Feds refuse to fund First Nations U despite changes

Canada’s only Aboriginal university may face insolvency by end of the month

Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl says that the federal government will not restore funding to First Nations University despite significant changes made to the institution. Supporters of the university met with Strahl in Ottawa on Thursday to plead their case.

“I did meet with the First Nations University delegation today,” Strahl told the House of Commons. “I repeated our position that the current funding formula for First Nations University ends as of March 31.” Teachers, students and Aboriginal leaders who met with Stahl said that he turned down their request for the federal government to reinstate $7.2 million in federal funding.

First Nations University (FNU) has been facing an uncertain future since January when the government of Saskachewan threatened to cut off funding because of financial irregularities and governance problems. In early February the provincial government announced it would no longer provide $5.2 million in annual funding starting this April. “For years, there has been uncertainty swirling around this institution. Instead of getting better, frankly most recently we’ve seen the intensification of that trouble,” Advanced Education Minister Rob Norris told reporters after the decision was made at a provincial cabinet meeting.

FNU has been under a cloud of controversy for five years. There have been ongoing issues with the way the school is managed and allegations of financial irregularities. A wrongful dismissal suit filed by Murray Westerlund, a former financial officer at the university who was fired in December 2009, alleges there were questionable travel expenses and paid vacation time. A financial audit has been ordered and is to be completed this month.

Since February, university administrators and Aboriginal leaders have been scrambling to propose a solution that would allow students to continue studying at FNU after the April cutoff. The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations met Monday to discuss recommendations. On Tuesday they handed management of the school’s finances over to the University of Regina and a new management plan was adopted. But, judging by Stahl’s response, the changes came too little too late.

The Saskatchewan government’s position is less clear. Norris congratulated those involved in proposing the changes but made no promises about provincial funding.

FNU may face insolvency by the end of the month unless either government steps up to provide emergency funding. The federal Liberal and NDP opposition parties called for the Conservatives to reinstate funding. Stahl committed to helping Aboriginal students directly, but would not budge on the government’s decision to cut off funds to the institution.

FNU’s financial and governance problems have plagued the university for years. In September 2008 the school announced a deficit of $1.2 million, marking the second year in a row the school was more than $1 million in the red. The announcement came as a surprise as FNU had previously estimated a $100,000 deficit that year.

The year before FNU was put on probation by the Association of Universities and Colleges Canada (AUCC) after allegations that the school wasn’t operating independently of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. AUCC cited concerns about the university’s independence, institutional autonomy, and academic freedom.

The concerns were linked to a 2005 incident when the board of the university fired two administrators (and suspended a third) in connection to a forensic audit. In the months that followed, several high-ranking officials were fired or suspended and others resigned. Senior staff, including one of the fired administrators Wes Stevenson, alleged political interference in the operation of the university by the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations and its vice-chief, Morley Watson.

Stevenson was charged with fraud over $5,000 in June 2008 and his trial is pending. He maintains that he is innocent of any wrongdoing, and said that he is looking forward to his day in court so that he can clear his name.

Although FNUC has since been reinstated to full status with the AUCC, not everyone is convinced that the autonomy problems have been resolved. In 2008, the Canadian Association of University Teachers censured the institution, asking the academic community to boycott it because of alleged limits on academic freedom.

The drama that has been FNU’s finances continued this week when Norris asked Saskatchewan’s Justice Ministry to look into whether a scholarship fund was misused. Of $390,000 that was in the fund a year ago, only $15,000 remains.

A letter sent to Norris by the university’s acting chief operating officer says the money was used for general operating costs during times of low cash flow. The letter says the “inappropriate” use of the trust fund happened under the previous administration.

– with files from CP