First Nations uni a mess

Saskatchewan’s troubled First Nations University of Canada has yet to publicize a taskforce report–due on May 11–containing recommendations on restructuring the university’s board of governors. The taskforce was struck after threats from the province to withhold $200,000 in funding.

FNUC, established in 1976 as the only university in Canada with the majority of its leadership composed of First Nations chiefs, has been steeped in controversy for years. On Feb. 17, 2005, Morley Watson, then FNUC board chair and vice-chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, took over the campus in what some have likened to a “coup d’état.” Watson suspended three employees, immediately replacing them with a former Liberal candidate, an FSIN employee, and his sister-in-law. He seized the central computers at FNUC, copying the hard drive that contained all faculty and student records. He ordered a forensic audit, following which two of the former employees were charged with fraud.

Since then, the university has lost a president, two VPs, a third of its teaching faculty, half the administration, and almost all of its students. Enrolment has declined from 2,500 students in 2005 to 787 today. Last year, the provincial government stepped in to bail out the university in the face of a $1-million deficit.

Current board chair Clarence Bellegarde was optimistic when the taskforce was struck in March: “We’re confident that we made positive and significant progress in responding to CAUT’s [Canadian Association of University Teachers] concerns over our governance issues,” he said to the Leder-Post. “We’ve come closer together on exactly what the issues are and what it’s going to take to resolve these issues.”

However, FNUC is not famous for listening to its taskforces. An All Chiefs Task Force, set up soon after Watson’s takeover of the school, reported in November 2005 that the FNUC’s board of directors was politicized. The taskforce recommended a smaller board that would be responsive to the FNUC and wider academic communities, but the taskforce’s recommendations were not implemented. In response to the school’s disregard for the taskforces’ recommendations, the CAUT censured FNUC by discouraging faculty in Canada and around the world from working or speaking at the university.

The FNUC board of governors has 26 members, 18 of whom have voting power. Of those 18, 14 are council chiefs of various Saskatchewan First Nations. In January 2008, a second internal report recommended a 12-member board with four chiefs, leaving more room for students, faculty, and provincial government. The report also recommended creating a university senate to provide a voice for chiefs and other interested parties. This recommendation was also not implemented.

Meanwhile, the Saskatchewan Supreme Court overturned an earlier academic freedom ruling against FNUC. In spring 2005, indigenous studies professor Blair Stonechild’s invitation to an Assembly of First Nations conference at the university was rescinded without cause. Stonechild requested that the university president raise the issue at a board of governors meeting, but his invitation was not reinstated due to Watson’s opposition.

“Watson demonstrated personal irritation or antagonism toward Stonechild, all seemingly associated with the events that began to unfold on Feb. 17, 2005. He linked his feelings about Stonechild to the question on the table concerning the symposium. This meeting ended with no decision having taken place regarding the matter raised in Stonechild’s letter,’’ Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Ross Wimmer told the Leder-Post.

University of Regina Faculty Association Executive Director Patricia Fleming, whose organization brought the case against FNUC, recalls the February meeting and says that Stonechild never said anything inappropriate. “I was personally at the meeting, and Blair Stonechild categorically did not make a derogatory statement towards the chairman of the board,” she said. She claimed many professors at FNUC are choosing not to speak up for fear of retaliation, something she calls “self-censorship.”

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