Vocational Schools, Colleges & Institutes in British Columbia

Historical overview by Patrick A. Dunae

The period from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s saw tremendous growth in the post-secondary sector, with the advent of new and enlarged vocational schools and the opening of new regional or community colleges. The growth was spurred by a hot economy and new technologies, and by an unprecedented confidence and a competitive spirit.

The provincial economy grew at a phenomenal rate during the decades immediately following the Second World War. New technologies contributed to the growth and ensured the "good life" for many British Columbians. W. A. C. Bennett's Social Credit government, elected for the 3rd time in 1956, encouraged the confidence. The competitive spirit was fostered in part by desire to emulate the material success of the United States, and in part by anxieties over the Soviet Union, especially after the Russians launched Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite in October 1957. Indeed, while sputnik started the space race, it also galvanized the provincial education system and in January 1958 the government appointed a Royal Commission on Education (Chant Commission).

The first provincial vocational school was created in 1936. (Vancouver School trustees established a technical school in the 1920s, but it was a local, rather than a provincial, initiative.) The 1936 British Columbia Vocational School – sometimes called the Dominion-Provincial Vocational School -- was a depression-era strategy, funded in part by the federal government. Initially, the school consisted of two training "centres" – one, in an old livery stable in Nanaimo; another, in a garage in Burnaby.

During World War II the facilities were shared by the federal government . In the case of Nanaimo, workshops and classrooms were relocated to an army camp in Harewood. After the war, the vocational schools were used for rehabilitation and civilian re-training schemes. Funding was provided by various jurisdictions, including federal government departments (Defence, Labour, Veterans Affairs) and provincial government departments (Labour, Education). Municipal authorities and local school boards also contributed resources to the schools.

In the mid-1950s, the provincial government acquired the facilities outright and the Technical Branch of the Department of Education managed them. By that time, the two centres offered an extensive array of courses. The "Trades and Technical Institute, Burnaby" (as the Burnaby centre was styled) offered classes in welding, bricklaying, sheet metal, plumbing and steam- fitting, carpentry, air frame mechanics and boat-building. Some of the programs were conducted in rented premises on the grounds of the PNE in Vancouver. The Nanaimo Vocational School offered classes in automotive mechanics, bulldozing, heavy-duty gas and diesel equipment, general welding and pipeline welding. So successful were the programs, that the federal government contracted B. C. vocational instructors to establish similar programs in other provinces.

Mechanics, welders, and bulldozer operators trained in these schools played a major role in building the highways, railways, hydro-electric projects, mines, mills and resource towns in British Columbia during these prosperous years; draughtsmen, carpenters, and plasterers from the two provincial vocational institutes helped to construct new schools for the first wave of British Columbia's baby boom generation.

Vocational training opportunities and facilities expanded in the 1960s.The Burnaby Vocational School moved to a new, modern campus in 1960; three years later the school in Nanaimo was enlarged and provided with new facilities. Vocational training programs were also extended to other communities: British Columbia Vocational School training centres were opened in Prince George in 1962, in Kelowna in 1963, and in Nelson in 1964. Training programs were also offered through Vancouver Vocational Institute (1962).

Meanwhile, the Chant Commission, which reported in 1960, recommended the creation of a new post-secondary institution that would provide expertise in newly emerging and rapidly developing fields of "high tech." The government acted enthusiastically on the proposal. The province's premier technical school, British Columbia Institute of Technology, commenced classes in a state-of-the-art campus in the fall of 1964.

Another enquiry paved the way for community colleges and institutes. Dr. John B. Macdonald, newly installed as the fourth president of The University of British Columbia, undertook the enquiry in 1962. Macdonald's report was published in December 1962 under the title Higher Education in British Columbia and a plan for The Future. It was bold and remarkably modern- sounding document. "The kind of new world into which we are plunging headlong will bear little resemblance to the world we now know," the report began.

The post-secondary sector had to expand dramatically and high academic standards had to be established in order to meet the challenges of the future, Macdonald said. "It is axiomatic that we seek excellence in education: no lesser goal is worth the effort." But excellence in education, Macdonald cautioned, was a rare thing:

It is to be found when carefully nurtured and cultivated; in the absence of a good environment it is easily choked out by the weeds of mediocrity. Excellence cannot be legislated; it cannot be purchased; it cannot be proclaimed; and it cannot be assigned. It can be sought and encouraged and rewarded, and this is the task in planning for higher education in British Columbia – to seek, encourage, and reward excellence.

In Macdonald's view, "diversification of opportunity, both in respect to the kinds of educational experience available and the places where it can be obtained" were "fundamental to the promotion of excellence in British Columbia's higher education." Society required "many different kinds of talents of its citizens," he said, and no single institution could reasonably be expected to provide for all of the educational objectives needed for the modern world." Geographical diversification was no less important. "Many potential leaders remain unchallenged by the opportunities of higher education simply because they live in communities where the rewards of intellectual endeavour are not made evident by the presence of a college."

Macdonald recommended Victoria College be allowed to become an independent degree-granting university and that another university be opened to serve students in the lower mainland. He recommended that two-year regional or community colleges be established throughout the province, beginning in the Okanagan and Kootenay districts and in metropolitan Vancouver. He also identified Central Vancouver Island, Kamloops, Prince George and the eastern part of the Lower Fraser Valley as sites for regional or community colleges.

Macdonald's report was written for UBC, not the provincial government, but the government endorsed the report and acted on many of its recommendations. In 1963 the University of Victoria and Simon Fraser University were incorporated. And the Public School Act was amended to allow school districts to establish colleges in their region.

