The First Nations University of Canada (FNUC) is in a deepening crisis that threatens the future of the institution.
Trouble began in mid-February when the chair of the board of governors, Morley Watson, suspended three senior administrators indefinitely and replaced them with his appointees; had copies made of the university’s central server drive containing faculty records, research and email and student records; and commissioned an audit without providing specific allegations to the FNUC board or the community.
Watson was appointed board chair after being elected first vice-chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN), the political body that selects all but a handful of FNUC board members.
Watson’s actions bypassed longtime and highly respected FNUC president Eber Hampton who told the board in May that attempts to resolve governance issues had not been successful.
Hampton said that "because of my grave concerns following the events which began on February 17, 2005 regarding departures from the mode and manner of governance of the university, as stipulated by FSIN legislation," he had retained counsel who summarized concerns "about the liability and reputational risks created as a result of board resolutions purporting to surrender certain powers to vice-chief Watson and subsequent illegal suspensions imposed by vice-chief Watson."
Hampton concluded that his two meetings with Watson, their legal counsel and a third party mediator had failed. "At both meetings I proposed solutions to governance issues and steps to protect the interests of the university, while facilitating, even enhancing, the completion of the audit. My recommendations involved diminishing the unilateral control being exercised by vice-chief Watson with respect to the affairs of the university and they were rejected."
FNUC’s academic vice-president Denise Henning publicly expressed her objection to the copying of all faculty material on the central server and the monitoring of faculty email. Along with 20 staff, she demanded the illicitly copied faculty personnel and student information be returned immediately.
The university’s elders wrote the board to add their voice of concern to how Watson and the board were acting.
"There is a real sense of fear, insecurity and a basic hostile working environment," one faculty member wrote to the University of Regina Faculty Association, which represents academic, professional, technical and administrative staff at FNUC. "Everyone is scared to talk freely or openly or send any personal or confidential material via email. An extreme stress level is now in place."
Members of the university’s academic council wrote to the board urging it "to reassure the faculty, management and staff that governance interference will never be taken again here."
They also said that the recent events violate "not only human rights and human decency, they also violate the spirituality of Indian people that we and the Elders try to bring to First Nations University. They violate the law, both Indian and non-Indian. They violate the collective agreements signed by the board of governors ..."
URFA filed a number of grievances over violations of the collective agreement by Watson and his colleagues in their handling of matters. When the employer failed to respond, the association sought intervention by the Saskatchewan Labour Relations Board.
In April, CAUT executive director James Turk was invited to speak at FNUC. During the meeting he praised what had been achieved at FNUC before these events, but warned that the future of the institution was being put in jeopardy because of disregard for proper governance practices and denial of academic freedom.
In August, Claire Morris, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada met with FNUC officials because of the apparent disregard within FNUC of academic freedom, collegial governance, and lack of an arms-length relation between the FNUC board and the FSIN. The AUCC board will receive a report from Morris at its October meeting and consider whether to revoke the institution’s membership in the AUCC.
The crisis has had devastating consequences for FNUC.
President Hampton has left to take a position at the University of Regina.
Subsequently, in early July, acting president Charles Pratt walked into the office of the dean of FNUC’s Saskatoon campus, Winona Wheeler, a member of the George Gordon First Nation north of Regina, and wordlessly gave her a letter and left. The letter advised her that her position was being eliminated. She was told by associates accompanying Pratt that she was to leave her office immediately. The next day, nearly 30 students held a protest along the university’s steps against Pratt’s action.
Wheeler was replaced with a campus "manager." A little over a week later, students were ordered to inform the campus manager if they were planning any demonstrations, posting any notices or inviting media to campus.
In late July, after the dean of FNUC’s Regina campus and acting registrar, Dawn Tato, criticized what was happening, she was fired.
"In my termination letter, in the last paragraph, it stated because of my recent criticisms of the administration and board of governors, that I have violated a code of ethics," Tato said.
Pratt issued a memo stating that "the incumbent held the position on a probationary basis and has not been offered the position on a permanent basis."
Tato, a First Nations’ educator who was on a three-year contract, replied that her contract did not indicate she was in a probationary period. She expressed disbelief that she was fired for speaking out but said she did not regret defending the principles of academic freedom at a faculty rally in June.
"It’s pretty clear if you don’t agree with the university board’s political appointees, you’re ousted," she said.
Faculty who spoke out also suffered repercussions.
Blair Stonechild, a member of the Muscowpetung First Nation near Regina, one of the first faculty recruited to the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (FNUC’s name before it was changed in 2003), a leading expert of aboriginal post-secondary education, and head of indigenous studies, was scheduled to be a keynote speaker at an Assembly of First Nations forum on post-secondary education to be held at FNUC.
