Back to School 2023-24: A brief history of NAIT

Where the polytechnic came from and where it’s headed

What makes NAIT different from other post-secondary institutes?

First, there’s the nature of the education. Since its start in the early 1960s, the polytechnic has coupled theory with hands-on learning to make grads ready for rewarding careers that meet the needs of their communities and the economy.

But there’s more that sets NAIT apart – and you can see it in a history that spans more than six decades. Who were the people who were there at the start? Why is the “ook” the polytechnic’s official mascot? What could the neighbouring Blatchford lands mean for the NAIT’s future? What’s with all the mosaics? (OK, there are only two, but they’re huge.)

Here, as another school year begins, we’ve gathered techlifetoday stories that help tell the story of where NAIT came from and why it will continue to stand out in the years to come. (How well do you know that story? Test yourself by taking the quiz below.)

Origins of the institute

black and white photo of man waving from NAIT campus in the 1960s

What began as plans by the Government of Alberta in 1959 to open a new vocational school in Edmonton culminated in students attending classes at NAIT in fall 1962. It also led to a strong sense of purpose. “We gave the kids who came here a future they didn’t have before,” said Bob Busse, an apprenticeship instructor during those early years.

Official opening, 1963

illustrated cover of the original program from NAIT's official opening

What did NAIT look like the day it was officially opened by then-premier of Alberta Ernest Manning? Take a look at the program given to visitors that day in May 1963.

The “technology” mural

NAIT's technology mosaic

NAIT’s original campus was designed to be very much of the times: lots of glass and steel, all right angles, halls and buildings laid out like streets in a modern North American city. But to help save it from being unnecessarily austere, a 68-foot mosaic was commissioned. Here’s the story of the “technology mosaic.”

What’s an “Ook”?

black and white photo of girl holding stuffed ookpik doll

On Oct. 28, 1964, NAIT Students’ Association president William Miles (Electronics Engineering Technology ’65) was presented with an authentic handicraft ookpik, or a snowy owl, by a federal government official. “Being the most northerly institute of its kind in Canada, we thought it was a perfect fit,” he says. So would generations to come. Here’s why the ook and NAIT remain as inseparable as birds of a feather today.

The “logo” mural

nait logo mosaic with creator Shiela Hardy

When Shiela Hardy recently visited NAIT – 50 years after she’d completed the mosaic of the institute’s original logo – she was shocked. “I thought after all these years they would have taken it down,” Hardy says. How could we? It took her months to complete and includes more than 250,000 tiles. And, it’s beautiful.

Blatchford and beyond

aerial view of NAIT campus

As it has for 60 years, NAIT will continue to grow. To make sure there’s room, the institute closed the deal in 2019 on acquiring more than 13 hectares from the adjacent Blatchford neighbourhood, now under development. Here’s a look at what the addition will mean to the future of the polytechnic.

Scroll through the many milestones of NAIT’s history


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