CANADA: Troubled First Nations' funding halved

After five years of being mired in financial scandals and dragging its feet on commitments to solve its governance problems, the small but symbolically important First Nations University of Canada has lost the confidence of the federal and provincial governments.

On 3 February, Saskatchewan's Education Minister announced that "this chapter has come to a close", adding the government would not renew the $5.2 million (US$4.9 million) in core funding it gives the university each year.

Four days later, the federal department that provides $7.3 million to the institution followed suit, saying in a tersely-worded release it had tried to address long-standing systemic problems related to governance and financial management but said "this situation can no longer continue".

With both departments cutting funding, the country's only aboriginal-led higher education institution lost half its annual budget. This was not unexpected: the university was censured by the country's academic association after it failed to implement recommendations following a 2005 task force report.

That report recommended the university cut the number of native band chiefs comprising its governing board. Although it seemed as if the recommendations would be adopted, two years later there had been no change, even though the federal government stepped in and withheld more than $1million because of missed agreed-upon deadlines for reporting its progress.

The university's logic for keeping the politicised board was from a desire to have the university serve its community. But interference by the chiefs had clashed with traditional definitions of a university, with institutional autonomy and the right of critics to speak out without fear of reprisals - something that seemed in short supply.

The university did finally vote to dissolve its board but only after this month's provincial funding cut and after an impassioned outcry from student leaders. Days later, the federal government also acted.

Now the university, with only 600 students registered or one-third of its capacity, stands little chance of surviving.

FNUC's politicised board had played a role in many of its earlier problems, from a spate of senior administrators and outspoken critics being fired or resigning, to its board of governor's' chair seizing confidential computer hard drives.

Yet the likely catalyst for both governments deciding to cut funding was the launch of a lawsuit by a recently fired senior administrator.

In January, former CFO Murray Westerlund brought a wrongful dismissal suit alleging that some administrators and staff had been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in lieu of annual leave.

Westerlund wrote in his statement of claim of other questionable retainers and compensation packages. He also revealed that three senior human resources staff had received raises of up to 57% - at a time when the university was running a deficit and had been forced to cut teaching staff.

In an interview with the Saskatchewan News Network just days before making his announcement he would cut funding, Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl questioned the continued need to pour millions of dollars into an institution with plummeting enrolments and a lack of accountability.

Strahl said the priority should be on increasing the education of aboriginal people, without specifically endorsing the university.

Both the federal and provincial governments have said that they will ensure students will be able to finish their studies. They are working with the University of Regina as well as the University of Saskatchewan.

The $7.3 million that would have been allocated to the university for the 2010-11 fiscal year will be directed to a student support programme for aboriginal Canadians.

There could be a deal struck between the University of Regina and the embattled school. Saskatchewan's education minister said on 11 February that one possibility would be to have the funding flow through the University of Regina, which already grants FNUC degrees but at present is administratively and financially separate. He cautions that these talks are still at an early stage.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers , the academic group that had censured the university, was stunned by the government's decision to cut the university from its core funding just when it was finally making a major concession.

"For the past five years, the Canadian Association of University Teachers has been the most vocal critic of what has been happening at [the university]," wrote association Executive Director Jim Turk in a letter to the minister. "During that time, the federal government said and did virtually nothing.

"We urge you in the strongest terms to reconsider your decision. If you do not, you are ensuring the destruction of the First Nations University of Canada at the very moment when the FSIN took the necessary steps to get the university back on its proper path. Destroying the First Nations University of Canada serves no one, as no other university fulfils the same function or has the same relation to First Nations peoples."

Most aboriginal leaders in Canada have been attached to having a university of their own but many have also been looking at other ways of increasing university attainment of their people.

Only 8% of aboriginal people have completed a university degree compared with 23% of non-aboriginal Canadians. University presidents have been meeting with aboriginal leaders to plan and implement joint new initiatives in an effort to help more aboriginal youth in pursuing a university education.

While the First Nations University faces a possible demise, Canada does offer alternatives to its indigenous population and those interested in native studies. There are dozens of native studies departments including an entire faculty of native studies at the University of Alberta, a doctoral programme at the University of Trent, several indigenous law programmes across the country, aboriginal social work at the University of Regina, and a first nations language programme at the University of British Columbia.

Shawna McNab, a third-year student at the First Nations University, told the Regina Leader-Post the news of the government cuts was not going to stop her from pursuing her education "I'm going to continue on my path and it's not going to stop me," McNab said.

I am from Vancouver and wanted to say that the native peoples need all the support that they can get to fight against the apartheid Canadian government. The native peoples have always been treated as second class citizens by the Canadian government. They and the Palestinian people have got a lot in common. It will be the working class in Canada and around the world that will solve these problems. The working class needs to take political power into its own hands so that things will be done for the good of the people and everyone will be treated equally. Solidarity with the native struggle for self determination.

Stan Squires