Saturday, March 20, 2010

Four Friends - Save the First Nations University of Canada

I have written previously about the continuing crisis at the First Nations University of Canada. In the aftermath of my post (though in no way due to my mere scribblings), there was significant progress.

The Chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, with the assistance of several bright and articulate First Nations youth, managed to persuade the majority of chiefs finally to take action to address the corrupt mismanagement of the institution. The cumbersome governance structure has been overhauled and a proper board appointed. Senior management whose conduct was under question were placed on leave. An agreement in principle has been made with the University of Regina to take over financial management functions at FNU, at least until financial confidence can be restored. A formal memorandum of understanding is being worked out.

It is unfortunate that it took the provincial government's threat to cut off funding to spark these essential actions, but so be it. I'm concerned that Advanced Education Minister Rob Norris is refusing to commit to the renewal of funding prior to the agreement with the UofR being finalized. Given the past record of the institution, I admit to understanding the Minister's reluctance. However, even making such a commitment conditional on the UofR-FNU agreement would be, in my mind, a gesture of good faith.

What I find wholly unforgivable is the arrogant intrasigence of the federal government. To date, Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl has made it clear that he will not consider restoring FNU funding under any circumstances. To me, this simply stinks of the same kind of racism that has marked the Department of Indian Affairs since its inception.

At the same time as they refuse to commit $7 million to support a First Nations educational institution, the Harper Conservatives are proposing a 43% increase in spending to build new prisons. That's 43% more than last year. It's a 272% increase over what was spent before Harper came to power. As the Toronto Star puts it: Tough on crime but soft on logic.

These aren't unconnected. There is a strong link between educational attainment and educational opportunity on the one hand and crimnality on the other. Clearly Stephen Harper and Chuck Strahl prefer having First Nations and Métis people over-represented in our prisons and under-represented in education and the economy. No, nothing racist about that, surely.

University of Regina President Vianne Timmons will appear before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development next week. As a member of the University Senate, I have received an advance copy of her speaking notes. Please consider this story about the effect if FNUC is forced to close.

Let me share one story. In Saskatoon I met a faculty member from First Nations University, a Cree woman my age. She is very close to completing her Ph.D. She is the sole provider for her grandchildren. This pulling of funding will mean she will not be able to afford to complete her degree, and will likely lose her home. She is terribly afraid, because she knows the impact this will have on her grandchildren. There are many more such stories.

Without federal government support for First Nations University, any gains made over the past 34 years will be lost – and lost forever. Fewer Aboriginal learners will realize the benefits of post-secondary education, and Canada will be a less inclusive society as a result. That is not what I want for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students alike, and it is not what I want for your and my grandchildren.

Finally, please watch this video which has been created by several students and friends of the First Nations University of Canada. For my Canadian readers, please consider going to the website they mention and writing to the Prime Minister, the Indian Affairs Minister and your Member of Parliament.

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