Despite provincial and federal funding cuts of $12 million and counting, students at the First Nations University of Canada are optimistic about the institution’s future, said student Cadmus Delorme.
“Number one, we will not let our institution close. What the students wanted from day one was accountability and transparency. We got that,” said Delorme, commenting on the recent appointment of an interim board of governors at FNU, Canada’s only aboriginal-run university.
Delorme, the FNU Students’ Association vice-president, said students rallied the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) — the organization that controls the university — to let “experts” form an interim board of governors.
The school’s board of governors was dissolved earlier this month.
“I’m ready to go back to school. I feel a lot better [ . . . ] There are experts making decisions and I mean experts that have been through this institution,” said Delorme.
He described the new board members as experts “that have graduated and have moved on and got the experience of working within the economy. Now they are bringing that back with ideas to improve us.”
The school became embroiled in controversy after its former chief financial officer Murray Westerlund made claims of misspending at the Regina-based institution; both upper levels of government have begun to withdraw their funding from the school, and possibly may do so for good.
Although Delorme said he was disappointed to learn of funding cuts to the university, he is pleased that discussions are taking place to redirect FNU funding through another institution.
According to Rob Norris, Saskatchewan’s minister of advanced education, the province will no longer fund FNU, but there is a possibility funding dollars could be directed to the University of Regina to benefit the school’s students.
“What we’ve said is there will be no provincial public dollars invested in the foreseeable future in the First Nations University.”
“That being said [ . . . ] if there is a partnership agreement — a new deal — between the University of Regina and First Nations University that ensures far greater accountability, ensuring that we’ll never go back to where we’ve been as far as the allegations and challenges over the last five years, then we would look at that option,” said Norris.
Delorme said he would like to see funding channeled through the University of Regina.
“We have a lot of history with the University of Regina. We have always been a little-brother institution to the University of Regina. The history of University of Regina and First Nations education goes way back.”
As for Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl’s announcement that the federal government would end its $7.3 million in annual funding to the school, Delorme said the decision is “outrageous.”
“It’s wrong. I have nothing positive about what they’re doing right now,” said Delorme.
Jean Crowder, the federal NDP aboriginal affairs critic, is also disappointed with Strahl’s decision to cut funding to the university, having recently sent a letter to the minister concerning his decision to pull federal funding.
“First of all, I think that the federal minister should have intervened sooner. The problems at the First Nations University are not new [ . . . ] I think if the minister had recognized that there were some challenges (and) had stepped in earlier [ . . . ] that would have been preferable to yanking funding,” said Crowder.
According to Crowder, the federal government is backing away from its education responsibilities at a time when many First Nations believe there is still an established treaty right regarding education — an issue, she said, that has yet to be sorted out.
“The federal government continues to undermine the aboriginal control of education,” said Crowder. “What the federal government would really like to do is throw all responsibility of post-secondary education to the provinces and wash its hands of it.”
Despite funding cuts, Norris said that students will be able to complete their degrees, and that his primary concern at the moment is to ensure that students will be able to do so uninterrupted.
“What we’ve said is we want to make sure the students will have smooth completion of their semester and [summer courses]. We’ll ensure that until the end of August, so that takes care of intersession and summer session,” said Norris.
“We don’t want to, in any way, disrupt students.”
The sentiment was echoed by Barbara Pollock, vice-president external for the University of Regina, of which FNU is already considered a federated college.
“Our primary obligation is to our students [ . . . ] We will be putting in place measures that make sure that students who are currently registered in our degree programs will indeed complete them, even if they are in year one or two,” said Pollock.
Norris said the fate of FNU remains a topic of important discussion for the provincial government, FSIN and the University of Regina as well as other stakeholders.
“This chapter has come to a close. The next chapter is in the making.”
As for the students, Delorme said the next step is to educate the public on the university’s importance.
“Right now [ . . . ] we’ve got to educate the public on how important this institution is to First Nations people, to non-First Nations people, to the province of Saskatchewan and to the country of Canada,” said Delorme.