Amid accusations of financial irregularities and mismanagement, the federal government announced last week that it will not reverse a decision to cut $7.2 million in funding from the First Nations University of Canada (FNUC).
Combined with the $ 5.2-million loss in funding from the Saskatchewan government that was announced in February, this decision could mean that the university is headed for insolvency.
The government made the announcement in spite of the recent decision of the FNUC and its owner, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN), to address the government’s concerns by transferring control of the university to the University of Regina and establishing a new board of governors.
“The [federal] government claims that the university has not managed its funds appropriately and has not taken the action recommended to address the issue,” said Jean Crowder, the NDP’s critic for aboriginal affairs.
“However, what I know from meeting with both the Canadian Association of University Teachers, with somebody from the Board of Governors, with the grand chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, with someone from the student union, from the faculty association, is that they have presented a plan to the government to address the issues, and the government really has had no conversation with them about this,” said Crowder.
FNUC’s finances have long been under scrutiny, and in a press release Indian affairs minister Chuck Strahl attributed the federal funding cuts to “long-standing, systemic problems related to governance and financial management.”
Critics of the university have alleged that it is not independent enough from the FSIN, and in both 2007 and 2008 it ran deficits of over $1 million. Rumours of unnecessary business trips to Hawaii and Las Vegas have been circulating, and most recently, Saskatchewan’s ministry of justice launched an investigation into whether $390,000 of a scholarship fund was mishandled.
Randy Lundy, who heads FNUC’s faculty council, compared the funding cuts to the residential school system.
“After having issued an apology for [the residential school] legacy, minister Strahl is enacting yet another policy of enforced assimilation by refusing to restore the $7.2 million in funding to the First Nations University of Canada,” Lundy said at a press conference on March 11.
The funding cuts precede a financial audit of the university, which is expected to be finished by the end of this month.
“The federal government has announced that they need to save money, and they are looking at all kinds of opportunities to cut programs or services. This would fall in line with that,” said Crowder.
“The provincial government has signaled that they would be prepared to come to the table if the federal government would,” said Crowder on March 15.
However, a meeting between Saskatchewan advanced education minister Rob Norris and Strahl the following day did not yield any sort of deal, and both governments’ previous promises to end funding by April 1 remained.
FNUC is the only university of its kind in Canada, and it offers an opportunity for First Nations students to study in a culturally supportive environment.
“First Nations have had such a terrible experience through residential schools,” Crowder explained. “What the First Nations University does is provide an avenue for students to get culturally appropriate education. There’s a lot more support around tradition and language… that makes it easier for students to return, to come to school.”