Updated: Oct 23, 2020
When I heard that RDC had terminated its brand-new Bachelor of Arts in Film, Theatre and Live Entertainment degrees, it took me off guard. For several years, going back to when I was still a student in 2017, the theatre faculty had been working long hours behind the scenes on something big: a four-year degree that would prepare students for a career in the entertainment business, especially in film. This program would train both actors and technicians of all kinds. It would utilize the Arts Centre complex, which contains some of the finest fine arts training facilities in Canada. With RDC's transition to university status on the horizon, it seemed like the perfect moment to plant the seed for a game-changing plan.
The new program officially began in the fall of 2019.
Eight months later, the RDC administration pulled the plug.
For those of us who suspected a decision made in bad faith, there were precedents. Back in May 2018, the entire Music Diploma faculty was summoned to their associate dean’s office for what they thought was a workload meeting. Once the door was closed, these instructors were informed that they were fired. RDC terminated the Music program on the spot, and proceeded to lock the Music faculty out of their work computers and phones, like they were a bunch of criminals. Some of those people had worked in the Arts Centre for decades. I knew many of them.
Clearly, RDC could treat its employees with contempt when it suited them. The fact that they would cancel a quality program in a quality setting, in such a callous fashion, was shocking at the time, but it also foreshadowed what might come in the future.
The Arts Centre, designed in 1981. It includes a concert hall, a fully equipped "black box" theatre, drama, dance and music rehearsal halls and rooms, classrooms, a costume lab, costume storage, a scene shop, a fully-equipped fly tower, and more. It is currently empty and unused.
Back in February, the Alberta government announced a massive review of post-secondary funding across the province. Soon after this review began, the government "delayed" RDC’s transition to university status until the completion of the review.
At the end of April, RDC announced the "suspension" of the following courses:
- Bachelor of Arts in Film, Theatre and Live Entertainment (Acting Major)
- Bachelor of Arts in Film, Theatre and Live Entertainment (Live Entertainment Major)
- Media Studies and Professional Communication Diploma
- Adult and Higher Education Instructor Post-Diploma Certificate
- eLearning Instructor Post-Diploma Certificate
- Instrumentation Engineering Technology Diploma*
*this program was directly impacted by Covid-19, as international students could no longer attend classes. Out of all the "suspended" programs, only this Diploma is expected to return when travel restrictions are eased.
To an outsider, this may seem like just another case of cost-cutting. It's not that simple. The college had just launched its new theatre degree programs in 2019, only eight months earlier. There were already students in the new degree program. The college evaluated the new programs prior to launching them, and decided they were worthwhile. They invested thousands of dollars and hours into creating the new degree programs. They accepted students to the new program. Then they changed their minds.
"These programs are not being suspended due to Covid-19 or budget implications," RDC President Peter Nunoda told RDnewsnow.com. He went on to say, "When enrolments are low or declining, it is always our responsibility to make decisions that will support RDC's long-term sustainability."
Guy Pelletier, Chairman of RDC's Board of Governors in April, told the Red Deer Advocate "low enrolment is the main reason for this cut," although he did admit how the college had faced "two years of government funding reductions."
It is up to you whether you take these statements at face value.
After the April announcement that the new degree programs were cancelled, local papers ran some brief obituaries. Many alumni reacted with horror and dismay. You can imagine the responses on social media. Alumni even created a petition to reinstate the theatre programs. Administrators dismissed this petition. Honestly, if you’re prepared to fire people, you’re prepared to ignore a petition by former students, whose tuition payments are already in the bank.
It was also early in the Covid quarantine, and most people had a lot of other things to worry about in their lives. It wasn’t possible to have a sit-in at RDC, because RDC was closed.
The Gary W. Harris Centre, constructed at a cost of over $88 million, and completed during a time of government funding reductions, in time for the 2019 Canada Winter Games. This "awe-inspiring" facility is now home to the RDC athletic programs.
Given how the government had delayed (as in, stopped) RDC’s university transition process pending review, I find it hard to believe that the government's actions did not weigh on the administration's decision process. They went to their program list and chose five programs that they could push overboard to balance their books and keep the government off their back. More have been disposed of since.
So why not just say so? Anyone can make a guess, and here's mine: how likely is it the RDC administration will criticize the government's decisions, when they're anxiously waiting on the government to approve their university status (and funding)?
