First Nations University funding under threat

Financial irregularities, governance problems continue to plague the embattled institution

The Saskatchewan government’s warning that it could cut off funding to the First Nations University of Canada within days has put the future of the embattled school in question and left students hoping that it will survive.

“We love our institution and we don’t want to lose it,” said Cadmus Delorme, with the First Nations University of Canada Student Association. “We’d like to see it stay within First Nations/Indian education, but if that’s not working today, then we want assurance that it’s going to be there tomorrow. If it has to have other institutions come in and take it over for a while, then let it be.”

Delorme was among six students who met Thursday evening with Advanced Education Minister Rob Norris. It was Norris who said earlier in the day that he expects a decision soon about whether to continue supporting the aboriginal university in light of ongoing governance problems and allegations of financial irregularities. “It would be accurate to say that there is significant jeopardy regarding public funding for First Nations University,” said Norris.

The province has been patient, Norris said, but it is concerned that a report on how to fix governance at the school is late. It was supposed to be submitted by the end of January, but now won’t be ready until mid-February.

“Quite simply, that’s not acceptable for us,” Norris said. “We know what needs to be done. We know that the board needs to be reconstituted. We know it needs to be a smaller board and there are opportunities for the creation of something like a senate … This was to be a blueprint of how to get there.” Norris suggested the fact the report isn’t ready “reinforces to me (that) the prospects for governance change continue to drag on.”

There are also worries about new allegations of financial irregularities, the minister said. A wrongful dismissal suit filed by Murray Westerlund, a former financial officer of the aboriginal university, alleges there were questionable travel expenses and paid vacation time. An internal audit has been ordered and is to be completed by March.

Norris said $675,000 in conditional funding won’t flow to the school until the allegations are resolved. But the big debate is around funding for the next school year — the province provides about $4 million to $5 million in annual support.

The federal government provides the aboriginal school with about $7.2 million annually. However, there are conditions on a portion of that funding and Ottawa is still holding back $1.2 million.

“The $1.2 million is dependent on two reports that FNUC still has to submit to us. The first one is a report on governance and the second is a comprehensive action plan,” said Rod Desnomie, a Regina-based spokesman for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. “We have not received those yet.”

The governance report was due Nov. 30 and the action plan was due Jan. 1. Desnomie says the money won’t flow until the reports are submitted, reviewed and accepted by Indian and Northern Affairs.

There have been longstanding concerns with how the Regina-based university is run and questions about academic freedom and political interference from the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. The federation was not immediately available for comment Thursday.

But in a news release issued this week after the Westerlund allegations came to light, federation Chief Guy Lonechild said he was deeply concerned. Lonechild said his primary concern is for the students who have said they’re worried about the school’s administration. First Nations University board chairman Clarence Bellegarde said last March that without provincial funding, the university would have to cut some services.

A university spokeswoman wouldn’t comment Thursday. Tina Pelletier said she had not yet heard the remarks made by Norris and the school needed more information. A memo from the university’s board of governors that was sent earlier this week to students, staff, faculty and other stakeholders said an information session would be held Friday.

Norris said the government’s priority is the academic success of the students. He held an emergency meeting Wednesday night with officials from the University of Regina — which is partnered with the aboriginal university — to discuss contingency plans to help students “if and as required.”

“We don’t want the students to be caught in any way by this uncertainty,” said Norris, who added students will finish their semester regardless of what happens over the next few days.

Problems first erupted in 2005 when a federation vice-chief who was chairman of the board of governors suspended several senior administrators, seized the university’s central computers and copied the hard drive with all faculty and student records. The federation set up a task force that recommended proper governance and operating procedures be restored at the school. The recommendations were never implemented.

That led the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada to put the university on probation in 2007. That was lifted in 2008, but later that year the Canadian Association of University Teachers voted to censure the school for “its ongoing failure to resolve the serious problems with the governance of the university.” It was the first time in nearly 30 years that the group imposed censure.

In January 2009, the leaked findings from a provincially funded operational review said the struggling school needed a smaller, less politicized board and called for changes. The ongoing problems have led to the dismissal or resignation of more than one-third of academic staff and about half of the administrative, professional and technical employees. The university has also seen a drop in enrolment. In October 2008, the school needed a $1.6 million bailout from the Saskatchewan government to help cover mounting costs.

Delorme said he hoped Norris could help bring about positive change for the school, which the student acknowledged is desperately needed. But despite the allegations of financial mismanagement and the governance issue, Delorme said he wasn’t concerned about the future of his education. “We’ve been assured every person that has say in our institution that our education is number one. Our diplomas will be recognized,” he said.

The Canadian Press