Amidst allegations of misspending at the First Nations University of Canada and provincial funding potentially being cut off, students can rest assured that they will be able to complete their degrees, according to Saskatchewan minister of advanced education Rob Norris.
“These are very, very disturbing, disappointing, unsettling allegations. We’ve got to get to the bottom of this. We have to do that especially for the students and behalf of taxpayers in Saskatchewan,” said Norris.
According to documents obtained by a number of news outlets including both The Star Phoenix and CBC News, former FNUC chief financial officer Murray Westerlund has made claims of misspending at the Regina-based institution.
In the documents, Westerlund alleged that university funding were misused with thousands of dollars in annual leave paid out as cash to senior administrators over the past four years including $98,000 to FNUC president Charles Pratt, as well as staff trips to Montreal, Las Vegas and Hawaii.
Westerlund’s documents also noted a $2.57-million teepee built on the Regina FNUC campus. First Nations veterans and others were paid $216,000 to review project plans and “monitor progress.”
Westerlund forwarded memos of his findings to the FUNC audit committee in late November 2009. He was dismissed a few days later and has filed for a wrongful dismissal lawsuit.
“Our university is facing financial challenges and it is disturbing to hear that university dollars are being misused while our departments are facing cuts,” said Cadmus Delorme a FNUC students’ association spokesperson in a recent press release.
According to Norris, the FNUC audit committee is currently investigating the situation.
“That’s going to help us get to the bottom of this,” said Norris.
Jim Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) said that, since 2005, there have been numerous situations at FNUC that led to the 2008 censure of the university by CAUT.
“When we determine that a university administration has really violated basic principles of basic governance we censure them,” said Turk.
“This means we ask people not to take jobs there. We ask people not to participate in conferences or any events sponsored by the institution. It’s been 30 years since we’ve had to censure anyone.”
Turk called it “a really sad situation” saying that FNUC was a really great idea.
“A lot of First Nations students come straight from their home communities, haven’t lived anywhere else, so it provides a different alternative for First Nation students and others,” said Turk.
“It was on its way to being the best First Nations institution in North America before all these bad things started happening. They just keep getting worse and no one’s been willing to take responsibility for it.”
Turk speculated that if the province withdraws funding FNUC “is going to collapse. Canada is going to lose its only First Nations institution.”
According to Norris, “Today, [FNUC] faces significant jeopardy when it comes to provincial funding. Those deliberations are underway.”
Norris said that he is currently in conversation with a number of stakeholders of FNUC, including the University of Regina, of which the FNUC is a federated college.
“I’ve asked if they have contingency plans in place should they be needed to help ensure the success of students at [FNUC]. [ . . . ] As part of our due diligence, I wanted to ensure that the University of Regina would be ready to act and I was given that reassurance,” said Norris.
If the FNUC were to lose its provincial funding, Norris said the future of the university would depend on the actions of the other funding contributors.
“There are other funding partners. In fact, the federal government contributes more than the provincial government. It would depend on what other funding partners would consider.”
In response to student outcry over the allegations of misspending at FNUC, Norris said he is scheduled to speak with students about their concerns.
“They’ve expressed their outrage and their anger. I want to listen. I really want to hear from the students about what they’re feeling and also offer them reassurance that they’re not alone, that they have a lot of allies.”
In a FSIN press release earlier this week, Chief Guy Lonechild said that he will not support any decision that does not allow FNUC students to finish their classes this year or complete their degrees in the future.
“I want to thank the students for sharing their concerns regarding the administrative affairs of the First Nations University of Canada. As the Chief of the FSIN, I agree fully with the need for ‘Indian control of Indian education,’” said Lonechild.
“My primary concern, and that of other stakeholders, is to ensure that our students are not put at risk. They have worked too hard and offer so much hope for the future. We cannot fail them now.”