The tragedy of the First Nations University of Canada

| April 13, 2010
Participants at FNUC's annual pow-wow, March 28 at the Brandt Centre, Regina. Photo: Stephen LaRose.

Given all that's happened over the past five years, it's amazing anybody can still find the time and energy to party. But as the First Nations University of Canada took over Regina's Brandt Centre on the last weekend of March for its annual pow-wow, it was almost possible to avoid thinking about the academic institution's future.

Steven Swan, a member of FNUC's student council, mans an information booth, during what's probably been the most relaxing time he's had during the last semester. That's not saying much, since the council has been an innocent casualty of one of the biggest operational crises in Canadian academic history.

Swan's a third-year education student and hopes  -- if by some miracle FNUC is still around -- to get a degree to teach indigenous studies to senior high school students on Saskatchewan First Nations or in inner city Regina or Saskatoon. Getting an education -- going to class, doing the lab work, passing the exams -- is stressful enough. Most university students coming in from rural Saskatchewan -- whether they're aboriginal or not -- find the jump from their small world to the relative bright lights of Regina or Saskatoon requires nerve.

Now, imagine you're an aboriginal student: if your home band pays a good chunk of your tuition, the pressure is on to deliver, with high marks and a job after graduation, to prove that your band council made a wise investment. And some students do not even have a home band to pay for this, and must raise the funds for FNUC themselves.

And imagine doing all that while the college undergoes a meltdown, with federal and provincial funders planning to withhold future payments, professors wondering whether their pay cheques will bounce. It's a wonder Swan, the rest of the student council, and other FNUC students haven't been driven insane by the pressure.

Created in 1976 as the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College to promote the teachings of indigenous studies by aboriginal peoples in an academic setting overseen by aboriginal peoples, it has spent the last five years lurching from crisis to crisis, and in the process giving the federal Conservative government an excuse to cut a program they weren't committed to in the first place.

For FNUC students, there are few other places in the academic world to go. As of Jan. 2005, about a quarter of FNUC's enrollment came from outside of Saskatchewan, but following the appointments of now ex-President Charles Pratt and ex-Administrative Vice-President Al Ducharme, enrollment of indigenous peoples from outside Saskatchewan dropped to nearly nil. It was a similar story with FNUC's staff.

For all those hoping that the federal government had sincerely learned about the value of aboriginal control of aboriginal education in the wake of the residential school mess, Ottawa's latest message was a cruel April Fools' joke. Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl announced March 30 that the federal government would provide $3 million in transitional funding for the institution, instead of restarting its annual $7.2 million operating grant, which was suspended after allegations of misspending by FNUC's senior administration surfaced.

During a mid-January meeting with the student council, Pratt was asked about the sudden departure of chief financial officer Murray Westerlund late last November. Pratt told the student council what he had earlier told the media -- Westerlund's departure was by mutual agreement, and everything was fine, swell, tickedy-boo.

The version of events provided by Pratt to the student council didn't match Westerlund's version. A month before Pratt met the students, Westerlund filed a Statement of Claim in Regina Court of Queen's Bench, intending to sue FNUC for wrongful dismissal. People who leave a job by mutual agreement don't usually sue their previous employers. Copies of a report Westerlund presented to FNUC's board of governors that November -- just before his firing -- were also leaked to Regina media outlets.

Westerlund's statement detailed alleged controversial spending practices either committed by Pratt and Ducharme, or committed by others close to the pair. The allegations ranged from rehiring employees who had been suspected of mishandling funds, to failing to account for expenses billed to FNUC while on business trips to Hawaii, Montreal, and Las Vegas. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were allegedly involved

The student council demanded a second meeting with Pratt; he stonewalled. They got a meeting with the chairman of FNUC's board of governors, Clarence Bellegarde, instead. And he, too, stonewalled, saying the 29-person FNUC board of governors had no right of authority to take any disciplinary action against Pratt, Ducharme, or anyone else mentioned in Westerlund's allegations until the completion of FNUC's annual audit, sometime this coming summer.

So FNUC's student council did the only thing left -- they talked to one of FNUC's major funders, the provincial government, and they took on what they saw as the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations' "old boys' club," who they said led FNUC into its disastrous state. And the administration of Canada's only aboriginal-controlled post-secondary institution hurtled towards its final crash.

In the beginning was the end

The crisis allegedly started when Morley Watson, the chairman of the college's board of governors and an FSIN vice-chief responsible for the education portfolio, moved in on Feb. 17, 2005. He suspended administrative vice-president Wes Stevenson and two others, and ordered an investigation into alleged financial improprieties. The investigation included seizing computers and hacking into FNUC's email accounts for the forensic audit and the investigation, and also to monitor activities of those suspected of plotting against Watson and the new administration. Stevenson was later fired, and the university spent more than $700,000 on audits, resulting in one charge of theft over $5,000 made against Stevenson by the Regina RCMP's commercial crimes section (no trial date has been set as yet).