By the way, doesn’t low enrolment mean less tuition payments, and therefore, isn't it essentially a budgetary problem? Isn’t low enrolment the equivalent of being financially unsustainable? Claiming that the cancellations are not budget-related seems bizarre.
Furthermore, if this truly isn't a short-term money-saving solution, then cancelling these programs is an even worse decision than it seems at first.
I'll come back to this.
Back in May 2018, on that Thursday when RDC summarily dismissed their Music faculty, ambushing their employees in a staff meeting with the news that they were terminated, the justification they provided for this action was "low enrolment" in the Music program. The Music faculty agreed that yes, this was a problem. However, the faculty pointed out that at no point prior to that final meeting did the college ever approach them and ask them to help create a solution. The teachers are the people who know the subject, the industry, and most importantly, the students, better than anybody else. The administration never included them in a process to solve the problem. When would it have been a good time to huddle with them and make some adjustments: maybe six months earlier? A year earlier? Two years?
How about never? That's what actually happened.
Imagine you're in a long-term relationship with somebody. You spend years together. You accomplish great things and grow together. Perhaps you even decide to get married.
Then, one day, your spouse makes a date with you. You meet at a booth in a nice coffee shop where you've spent many hours on countless dates before. You arrive and take your seat. Maybe you flip open a menu.
Your spouse pushes their ring across the table. "It's over," they say.
"It's...over?" You're incredulous.
"It's over. This just isn't working for me."
"It's not working for you?" You process their words slowly. What's happening?
You offer to work on things.
"Nope, there's nothing to work on. It's over," they tell you. "I want you out of the house right now. I've already had the locks changed. I don't want you going through our things. I don't want you stealing."
You're in shock. Is this the same person you've known for all these years?
"But...I need to get my favourite coffee mug."
"Too bad. The locks are changed. I told you, this is over."
Ask yourself: what are the odds that your partner really wanted to save the relationship?
Question: what was the first degree to be offered at Red Deer College?
See below for the answer.
Low enrolment in the Music Diploma, and low enrolment in the FTE degrees. Why weren't people signing up? The 2015-2017 theatre classes had strong numbers. The 2016-2017 theatre classes had strong numbers.
As the faculty upgraded the programs from diploma to degree, a single year gap was taken, 2018-2019. During that year, no new acting or tech students came in, as the staff concentrated on getting ready for the Fall Term of 2019. This meant that in both the Fall of 2017 and the Fall of 2018, no new students could be accepted.
So for nearly two years, it seemed as if RDC's fine arts programs were gone. If you were an outsider, it really looked as if the Arts Centre was already dead. This would have been an excellent time for RDC to spread the word that big new things were on the way.
Remember the 2019 Canada Winter Games? Remember how athletes, trainers, volunteers, spectators, supporters, sponsors and media from across Canada converged on Red Deer to watch the games? Remember how RDC built a huge new sports complex for the Winter Games? That would have been an excellent time to start marketing their new programs to Red Deer and the whole country. Where was the marketing blitz for the programs the college offered? This would have been an outstanding opportunity to preview them.
I can't tell you how many times I spoke to people who didn't know RDC had a film or theatre program until I told them the new one starting up in Fall 2019. The community as a whole did not know.
Oh yeah, and the faculty weren't included in a marketing and promotional plan for the new program.
Did you hear any radio ads?
Did you see anything on TV?
Did RDC representatives visit local senior high school drama programs to promote their new program? Local high schools are the primary source of applicants for such programs, because they are, well, local.
I know that marketing is far from a science, but surely it's not an arcane mystery, especially when you've already had to cancel programs and fire teachers because people don't know about your program and aren't signing up. You would think an institution would want to protect its investment by making sure people knew about their product. Guess who would know how to market the FTE degrees? That's right, the faculty. But they were left out of it, right up until the day in April 2020 when they learned their jobs were gone too.
RDC's modern trades wing, completed a decade ago during better economic times.
What exactly did Red Deer lose when these programs were cancelled?
The twin FTE degrees, performing and technical, were basically the starting point to an enormous tree of occupations in the entertainment business. Here’s a little list, off the cuff:
Makeup artists (theatre or film)
Actors (stage, film, musical, voice, etcetera...)
