The roots of Lethbridge College, like the teaching and applied research that happen here every day, are tied to innovation and aspiration. Starting with rented class space at a downtown high school and growing into the bustling campus on the south end of the city today, the college has consistently existed and expanded in response to the needs of the community it serves, both in the immediate area and around the world.
The people behind the plan
It took the determination of a handful of people to turn the idea of a community college into reality. Gilbert Currie Paterson, a teacher-turned-lawyer, was at the heart of the movement to establish the college in Lethbridge.
A veteran of the Royal Flying Corps in World War I, Paterson always had a deep interest in education and a concern for the needs of the future citizens of Lethbridge. “Education,” Paterson stated, “should assist us not only to make a living but also to make a life. Life, we are told, is not a goblet to be drained but a measure to be filled.”
Paterson became interested in the junior or community college movement in the United States while attending conventions in the southwest U.S. This movement was designed to expand educational opportunities for all people, and Paterson grew convinced that Lethbridge – and Canada – would benefit from following this model.
In his public addresses, he frequently quoted the first president of the University of Alberta, Dr. H.M. Tory, who once exclaimed, “I cannot bring myself to believe that too many are being educated in a world where the requirements of civilization are based essentially on technology.” To him, the community college was to be the great educational institution of the future.
The support of the surrounding area was also vital to the success of the proposed community college. Mrs. Kate Andrews, who lived down the street from Gilbert Paterson when both were growing up, was to provide the vital link with the surrounding area.
If Paterson was the visionary who saw the need and potential, it was Kate Andrews who was able to give substance to the dream. She was deeply committed to education and to the welfare of children and youth.
Paterson, Andrews said, “was the ‘idea’ man – the pilot light or the flame from which we all caught the spark. He represented the city – I represented the country. I feel it’s the only way an educational venture of this kind can be successful. The country people have to feel that they are part of the plan.”
A number of factors contributed to the creation of Canada’s first publicly-funded community college, including a growing population, the prosperity of post-war southern Alberta (and especially the size and wealth of the city of Lethbridge), and the lack of post-secondary educational opportunities in the southern part of the province.
Although the city was growing at an exceptionally quick rate in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the closest post-secondary institution was a 225-kilometre drive away in Calgary. The city risked losing future generations (and its eventual workforce) to the bigger cities to the north.
With the support of other key Lethbridge figures and organizations, including the Lethbridge Herald, the proposal to open Lethbridge Junior College was approved by the provincial government in 1957. Kate Andrews was elected chair of the first board, ensuring that rural southern Alberta was well represented in the new school, and Gilbert Paterson was chosen as vice-chair. Respected history teacher W.J. Cousins was named the acting “dean” of the college.
Thirty-eight students enrolled that fall and attended classes in space leased at Lethbridge Collegiate Institute. To distinguish the high school students from the first year college students, college students were called Miss or Mister, allowed to smoke in the student lounge on campus, and used a separate entrance to the school. The first faculty members were asked to teach classes at both the high school and the college.
While the first classes got underway, the board started searching for a permanent site for the college. In the end, the college settled on the Whitney property, 80 acres of land south of the city, and construction began on the first building, which opened in 1962. Situated on traditional Blackfoot territory, the college has been committed to and valued its Indigenous learners and communities from its earliest days, working to nurture a culture that respects Indigenous intellectual and cultural traditions.
Lethbridge Junior College was unique in many ways, including in that it offered and housed both university and non-university courses in the same place in those early years. With W.J. Cousins shaping the curriculum that allowed students to take first-year and, in 1965, second-year university courses in Lethbridge, R. James Twa was hired to shape the vocational side of the campus.
The college’s first technical building opened in 1963, and the science building opened in 1967. That same year, C.D. Stewart was hired as the first president of the college.
In 1964, a push began to open an autonomous university in southern Alberta, and with the July 1966 announcement approving the establishment of the University of Lethbridge, new questions and a bit of concern arose. How would it be organized? Would it be situated on the same campus as the college? What would happen to the college?
In the end, after extensive, drawn-out debate, it was decided that the university would be built on the west side of Lethbridge, where it opened in 1967, and that the college would separate its university section from its technical and vocational section.
In 1967, many people questioned whether the college could survive without the university component. However, the people who had been hired in the technical vocational area passionately believed in the importance of their programs and had the will to carry them. They, along with the boards and administrators, saw an opportunity and jumped in while other institutions were trying to decide what to do.
The college, which changed its name to Lethbridge Community College in 1969, used the separation as an opportunity to refine its mission and motivations. Up to that point, the main emphasis had been university transfer programs while the technical and vocational programs had been incidental.
After the separation, efforts went into developing a true community college concept with an emphasis on one- and two-year career programs that were designed to meet the needs of employers and industry in the southern Alberta region.
Illustrating its continued innovation and awareness of the opportunities new technology offered, the college became the first educational institution in Canada to use a computer to facilitate administrative decisions in April 1972.
