at Selkirk College.
The empty land at the confluence of the Kootenay and Columbia rivers before construction of the Castlegar Campus began. Before the process to bring a college to the West Kootenay was conceived, there were several ideas proposed for the prime vacant land including a prison.
“It was a challenging start, but in the narrative of the first community college in rural British Columbia it really was the perfect start,” says Selkirk College’s Communications Coordinator Bob Hall, who is working on a 50th anniversary commemorative coffee table book with History Instructor Takaia Larsen that is set for release in Spring, 2017. “The spirit of overcoming and coming up with creative ways to ensure the best learning outcome for all students is something that you see over and over again in the college’s 50 year history.”
Since the doors first opened in 1966, Selkirk College has continued to evolve with the growing educational needs that suit the region and beyond. Today, there are more than 60 programs offered at Selkirk College that range from Integrated Environmental Planning and Ski Resort Operations & Management to Hairdressing and Rural Pre-Medicine. Three of the original programs—University Arts & Sciences, Forestry and Business—continue to thrive 50 years later.
The reach of Selkirk College into the West Kootenay and Boundary region has also been a significant achievement. Today there are five campuses and three learning centres that include the Castlegar Campus, Tenth Street Campus (Nelson), Kootenay Studio Arts Campus (Nelson), Silver King Campus (Nelson), Trail Campus, Grand Forks Learning Centre, Kaslo Learning Centre and Nakusp Learning Centre.
This year there are almost 3,000 FTE students (full-time equivalent) in the college’s programs and 9,000 community learners who take a variety of different courses through the Community Education & Workplace Training department.
“Selkirk College is truly a regional resource,” says Graeme. “We have taken the original vision put forward by the pioneers who helped create this tremendous institution and continue to carry forward on our mission to inspire lifelong learning, transform lives through education and training, and serve our communities.”
A Time to Celebrate Together
The Selkirk College 50th Anniversary will be celebrated at the Homecoming Weekend which takes place September 16 to 18. The college is inviting alumni, retirees, current staff and students, and all community members to take part in some or all of the festivities.
“Selkirk College has touched the lives of so many people over the last 50 years and we want to invite everybody to reconnect as we move into our next 50 years,” says Selkirk College Marketing Manager Maggie Keczan. “The weekend celebration is intended to bring the community together in celebration of what is a significant milestone for not only Selkirk College, but our entire region.”
Premier W.A.C. Bennett attended the official opening ceremony of the Castlegar Campus in April, 1967. Here he chats with one of the Selkirk College students.
The Saturday schedule gets underway starting at 9 a.m. at the Castlegar Campus with a community pancake breakfast that will include free food, games, entertainment, exhibits, tours and prizes. Everyone is invited to attend. Starting at 11 a.m. there will be a commemorative celebration and recognition of The Great Trek.
Saturday night features the Through The Decades gala which includes a delicious walk through the best culinary creations of the last five decades. The evening will also feature great entertainment and an opportunity to reconnect. Tickets for the evening event are still available at the Castlegar Campus Bookstore, the Kootenay Studio Arts Campus in Nelson and online.
Sunday’s focus will be at the Castlegar Golf Course for the annual Selkirk College Saints golf tournament. The scramble format tournament features great golf, prizes and a dinner. There is still room available to enter as a team or an individual. Find out more information about this fundraising event.
The 50th anniversary commemorative book and other golden memorabilia are available for order online. The memorabilia is also available at the Castlegar Campus Bookstore.