First Nations University of Canada, formerly known as the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College SIFC), will celebrate its 34th anniversary this year — a milestone for the world’s indigenous peoples’ right to higher education. The darkness that began in 2005 — darkness that threatens the very existence of First Nations University — will not lessen the unique influence this institution had throughout the Americas.
I worked for SIFC/First Nations University from 1990 to 2005 and I immediately embraced the concept of “Indian control of Indian education” from a philosophical and practical point of view. In my different positions I observed foreign indigenous students and professionals who, besides complying with their academic work and conscious of the daily and oppressive realities back home, were interested in knowing how Saskatchewan First Nations came to control such an institution, not from a narrow, literal interpretation of the concept, but of using education as a tool for self-development.
They learned not only how the institution came to be and how it was sustained, but also how to build similar institutions in their own developing countries without being labeled racist, segregationists or self-ghettoizing.
Beginning in the late 1980s, the Mapuche and Rapa-Nui from Chile; Kolla from Argentina; Aymara and Quechua from Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador; Maya from southern Mexico and Guatemala; Carib and Arawak from the Caribbean; Bri-bri from Costa Rica and Creole, Garifuna, and Miskito from the Caribbean, Nicaragua and Honduras discussed how higher education would impact the future of their peoples.
Thanks to SIFC and Canadian international co-operation, more than 100 students and professionals discovered there were people like them all over the world. At SIFC, the students obtained quality education plus the analytical and practical tools to change the poverty conditions of their people. After all, what is the purpose of higher education?
The international students reflected on their conditions as colonized and marginalized peoples and despite their cultural and geographical differences they all wanted to change those conditions. They discussed and criticized various subjects, but criticizing, they argued, was not sufficient. They wanted to be masters of their own destiny. Besides the military dictatorships blocking their rights and development in those years they acknowledged their own native barriers.
They discussed how pseudo, pedestrian, uneducated, opportunist, industry and armchair politicians were easily co-opted into corruption for personal gain at the expense of their peoples’ rights and resources. They discussed various alternatives for breaking internal and external barriers. An overwhelming majority agreed that the most important tool was higher education.
Consequently, the international students saw SIFC as a model to follow and as a place of transformation. To build and to sustain indigenous institutes of higher learning in other parts of the world was no longer utopian but a tangible goal. Other important and influential features of SIFC were that women made up the majority of the student body and hundreds of non-aboriginal Canadians were taking classes at the institution. Administratively and academically, SIFC was composed of professionals of different ethnic, racial, national and gender backgrounds. For visiting students this diversity was a school in itself.
On returning to their countries, the students entered into alliances with professionals and progressive universities to create programs and institutions for indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. Aboriginal and non-aboriginal professionals working for SIFC provided valuable support to emerging institutions in Chile, Mexico, Nicaragua, Belize, Ecuador, Peru and Guatemala and documents written by former SIFC/First Nations University scholars became part of an ever growing movement.
Indigenous leaders with university education are now leading social transformations all over the Americas. Indigenous institutions of higher learning are schools for both theory and praxis for self-development. Only with self-development, they claim, can they aspire to achieve other social ends.
Despite the lack of government support and skepticism from established universities, Latin American indigenous and non-indigenous professionals are now working side-by-side. The basis of these initiatives is the bilingual intercultural education program. This paradigm is the foundation for mutual coexistence, respect and peace. Intercultural education is the nemesis of the old segregationist, elitist and race-based institutions.
In April 2003, during an international gathering of indigenous educators in Guatemala, Andean representatives said: “Though we are building quality institutions that will incorporate the world-views of our and different peoples we don’t want to be seen as the ‘poor little Indians,’ we don’t want anything for free. We will work hard to implement intercultural-bilingual education.” And, they did.
It is not surprising SIFC was noted as a model by the UN, the Organization of American States and other international organizations when they discussed educational rights for the world’s indigenous peoples. Even more, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights refers to SIFC as the starting point for higher indigenous education in the Americas.
Internationalism brought prestige and recognition to the institution and to Canada — recognition which continues to be acknowledged by various reports and that politicians and decision makers cannot ignore. SIFC transcended segregation and borders. Only time and thorough examination of the importance of this institution will tell whether First Nations University survives and follows in the steps of its glorious and influential predecessor.
Killing First Nations University will not only close the doors of arguably one of the most influential Canadian institutions in the development of indigenous peoples of the Americas, but will seriously deteriorate the reputation Canada enjoys around the world.
Leonzo Barreno holds the Global Chair at the University of Regina’s School of Journalism and has worked extensively with First Nations in Saskatchewan and aboriginal people worldwide.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily CAUT.
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