Vancouver Community College was the first of the new post-secondary institutes. It opened in September 1965 in the old King Edward High School, a facility it shared with Vancouver Vocational Institute and the King Edward Continuing Education Centre. Selkirk College, in Castlegar, also opened in September that year. In considering a location for the college, Macdonald assessed the economic potential of Trail, Rossland and Nelson, and decided that Castlegar, with its new Celgar pulp mill, would become the leading centre of the West Kootenay district.

Okanagan Regional College in Kelowna opened in September 1966. Macdonald had considered briefly the merits of opening separate two-year colleges to serve the Okanagan region, one in Penticton and one in Vernon, but decided that in the short term a single two-year college in Kelowna would serve the widest constituency. However, Macdonald intended Kelowna College to become a four-year degree granting institute by 1970 and anticipated that it would have all the trappings of a traditional university, including halls of residence. "Residential life has a profound influence upon those who live within halls, and contributes greatly to the whole tone and atmosphere of an academic community," Macdonald said. When Okanagan Regional College became a university, two-year colleges were supposed to be established in Penticton and Vernon. Capilano College in North Vancouver opened next, in September 1968. North shore residents -- who were then, as now, relatively well-educated and affluent -- were very keen to have a college and the new Upper Levels highway provided easy access for students from West Vancouver.

In Macdonald's plan, Vancouver Island would be the next in line and sure enough Malaspina College was established in 1969 in Nanaimo. However, Malaspina College, which opened in a disused hospital in Nanaimo's old city quarter, struggled to get going. Macdonald assumed a regional college would be supported by all school districts north of Victoria. But ratepayers in many Island communities were indifferent or hostile to the idea of a college. Accordingly, college proponents hired Dr. Leonard Marsh, one of the country's most distinguished social scientists, to develop a strategy that would take the initiative forward. Marsh presented a plan that narrowly won support in Nanaimo. Port Alberni and communities on the north end the Island, however, still refused to support the initiative.

As it happened, North Island College did not get underway until 1975, and even then, it was an unconventional, but innovative, operation. Although the college had offices in Courtenay and Campbell River, it had no classrooms. Instead, a converted truck, a kind of college bookmobile, served its students. North Island College, which later outfitted an ex-whale hunting ship as a "mobile instructional unit," billed itself as "the only non campus based community college in Canada."

Following a more traditional model, the College of New Caledonia opened in Prince George in 1969. Douglas College opened in New Westminster in 1970 and subsequently established campuses in Coquitlam, Maple Ridge, and Surrey. The Surrey campus evolved into Kwantlen College (1981), which in turn branched out to Richmond (1992) and Langley (1993). Camosun College in Victoria was established in 1971 with its main campus on the grounds of the Provincial Normal School (1915).

Fraser Valley College received its charter in 1974 but did not have a permanent campus in Abbotsford until 1983. Before then, classes were held in church basements, former schools, and storefronts. Likewise, Cariboo College in Kamloops started in 1970 in temporary facilities, its first classes being held in a former Indian Residential School. East Kootenay Community College opened in Cranbook in 1975. (The college was renamed College of the Rockies twenty years later.) Northwest Community College in Terrace and Northern Lights College in Dawson Creek were also established in 1975. The two northern colleges opened in facilities formerly occupied by BC Vocational Institutes.

As new colleges were being opened in more remote parts of the province, the system itself was being restructured and consolidated. In the 1970s the two main elements of the system – trades & vocational training and academic university programs – were "melded." The process began in Burnaby, when the Vocational School (1936) joined with the Haney Educational Centre to become the Pacific Vocational Institute (PVI) in 1978. PVI was merged with BCIT in 1986.

Malaspina College (1969) "melded" with the Nanaimo Vocational School (1936) in 1971 and moved from the old hospital to new facilities adjacent to the vocational school in Harewood. Colleges at Prince George, Kamloops and Kelowna also amalgamated with BC Vocational Schools in their communities to form comprehensive academic/vocational institutes.

By that time, the colleges were operating under the authority of the Colleges and Institutes Act (1978), not the Public School Act. In 1989 the Colleges and Institutes Act was amended and a new a kind of post-secondary institute – the university-college – was created. University-colleges were authorized to offer a limited number of Bachelor's degree programs in conjunction with established universities. The colleges at Kelowna and Kamloops became university-colleges affiliated with UBC. Simon Fraser University mentored the University College of the Fraser Valley and the University of Victoria partnered Malaspina University-College.

Macdonald had emphasized the importance of "self-government" in developing a community college system. "In order to develop an excellent system of higher education for British Columbia, the individual institutions must be self-governing in respect to their academic program. The most important reason is that an institution can achieve excellence only if it can define its own goals and organize its own programme in such a way as to achieve its goals."

The university-colleges attained more autonomy in 1995 when the College and Institute Amendment Act was proclaimed. The act authorized university-colleges to grant their own undergraduate degrees. Kwantlen became a university-college that year and Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design (1978) also became a degree-granting academy. Further changes came in 2008 through amendments to the University Act, which created "special purpose, teaching universities." As a result, the Emily Carr Institute and university-colleges became universities. The new institutions were called Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, and the University of the Fraser Valley. Under this legislation, Capilano College in North Vancouver was elevated to university status and Malaspina University-College in Nanaimo became Vancouver Island University. Under separate legislation, Cariboo University-College in Kamloops and the Open University formed a new institution called Thompson Rivers University.

In his landmark report, Macdonald predicted that British Columbia's economy would be tied to "increasingly complex and specialized industries" and that economic success would require a large pool of highly trained graduates. "Though we are blessed with a host of physical attributes for a healthy economy, the key to competition and growth is the condition of human resources. Do we have the vision, the imagination, determination and courage to plot an educational course which will ensure our position in the front ranks?" The challenge Macdonald issued over forty years ago is no less compelling today.

Researched and written by Dr. Patrick A. Dunae, June 2001; revised February 2009.