Almost all the FNUC's senior staff who were fired or quit after the FSIN takeover -- President Eber Hampton (Chickasaw from Oklahoma), academic vice-president Denise Henning (Cherokee from Oklahoma), Regina campus dean Dawn Tato (Seneca from New York state) and Saskatoon campus dean Winona Wheeler (Sioux from Manitoba) -- were considered amongst the most talented in North America aboriginal academia.

They were replaced, the initial appointments being Al Ducharme, an FSIN political operative, as administrative vice-president, and Pratt, a professor in the Indian business courses at FNUC, as president. This seemed to establish a trend of hiring people whose ties lay more to the FSIN than to academic work. Thus, Watson and the FNUC board of governors transformed the college into the shiniest cog in the FSIN machine.

Under orders from FNUC's board, as described in a report to the FNUC board of governors by President Eber Hampton in May 2005, just before he quit FNUC, Pratt and Ducharme refused to negotiate grievances lodged by staff represented by the University of Regina Faculty Association following the takeover. More than 30 grievances were heard by the Saskatchewan Labour Relations board. When Donald Worme, FNUC's legal counsel, advised settling the cases informally, he was fired in May 2005, and replaced with Larry Seiferling, Vice-Chief Watson's personal lawyer.

With the board of governors creating a toxic and hostile working environment, many of the best and brightest in aboriginal academia followed Hampton out the door. By the time Henning's replacement, Shauneene Pete, was fired in February 2009, she marked the 16th person with a doctorate to have either been pushed or who had jumped from the college. Pete was fired after a short, ugly jurisdiction battle with Ducharme, who wanted the responsibilities of academics brought under his office

A year-long investigation by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada in 2007 found there was no overt political control of the college by the FSIN, but CAUT, representing 85,000 Canadian academic workers in post secondary institutions, thought otherwise -- they censured FNUC in 2008 and advised academics to steer clear of the place.

Student enrolment fell by nearly 40 per cent -- from 1,150 in January 2005 to about 670 as of January 2010. Many transferred to the University of Regina (FNUC is an independently-operated federated college of the U of R) or the University of Saskatchewan. FNUC's main campus, a $35 million architectural wonder designed by Douglas Cardinal, and opened by Prince Edward in 2003, is in Regina's Wascana Centre Authority, and the college has satellite campuses in Saskatoon and Prince Albert.

All universities must have a charter from a government -- in FNUC's case, the charter came in the form of the First Nations University of Canada Act, passed by the FSIN legislature. It called for one of the largest and most expensive boards-of-governors in Canada's university and college system, because the FSIN wanted to balance competing regional interests. In 2005, the university spent $355,000 to pay for the board -- per diems, travel expenses, and other incidental payments. Depending on the distance travelled, board members made from $300 to $750 per meeting, and meetings were held at least once a month.

An All Chiefs' Task Force report, issued in December 2005, called for the 32-member board to be replaced with a 13-member board, with fewer politicians and less opportunity for political control by the FSIN. The FSIN's and FNUC's response was the appointment of a 29-member "interim" board, which was top-heavy with chiefs, many of whom possessed little or no experience with operating -- or taking classes from -- a post-secondary institution. Another report in 2009, commissioned by the provincial government, also recommended a 13-member board with less political control. The Saskatchewan government, at the same time that report was presented, provided an extra $5 million in transitional funding which paid for the report and helped FNUC pay for a new contract with URFA, and to deal with its budget shortfall

But Rob Norris, Saskatchewan's minister of education, and Strahl held sticks as well as carrots: if FNUC's administration and board of governors structure didn't change to become "more accountable," the provincial and federal governments would withhold some of FNUC's money until they did.

Last October, Indian Affairs and Northern Canada held back $1.6 million from its financial grant to the university's core operations because FNUC's administration had failed to meet two deadlines in submitting reports on its administrative overhaul. When Westerlund was fired after delivering his scathing report, Norris, like the student council, also gave up hope that FNUC was capable of reforming itself from the inside.

The governments step in

In the five years between FNUC's FSIN takeover and this past February, various provincial and federal governments had tried to prod the FSIN into overhauling its First Nations University of Canada Act, its legislation that governs the college's mandate (though it was renamed FNUC from Saskatchewan Indian Federated College in the late 1990s, the college is not a degree-granting institution, but a federated college within the University of Regina).

FNUC and the FSIN had long argued that FNUC's board required political domination by the politicians to reflect the importance of governance in aboriginal society. Detractors said the board, top-heavy with politicians, drowned out the voices of academics, administrators, and students -- for whom FNUC was created.