Shortly before he was to make his presentation, he was advised that his invitation was being withdrawn, at Watson’s insistence, because it was feared he might be critical of what was happening at FNUC.
"This is what can happen when there is not an appropriate set of checks and balances," Stonechild said.
Two faculty members, academic council chair Randy Lundy and linguistics professor Jan van Eijk received disciplinary letters from acting president Pratt.
"Although I appreciate your position as a faculty member within FNUC, your right to comment on the operation and state of the institution is not unfettered," Pratt said in the letters. "We expect you to respect the policies of FNUC and to refrain from defamatory comments, insubordination and actions and comments that entirely undermine the functioning of the institution. Moreover, you may not use the FNUC email system for the purpose of such communications ... Please be advised that any future communications or publications in the nature of those outlined in this letter will be subject to disciplinary action."
After Lundy and van Eijk filed grievances with the assistance of URFA and CAUT, Pratt responded to URFA, apologizing for the letters and indicating they would be withdrawn. Twenty other URFA grievances remain outstanding.
Tensions continued when, in early August, academic vice-president Denise Henning resigned and moved to a post at the University of Regina. She is suing FNUC for constructive dismissal.
In her letter of resignation, Henning told Pratt that his actions and those of Watson and Watson’s appointed vice-president of administration Al Ducharme "have made it impossible for me to fulfill my assigned duties.
"When I was recruited from Cherokee territory in Oklahoma in the United States, I came believing in the mandate of First Nations-Indian control of Indian education, but I also believe in universities operating as universities. Proper procedures and protocol should always be followed in making changes to the university, and this has not been the case here, making it impossible for me to function."
Marlene Lerat-Stetner, executive assistant to the president and administrative assistant to the board for more than a decade, was dismissed from her position after Hampton left. After refusing an alternate position — without equivalent responsibilities — she was terminated without cause and offered a severance, which she refused.
In a letter to the board, Lerat-Stetner talked proudly of her 17 years with the FNUC and her joy at what the institution had become. But she said that things had changed.
"The present situation with the political appointees instills the feeling of being under control, the same situation as existed in the residential schools where children lived under controlled supervision 24 hours a day, 7 says a week. I was in residential school for a few years and know those feelings well," she said.
"I pray and hope that the university can be restored to some semblance of order and decorum, that students, faculty and staff have a safe and peaceful working environment in which to learn and work. However, I fear that it will never be on the verge of greatness as it had been."
Also, over the summer, the vice-president of administration, Wes Stevenson, one of those suspended by Watson in February, was fired for cause following receipt of the audit report. No specific reason was given for the firing nor was the report released.
Leonzo Barreno, director of international and special programs, was also fired for cause, without details being made available.
Both are suing FNUC.
A leaked report subsequently indicated the auditors believed Stevenson had used FNUC money for his own gain and had filed incorrect expense and travel claims.
Stevenson maintains it is a trumped-up case against him as a premise for a power grab at the university, enabling Watson and others to give jobs to their friends.
The audit and associated costs totalled more than a quarter of a million dollars a month before it was completed, according to a report to the FNUC board.
The turmoil has spread to the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. Theresa Stevenson (the mother of Wes Stevenson), an Order of Canada recipient who sits on the federation’s senate and who had criticized Watson’s actions, announced in late May that she had been relieved of her duties by the FSIN senate chair.
"Having watched what the FSIN is doing to damage the reputation (of the) First Nations University, staff and students, I can no longer sit back and remain quiet," she said.
Former University of Regina president, Lloyd Barber, who was instrumental in the creation of the forerunner of the First Nations University, warned about the seriousness of the present situation.
"A university, as an institution, is more than just a name. You can call yourself a university, but unless other people (including the academic community) agree to it, it is not," Barber said.
"The question of the definition of Indian control over Indian education was always around, but I think there is a desire for more complete control than existed... but control does not mean sovereign in that sense," he added.
In response to the crisis, Watson and Pratt announced that the FNUC board has appointed a task force "who will work together to undertake an in-depth review of our inner workings... and prepare a set of recommendations for our board of governors.
One of the most prominent individuals named in the task force, provincial court judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, responded with surprise, saying in a newspaper interview: "I can tell you, on the record, I am not on the task force and any due process to seek me to be on the task force was not followed."
Concern has been expressed about the membership, mandate, and limited timelines of the task force.
"The situation at FNUC cries out for a resolution," said CAUT's James Turk. "But we have little confidence that the task force will offer useful answers given it was appointed by the FNUC board, reports to the FSIN, and many of its members have longstanding ties to those who are not at the heart of the problem."