Former FNUC exec will go to trial

Wesley Stevenson charged with fraud of more than $5,000

Wesley Stevenson, accused of defrauding First Nations University of Canada of more than $5,000, will get his day in court, after a three-day preliminary hearing held this week, the Regina Leader Post reports. The university’s governance problems stretch back several years, prompting several audits and independent reviews.  Troubles continue to this day.

In 2005, Stevenson, a former financial executive, and two other senior officials at the university were suspended and the university’s board of governors ordered a forensic audit of the school’s finances. He and another official were eventually fired, while the third returned to work. In the months that followed, several high-ranking officials were fired or suspended and others resigned. Stevenson was officially charged by the RCMP in June of last year.

Senior staff, including Stevenson, alleged political interference in the operation of the university by the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations and its vice-chief, Morley Watson.

The concerns over academic freedom and political interference in the autonomous governance of the university prompted the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) to conduct an independent review of the university in 2007 and to place the institution’s membership in AUCC on probationary status. The university’s full member status has since been reinstated.

In late 2008 the Canadian Association of University Teachers voted to censure FNUC over the university’s governance problems. Censure means that most university teachers will be told to refuse appointments at the university, decline invitations to speak or participate in academic conferences hosted by the university, and turn down any distinctions it offers.

And earlier this year both the Saskatchewan and federal governments suspended funding to the school. The province made the move to freeze $200,000 after an internal report raised concerns about how the Regina-based university is run. An audit committee was established to address the governance issues in a serious way

The $2.4-million that is being held back by Ottawa represents one-third of all Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) funding to the university. INAC has said that university officials must meet various deadlines in the coming months and submit a final “action plan” by Jan. 1, 2010 to trigger a release of the funds. This is the first time the federal department has placed these kinds of conditions on an institution.

The university’s governance problems have persisted. Cheif Financial Officer Murray Westerlund was fired just last week. While the school is claiming that Westerlund’s departure was a mutual agreement, advanced education minister Rob Norris is not buying it and says while the government continues to work with the FNUC to complete the internal audit, it is not sure what action will be taken next.

With files from the Canadian Press and Karen Pinchin