Sask eliminates funding to First Nations University

After years of allegations of fraud, financial irregularities and executive firings, the government has had enough.

The Saskatchewan government has cut funding to the First Nations University of Canada, saying that it has lost confidence in the embattled school.

Advanced Education Minister Rob Norris announced Wednesday that the province will no longer provide $5.2 million in funding starting in 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,” Norris told reporters after the decision was made at a provincial cabinet meeting.

“This government has lost confidence in First Nations University. This chapter has come to a close.” Norris added that “the cloud that has consumed this institution is actually beginning to tarnish the reputation of post-secondary education in Saskatchewan.”

The First Nations University has been under a cloud of controversy for five years. There have been ongoing issues with the way the school is managed and more recently allegations of financial irregularities. A wrongful dismissal suit filed by Murray Westerlund, a former financial officer at the university, alleges there were questionable travel expenses and paid vacation time. A financial audit has been ordered and is to be completed by March.

But the governance problems have going on much for longer. They erupted back in 2005 when a Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations vice-chief, who was also chairman of the board of governors at the school, 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 an all-chiefs task force that recommended governance changes, but they were never implemented.

The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada put the university on probation in 2007. Probation 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.”

A provincially funded operational review said in January 2009 that the school needed a smaller, less politicized board and called for changes. The problems have led to a drop in enrolment and the dismissal or resignation of more than one-third of academic staff and about half of the administrative, professional and technical employees.

Clarence Bellegarde, chairman of the university’s board of governors, could not be reached Wednesday. Bellegarde has asked for patience while the school works through its problems. He said last Friday that people need to wait for the outcome of the audit and a governance review. The review was due last fall but it was pushed back to the end of January and now won’t be ready until mid-February.

Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations chiefs were holding their winter assembly in Saskatoon on Wednesday and were not immediately available to comment on the funding cut. A Regina-based spokesman for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada said the federal government — which provides the aboriginal university with about $7.2 million annually — is still assessing the impact of the province’s funding cut. Ottawa is also holding back $1.2 million from the funding because it’s waiting for the governance review.

Students, who met with Norris at the Saskatchewan legislature last week, say they don’t want to lose their school. Norris wouldn’t speculate on the survival of the school, which was once touted as being able to provide education for the future that would revive what the buffalo meant to past generations. Renewal at this stage may not be enough because “the challenges associated with institution are so deep and structural,” he suggested.

The minister said the students will finish their school year and a support team is being created to help address their concerns and questions going forward.

“We think the students have already been negatively affected, frankly they deserve better than they’ve been receiving, and our goal today is to ensure that the students actually have a much brighter future and clearer future,” said Norris.

The First Nations University is partnered with the University of Regina and Norris said contingency plans are in the works. The University of Regina has planned a news conference for Thursday.

The Canadian Press

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