The pilot project, paid for by the Alberta Colleges Commission, made use of the computer located at NAIT. When the project was finished the college continued to use the computer, soon expanding its use for academic classes, particularly for business.
Other new additions to the campus included:
- a new administration building in 1970
- a bank and day care centre in 1974
- the student facility known as “The Barn” in 1975
- residences in 1977
- a new trades building in 1981
- a technology wing in 1983
- College Centre in 1985
- Val Matteotti Gymnasium in 1990
- Instructional Building in 2002
- Kodiak House residence in 2010
- the Trades and Technologies Renewal and Innovation Project in 2017
Lethbridge College celebrated its 50th anniversary in August 2007, and unveiled its colourful new brand identity with a splash (and a free community celebration featuring bands, balloons and joie de vivre aplenty). That year marked another change – from Lethbridge Community College to Lethbridge College.
Today, the college continues to plan and build for the future. Future projects include an expanded library and learning centre, as well as more distance education programs to take the opportunities provided at Lethbridge College to students around the world.
The next decades will bring a host of changes for Lethbridge College as we respond to the quickly changing needs of industry and the unpredictable national and global economic developments. However, leaders of the college have long maintained that change brings with it great opportunity as well as expected challenges.
A strong foundation has been created here at the college and this institution is moving forward with purpose. The staff, leaders, alumni and friends of the college are eager to tell the story of our students, our employees and our partners in the coming years. It is sure to be a compelling tale.
Leaders of Lethbridge College
Eight leaders have guided the college as it has grown from the small post-secondary classrooms of 38 students to the thriving campus of more than 4,000 today.
“There are people who dream and there are those who catch a vision and are able to breathe life into it. Jim Cousins, the first person to hold the position of chief executive officer at Lethbridge College, was one of the latter.” So starts the history of Lethbridge College presidents written to celebrate the college’s 35th anniversary. Cousins, a Welsh-born history teacher at Lethbridge Collegiate Institute, was the first person hired to work at the college – to teach history – and was later named the college’s first chief executive officer.
Cousins accepted the position with no release time for administration and no extra salary. In fact, since he was on the same salary grid as the other teachers and had less experience than some of them, he made less money than three of the teachers who worked for him. According to the college’s history, “The Board felt the honour of the position was sufficient payment for the job.”
“My work mostly was public accountability,” Cousins would later say. “I had to tell them what the college was about. I had to sound as if I knew a lot of things even if I didn’t. ‘We were the first that ever burst into that silent sea’ because we didn’t know where to start or what to do.”
Carl Johnson, who had been a high school inspector in southern Alberta and a close friend of Kate Andrews, led the school during the time that the University of Lethbridge came into being. While initially a time of turmoil, as founders had a vision of having both a university and a community college as part of the same institution, in the end, the splitting of the college and university ushered in a new era in educational opportunities that perhaps could never have existed within the old structure.
Under the direction of the first “president,” the college began to develop a separate and new identity. Dr. Charles Stewart was praised for his ability to galvanize people and for convincing them that the college was important, and he was known as a good financial manager who was not only able to eliminate the deficit the college had acquired in its early years, but create a surplus without shortchanging the quality of education.
Donald Anderson came to Lethbridge after serving 38 years as principal of the Kingston campus of the St. Lawrence College of Applied Arts and Technology. During his tenure, long-term institutional plans were developed, architectural reports were drawn up, and funding was in place for the trades and technologies wing, as well as the second phase of residences.
Les Talbot’s leadership provided direction during an era of facility and educational expansion. As the board conducted its search in 1979, members looked for a mature leader with experience in industry who could develop and improve the college’s image in the community. During his time as president, the campus developed from a series of unrelated buildings into an attractive and unified campus, and the academic programs expanded to meet the needs of the community.
Dr. Donna Allan was the first woman to hold the position of president at Lethbridge College, and the second woman in the province of Alberta to hold that position at technical institutes, universities and community colleges. A passionate advocate of lifelong learning, she continued to further her formal education and encouraged others to do the same. She saw her time as president as an opportunity to salute the talents, achievements and contributions of the diverse college community.
Dr. Tracy Edwards left a legacy of advocacy and innovation after her seven years as president, an era that saw the college renamed and rebranded, the Cousins building renovated, the environmentally-friendly Kodiak House opened, and community and industry support of the college expanded. In addition, she helped lay the groundwork for the Government of Alberta to pledge $55.6 million for the much-needed new trades and technologies facility, which opened in the fall of 2017.
Dr. Paula Burns came to Lethbridge College from NAIT, where she had previously served as provost and vice president academic, among other positions. She is a collaborative leader who invests her commitment, passion and energy to advance education and to support and create a safe and respectful learning environment for all students and staff. Like others who held the position, she is a lifelong learner and appreciates the many opportunities she has to interact with students, employees, industry partners and the community at large.