I'll stop before I get to the motion picture disciplines, which could easily double this list. Depending on how you include the video game industry, it's even more massive.
Each of these categories break down into even more specialized fields. Take lighting. Are you designing lighting for a theatre? For a wedding? For a conference? For a television show? A commercial? A feature film? They’re all different. Do you maintain and repair your lights yourself, or is that somebody else? What kind of light board do you have? Do you know how to program it? Are you using LEDs, or are your lights older? Do you need old lights for a certain look? How are you controlling them?
And that’s just lights.
Film, theatre and live entertainment are filled with career branches like these.
RDC's new Residence building, completed in January 2019, just in time for the Winter Games, to serve as accommodation for the visiting athletes.
I wish I knew more about the other cancelled programs. I know several graduates of the MSPC program and another current student (her class will be the last one). They all found (or are finding) MSPC to be a unique fit for the training they needed in their professional careers.
I was surprised to hear that the instrumentation tech program was suspended, considering the way trades are treated in Alberta; I guess that goes to show how dire this year has been. The RDC administration noted that they’d expected a lot more international applicants for the instrumentation tech program. They were counting on it, but they never expected a pandemic.
Don’t underestimate how much RDC wants international students: it is a huge part of their plans for the future. In this case, the lack of international applicants was the determining factor for the suspension of the instrumentation tech program.
Back to the degrees.
Whatever its growing pains and flaws, the new degree programs were the gateway to all the careers and livelihoods I listed above. Now, that’s gone. It’s just a memory. So when kids growing up in Central Alberta imagine a career working in the movies, or theatre, or arenas, or studios, where do they follow through with that?
The Arts Centre: now a rental facility charging rates local high schools and theatre groups cannot afford. New corporate sponsor(s) to be determined. Its broad sides and towers offer a prime location for paid signage and advertising in the coming years.
Five years, ten years, twenty years from now, FTE graduates from Central Alberta could have been out in the world, working in the business and doing great things, earning a living that mattered to them. A pipeline of talent and skill would wind its way from right here in Red Deer, in that same college we drive past, to the greatest venues of Canada, the United States and the world.
They’d tell everyone where they got their start: Red Deer.
They’d be an inspiration to Central Alberta, and to the province.
They’d prove that Central Albertans have just as much to contribute to the performing arts as anybody else. We can do it in sports, in sciences, in construction, and we can certainly do it in show business.
The word would spread. With a reputation established and alumni spreading through the industry, Red Deer would get Canada's attention. Maybe some of those international students RDC craves so badly would take interest in their program. It takes time to build a reputation.
This potential will now fade away. More and more, the entertainment business will become something that “other people” do; an exotic, faraway, dreamy industry that no kid from Stettler or Carstairs or Alex has any right to think about.
Defunding and closing arts programs here pushes all opportunity away, into major cities, and ultimately, into the hands of the only people who can afford to attend those few arts schools left standing. The artistic community shrinks and shrinks. Eventually, only a few applicants from well-off or wealthy families will make their way into these elite schools. Feedback loops will in turn insure that these elite schools cater to their funding base, the upper class. They go where their bread is buttered.
Starting now, kids from Central Alberta will be forced to move away to get the training they need. Will they go to Edmonton or Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal? There's no other options (well, there's Lethbridge U). I hope they’re ready for this. I hope they’re prepared to leave all their family and friends a couple of time zones behind, because their parents won’t be making that flight every weekend to say hi. Hey, there’s always Zoom, right?
Red Deer College offered a starting point for all of these trades and disciplines. The cancellation of these programs pushes careers away from countless people who could do these jobs if they had the chance. Now, Red Deer has gone from a starting point to a dead end.
Red Deer College's first-ever degree was an Applied Degree in Motion Picture Arts, first offered in 2001.
The longer our institutions, community leaders and politicians choose to ignore, neglect and defund the fine arts, the more the fine arts will fade away. What exactly does this mean for the future?
It means fine arts schools will only survive in major cities with economies large enough to sustain them, and the applicants, donors, sponsors and audiences willing to sustain them.
It means that only people with enough financial resources will be able to attend these schools.
It means that if you are from the towns and range roads of Central Alberta and your parents can’t afford to enrol you in an elite fine arts university and pay for your board at the same time, or you have circumstances that make it too hard to move away when you’re 18, you are shit out of luck.
