As I write this column, the future of First Nations University of Canada is not clear. On Feb. 8 Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl announced federal funding of $7.3 million for First Nations University would end. This is a tragic decision for First Nations University, a unique and important educational institution.
Problems at the institution surfaced in February 2005 when the first vice chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) and chair of the university’s board of governors suspended three senior administrators and seized records and files. Despite a storm of protest from students, faculty, staff and administrators these actions were upheld by the board. Eventually they resulted in the resignation of most senior administrators and about one-third of the university’s faculty members. CAUT and the University of Regina Faculty Association, which represents First Nations University academic staff, expressed concern about the situation.
As the crisis deepened through the spring of 2005, and in the face of grievances, lawsuits, resignations and declining enrollment, the FSIN established an all-chiefs task force to investigate and make recommendations. The principal recommendation of the task force, which reported in November 2005, was to replace the current board with a smaller and depoliticized one. However, the FSIN refused to implement the recommendations, even after a provincial review three years later reached basically the same conclusions.
In April 2009, after repeated attempts to persuade the FSIN to implement a governance structure in line with institutional standards and principles in place across North America, CAUT Council imposed censure. In January 2010 the university administration was further discredited by allegations of financial improprieties.
But this winter, the situation at the university showed signs of changing. Guy Lonechild won last November’s FSIN leadership race. Part of his campaign had been to address the problems at First Nations University.
He used his considerable political skills while the FSIN legislative assembly was debating whether to make changes to the university’s board, to get a vote in favour of fundamental change. The assembly voted to abolish the current board, appoint an interim board structured along the lines recommended by the all-chiefs task force, and to suspend the president and vice-president of administration and finance.
A reasonable expectation was that these steps, in due course, would lead the province to restore funding. In this context, the announcement by the federal government to cut funding, four days after the changes, was shocking and deeply disappointing. Students and faculty have rallied around the university and CAUT has urged the Saskatchewan and federal governments to reinstate funding.
With this sad story, why be concerned at the possible demise of First Nations University? First, it is the only First Nations university in Canada — creating a cultural environment specially suited for many First Nations students. The university also provides one of the strongest indigenous languages programs in Canada and houses a unique English program with a focus on aboriginal literature. The nursing program and aboriginal mathematics education provide cultural resources and training not otherwise available. The presence and integration of Elders into all aspects of governance, research and teaching contribute to its unique identity and importance as a cultural resource to aboriginal students.
I heard some of this first-hand last year when, along with James Turk, CAUT’s executive director, I met with aboriginal students attending the university. We learned how many, particularly those who had to leave their home communities, would not be in university at all without an institution like First Nations University. We also heard how important it was to First Nations and non-First Nations students alike to learn about aboriginal knowledge systems and methods and to explore these within a cultural sensitivity setting, a setting without the racism experienced by aboriginal students on other campuses. Students and faculty expressed their passionate commitment to the institution, and hopes for change.
First Nation University funding is a small portion of overall spending on First Nations post-secondary education funding but what is important is the university’s role as a First Nations’ institution, and as such it is an important supplement to the main funding strategy, which involves programs in mainstream institutions.
Since the February announcement and despite the establishment of a working group representing all parties, the federal government has maintained its decision to no longer directly fund First Nations University. This is disturbing, but it is only one aspect of a larger crisis in funding for aboriginal education.
Through the “Post-Secondary Student Support Program” the federal government currently provides $300 million in annual financial assistance to eligible aboriginal students pursuing a post-secondary education. Since 1996, increases to the fund have been capped at two per cent a year. The rate increase is less than the rate of inflation and is further diminished by fee increases over that percentage and is unrelated to growth in the number of young aboriginals or the number of secondary school graduates who are qualified for post-secondary education and to the low rate of aboriginal university attendance. More than 12,000 eligible students have been reportedly denied post-secondary education since 2001 due to inadequate funding.
The withdrawal of support for First Nations University is inconsistent with the federal government’s treaty obligations to fully fund First Nations students. The recent federal budget announced that financial support for First Nations and Inuit university and college programs, currently provided through the Post-Secondary Students Support Program and administered by band councils, will be revamped.
The budget doesn’t provide details but the likelihood is that changes will reduce band council control over funding education and remove band council ability to provide counsellors and other support for students, in addition to financial assistance. This is short-sighted, and it belies not only obligation, but the long and deplorable history of forced assimilation. Our government should stop the under-funding and move decisively to close the educational gaps between aboriginal and other Canadians.