On Feb. 7 and 8, 2010, nearly a week after Norris announced that the province would cease its annual funding to FNUC of $5.5 million during the current fiscal year (ending March 31), the FSIN legislative assembly -- a congress of nearly 80 chiefs from Saskatchewan's First Nations -- announced it would meet at the Whitecap First Nation, south of Saskatoon. The FNUC was on the agenda, and the chiefs were preparing to do battle with the federal and provincial governments to defend the institution as it stood. As well, more than 50 students came from Regina, joining students from the Saskatoon campus, to address the assembly and lobby to overhaul the board of governors and remove Pratt as president.

A new, 12-person chief-free interim board of governors was appointed, with the only hold-over being student council president Diane Adams. She and FNUC student council communications vice-president Cadmus Delorme, spearheaded a student campaign to reform FNUC's administration and governance. The new board suspended Pratt and Ducharme (who were later fired), and hired Del Anaquod, former president of FNUC's predecessor, the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, as its chief operating officer. The college then started rebuilding bridges with alienated individuals and organizations -- such as the University of Regina Faculty Association and the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

The province has agreed to bring back its funding -- after FNUC signed a four-year deal with the University of Regina, allowing the university to handle FNUC's money, which was where many of the battles over FNUC's control by the FSIN occurred, and which was roasted in Westerlund's report.

But Ottawa has thought otherwise. Four days after the chiefs' congress removed the board of governors, Strahl announced that INAC would suspend its $7.2 million operating payment to the college. The transitional funding announced March 30 probably pays for the severance packages of professors, who will be eagerly picked up by other universities and colleges in Canada. As for the students, they get squat.

"In reality, it means the end of First Nations University," says Jim Turk, the executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. (Officials from FNUC, the student council and officials from the FSIN were unavailable for comment as the story went to press.)

Strahl's announcement does little good for FNUC's current students. Take Swan, for example. FNUC has one of the three aboriginal linguistics programs in Canada he requires to earn his degree in his area of specialization. But if and when FNUC closes its doors, Strahl's plan calls for students enrolled in his program to move to another university. Except, in Swan's case, the nearest university -- the U of Regina -- doesn't have an indigenous studies department, so where does he go to complete his education?

The dilemma students such as Swan face probably didn't enter the equation when Strahl made his decision regarding FNUC's future, just as the university's precarious future probably never entered the minds of members of FNUC's former board members or its senior administration. Students pressed the federal and provincial governments, as well as the FSIN, for reforms to FNUC's governance out of their own self-interest: they had the most to lose. Despite all they've achieved in the last three months to reform the institution, they are the ones who have lost everything.

The misspending allegations at FNUC five years ago, in retrospect, led to Watson's coup. And Westerlund's allegations as outlined in his report were more substantial, involved greater misconduct by more people, and involved more money, than anything alleged five years ago. It seems as if the actions of Watson and the FSIN -- at least until Guy Lonechild was elected Grand Chief of the FSIN in Oct. 2009 -- undermined aboriginal self government and aboriginal control over aboriginal education, essentially doing an unsupportive Conservative government's dirty work for them.

The choice of Lonechild, a former youth leader of the FSIN, is seen by outside observers as the beginning of the end of the FSIN "old boys club" that had led the organization for the better part of a generation.

By failing to act on much needed reforms on administration and governance, the FSIN and FNUC's old board brought shame and ridicule to aboriginal governance, and provided the perfect excuse for a federal government, filled with supporters who apparently base their opinion of aboriginal issues from John Wayne films, to do away with FNUC under the guise of "fiscal responsibility."

"Saskatchewan taxpayers have 34 years invested in this institution," says Randy Lundy, who heads FNUC's Academic Council. "If you close the doors on it, that investment will be gone." Whatever funds wasted by FNUC's management during their five year FSIN-inspired "reign of error" will pale beside the funds wasted -- not to mention the opportunities wasted -- on FNUC's creation if and when FNUC closes its doors for good.

Stephen LaRose is a freelance journalist in Regina who has been writing about the First Nations University of Canada for several years. His coverage of FNUC's operational crisis in 2005 for Regina-based prairie dog and Saskatoon-based Planet S magazines earned him an Award of Excellence in Post-Secondary Education Coverage from the Canadian Association of University teachers in 2006.

 

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Comments

This really is a tragedy.  As someone who taught for many years at the U of R, I had the chance to observe FNUC at close range, and don't minimize for one moment the governance issues that it had, but Guy Lonechild realized the need to sort them out and would have done that.  To pull the plug just at the moment things were turning around is a huge mistake, but exactly what we'd expect from the Harper gang.  The fact is that Canada needs this institution and we'll only have to reinvent it at some point in the future, probably at greater cost and with more growing pains to attract good faculty.  And FNUC had (and still has) some good faculty.  We say that we want aboriginal people to be part of the Canadian mainstream and they are flocking to university in unprecedented numbers so that they can get middle-class jobs, and then our federal government goes and does something like this.  It's so short-sighted and so mean-spirited but I guess our white "old boy's club" is just as retrograde as the one removed from the FNUC Board of Governors. 

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We all need the First Nations University.

Students and the new chief should be supported.

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