Discover more from The Orchard
Former Danielle Smith staffer hired by MaKami College to assist 'transition' from private to public institution
The for-profit vocational school whose owners donated more than $17K to the premier and the UCP was quietly added to the list of Independent Academic Institutions in late-March.
Erika Barootes, a former staffer for Premier Danielle Smith, has a new job with MaKami College, a for-profit vocational school the government added to the province’s list of publicly subsidized Independent Academic Institutions (IAI) earlier this year. Since 2021, the family who owns the school has donated more than $17,000 to Smith and the UCP.
IAIs are essentially post-secondary charter schools, lacking the same accountability structures as public institutions, such as government-approved Board of Governors and mandate letters. They receive public operational funding, but not maintenance or capital funds.
The government added MaKami College, a former Edmonton-based massage therapy school that has since expanded greatly, to the IAI list, via a March 30 Order in Council after vigorous lobbying from the college.
Barootes served as Smith’s principal secretary from October 2022 to February 2023, and then as the UCP’s director of issues management and campaign operations until she got hired at MaKami.
But her ties to Alberta’s conservative movement run even deeper. From May 2018 to December 2019, Barootes was the UCP president and chair of its board. Between 2011 and 2014, she served various roles in the governments of PC Premiers Alison Redford and Dave Hancock.
Barootes was one of three winners of Alberta’s 2021 sham Senate election, in which she ran under the Conservative Party of Canada banner.
Her LinkedIn profile says she began her role as MaKami’s director of external relations in July. Her job is described as helping the school “transition from a private to public IAI college in Alberta.”
It would be quite extraordinary for a public college to not receive public funding. If MaKami does receive public funds, it would be the first instance in Canada of post-secondary grant funds being used to pad shareholder profits, setting a disturbing precedent.
Stories like these take time and dedication. If you think I should be compensated for my efforts, please consider a paid Orchard subscription starting at $5 a month.
All the other schools on the IAI list — Concordia University of Edmonton, Burman University in Lacombe, Ambrose University in Calgary, The King’s University in Edmonton, St. Mary’s University in Calgary — receive grant funding. But unlike MaKami, they’re non-profits.
From 2019 to 2022, when the University of Alberta had its grant cut by 20%, and the University of Calgary and University of Lethbridge each had theirs cut by 12%, the IAIs’ funding was cut by just 2% each.
In her July 21 mandate letter, Minister of Advanced Education Rajan Sawhney was instructed to begin the process of giving private vocational schools the ability to confer degrees.
"We are not going to be providing public funds to private colleges any time soon," Sawhney told CBC News for a piece that specifically referenced MaKami’s IAI designation. "Unless there is a compelling economic reason that's outlined very clearly. Our public funds are going to public institutions for a reason."
CBC reporter Janet French is the only mainstream journalist to acknowledge MaKami’s changed status at all. Otherwise, it’s just been The Orchard, the Parkland Institute and the Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations sounding the alarm.
When The Orchard reached out to the ministry in May, spokesperson Sam Blackett denied MaKami was even “being considered for grant funding.”
Classifying the college as an IAI provides “the opportunity to expand enrolment and reduce regulatory red tape, helping Alberta better address critical skilled labour shortages.”
MaKami College spokesperson Kamea Stacey offered a different justification, saying the IAI designation would assist the college in “creating strategic partnerships to foster better outcomes for students with learning challenges,” as well as providing “additional opportunities for our students such as transfer credits and further involvement with research projects.”
Neither Barootes, the college, nor the Ministry of Advanced Education, responded to requests for comment about Barootes’s new gig.
The sole shareholders of MaKami College Inc., according to corporate registry documents, are family trusts owned by siblings Vladimir Pavkovic and Marija Pavkovic-Tovissi, who are also listed as the school’s co-directors.
When The Orchard last reported on MaKami, Pavkovic-Tovissi, her brother Dragan, sister Ljubica and husband Zsolt Tovissi — all current or former board members — had donated $13,600 to Danielle Smith’s 2022 UCP leadership campaign, according to campaign finance disclosures. The year before, Vladimir donated $1,541.25 to the UCP.
That’s a total of $15,141.25 donated to Smith and the UCP from the family that owns MaKami College. But there’s been more since.
Did Danielle Smith open the door for her donors to operate Canada's first publicly funded for-profit college?
At some point during the first half of 2023, Vladimir Pavkovic donated another $2,000 to the UCP, bringing the total to more than $17,141.25. It’s unclear if this donation came before or after the fateful Order in Council.
“Everyone has the right to make personal donations in support of their local government,” MaKami spokesperson Stacey told The Orchard in May. None of the aforementioned donations, however, went to a local candidate.
In his defence, Vladimir Pavkovic also donated $800 to the NDP in 2017.
MaKami College registered to lobby Smith on Oct. 11 — the day she was sworn in as premier — with New West Public Affairs, a firm founded by former Medicine Hat Conservative MP Monte Solberg.
The lobbyist registry shows that Sonia Kont, who happens to moonlight as the UCP’s VP of fundraising, worked on the MaKami file.
New West Public Affairs, including Kont, registered to lobby the government on MaKami’s behalf throughout the UCP’s tenure in power.
In her first press conference as premier — the same day she was sworn in and MaKami registered to lobby her — Smith gave the college an unprompted shoutout, incorrectly crediting them with graduating thousands of licensed practical nurses a year, who she said can assist with the province’s health-care worker shortage.
MaKami does offer a wide array of programming at its two campuses in Calgary and one in Edmonton compared to its humble roots as a massage therapy school, but practical nursing isn’t one of them.
According to correspondence The Orchard received through a FOIP request, MaKami formally requested IAI status in a Nov. 10 letter from Pavkovic-Tovissi to Premier Smith and Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides.
The letter boasts how many “FREE [sic] programs” the college offers its students, including counselling, tutoring, social work services, addiction support and ESL workshops.
But, considering how much more expensive MaKami’s programming is compared to similar programs at public colleges — often around double the cost — it’s unclear just how free these services are.
A portion of the letter was redacted under section 16(1) of the FOIP Act, which protects third-party business interests. One wonders what sort of request would harm MaKami’s business interests if the public found out.
College representatives met with Nicolaides and assistant deputy minister Crista Carmichael on Dec. 1, according to an email Carmichael sent Pavkovic’s chief of staff the following day.
On Dec. 5, Vladimir Pavkovic sent proposed legislation that would make MaKami an IAI to Carmichael, which is standard procedure for a stakeholder advocating for a particular policy. The text of the proposed legislation is also redacted under section 16(1).
But it was ultimately unnecessary. Less than five months later, the government would bring MaKami under the IAI umbrella by fiat.
In May, Stacey said the insinuation that the premier is providing preferential treatment to a well-connected donor is “not based in facts.”
“MaKami College employs hundreds of people and has thousands of students annually. We are a non-partisan, educational institution. Suggesting otherwise would be false.”
MaKami’s hiring of a long-time partisan political staffer to direct its external relations after its owners donated to Smith and the UCP, and lobbied the government through a team including a UCP board member, however, would suggest the opposite.
I’m fundraising to go to the UCP AGM on Nov. 3 and 4 at the Grey Eagle Casino in Calgary. As of writing, I have 263 paid subscribers. If I can get to 300 by Oct. 25 — my birthday — I’ll make the trip down.
So if you’d like to see me cover the UCP AGM, and the prospect of Take Back Alberta capturing the remaining open seats on the UCP board of directors, please donate. I’ll be giving periodic updates on my fundraising goals as the deadline approaches.