It makes fine arts an institution of the privileged and the wealthy.
There will always be demand for artistic products: new movies, series, shows, all of it. More and more and more. The entertainment business keeps roaring on. So where will all this content be produced?
Somewhere else, by someone else.
Who will work in the theatre near you? People trained and educated somewhere else. Who will work in the radio stations and the television studios near you? People trained and educated somewhere else. Who will film the movie in your neighbourhood? Someone from somewhere else. Who will write the scripts? Who will write the screenplays?
Who will speak for you?
Nobody. Nobody will even know who you are, what your life is like, or what you believe in. They will come to your town and tell you what they think life is like, and even what they think your life is like.
For now, the sprawling brick Arts Centre, built to evoke the grain elevators that rise from the prairies, filled with its caverns and tunnels and stages, sits empty. It waits for the next act in this farce. How the RDC administration eventually chooses to make use of its first-class facilities will tell another story on its own. It will tell us a lot more about their vision than their P.R. will.
I hesitate to use the word “vision,” because given what I’ve explored above, I don’t know how much "vision" has actually been involved thus far. I wrote above that if this was not a purely financial decision, then it's even worse than it seems. This is because the arts programs at RDC had enormous potential and this potential has been squandered. Either the vision was for a massive rental complex, or there wasn’t a vision, just hapless bureaucratic floundering and spazzing that ended with unemployed people and empty buildings.
These programs withered and died on the vine. When the vast majority of people in Red Deer have no idea what the flagship regional college, a would-be university, is actually offering to its potential students, there’s either a huge problem in communication, or there’s no will to get the word out in the first place.
These programs deserved a chance to succeed. They never got that chance.
These cancelled fine arts programs are a perfect example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. This prophecy starts with the false premise that the arts are expendable, and circles back to that conclusion through bungling, neglect and I don’t want to guess what else.
And no, these programs did not fail due to the pitiless pragmatism of The Market. The Market didn't know about them, so it could not make an informed decision. Beware of this straw man, because he'll be back.
I could list how many millions of dollars “the arts and culture sector” is worth to Alberta’s economy, to Canada’s economy. I could list how many jobs it generates, the way some poor souls do when they want to validate the fine arts disciplines. I won’t indulge that nonsense. Do you like music? Do you like movies? Do you like graphic novels? Do you like podcasts? Do you like things that make you feel an emotion? Do you like hearing, seeing, and doing things you've never done before? Do you like sharing those things with the people you care about?
Are we so engulfed in the creative labour of thousands of people every day that we don’t even notice anymore and take it all for granted?
Whether it's due to incompetence or knee-jerk cost-cutting, the demise of RDC's fine arts programs is ultimately the symptom of a dismal lack of vision. This is the kind of short-sighted, myopic decision-making that will make Red Deer a backwater.
I took a big chance moving back to Red Deer in 2015 to go back to college as a mature student. I chose Red Deer because of its affordable cost of living, and because RDC was more affordable than the major universities. I happened to find an excellent fine arts program that changed my life. I am very lucky for that. I met so many great people there, who I would never have met anywhere else.
What bothers me is how many people will reach the same point in their lives that I did, and now there will be less opportunity here for them. For many of them, the road will end there, and that's just a damn shame.
* * *
In the minutes of the RDC Board meetings, one line recurs:
“The Board identified its owners as the citizens of Central Alberta.”
Do you feel like an owner?
* * *
It's been a rough year for Red Deer College. No question about it. Covid-19 and the lockdown made every problem the college had even worse. The Alberta government's delay of the college's transition means that, for now, RDU is no a sure thing. The University of Calgary ended cooperative degree programs with RDC earlier this year that had existed since the 1980s. A planned Bachelor of Education degree is postponed, maybe to return in 2021. An Occupational and Physical Therapist Assistant Diploma has been suspended.
I look forward to the UCP's "new outcomes-based post-secondary funding approach," which will no doubt offer interesting solutions to the strains our schools are facing.
If the UCP's new solutions lead to great successes across Alberta and here in Red Deer, they will most definitely claim the credit. If their solutions lead to mediocrity and masses of students leaving Alberta for better opportunities elsewhere, I doubt they'll claim the blame.