A Beginning and an Ending, FNUC and mediaINDIGENA

In 1976, two major events happened.

The first, my birth, went largely unnoticed — except of course by my parents and family.  Now, thirty-four years later, I join with the other members of mediaINDIGENA in another “birth” of sorts — one that we hope won’t go unnoticed.

Here’s to a fair and balanced conversation beginning among us and with all of you.  I hope it is one that is meaningful, spirited, and wide-ranging — reflective of the divergent and complex opinions existent in Indian Country.

But, as they say, with beginnings come endings.

The other event – much more significant – was the apex of a movement called ‘Indian Control of Indian Education,’ signified by the passage of the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College Act by the Legislative Assembly of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (and soon after by the Province of Saskatchewan Non-Profit Corporations Act).

Envisioned by elders in First Nations communities throughout Saskatchewan, SIFC began that first year with nine students, offering a Bachelor of Arts Program in Indian Studies within the Faculty of Arts at the University of Regina. The original stated intent of SIFC was to serve “the academic, cultural and spiritual needs of First Nations’ students.”

In subsequent years, SIFC received funding from all levels of government — federal, provincial, municipal — to deliver its programming in the hopes of facilitating leaders versed in Indigenous traditional and contemporary educational lifeways.  In 2003, the College had expanded to campuses in Regina, Saskatoon, and Prince Albert and extended its vision and programming so much it became the First Nations University of Canada (FNUC), the only First Nations-controlled university in Canada. By 2005, over a thousand students — most of whom were Cree, Saulteaux, Sioux and from many other Native nations — were enrolled.

Then on February 17, 2005, as Winona Wheeler (dean of the Saskatoon Campus at the time) and Denise Henning (Vice-President Academic at the time) explain, a “reign of terror” began.

The day begins with the smell of bacon, sausages and pancakes cooking on the grill outside the new First Nations University of Canada (FNUC) Regina Campus building designed by Douglas Cardinal. The atrium is packed with students, staff and community members participating in the annual Winter Festival. The high spirits and laughter are slowly quelled, however, when news arrives that the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) vice-chief, Morley Watson, has taken over the campus.

Watson was acting in his capacity as chair of FNUC’s Board of Governors when he and his entourage of security guards, personal supporters, a locksmith and a few chiefs stormed the FNUC executive office. He promptly suspended three senior officials and launched a forensic financial audit based on “evidence” housed in a “sealed envelope,” which he refused to show anyone until months later. Simultaneously all seven finance and four human resources staff members were evicted, the downtown international and special programs office staffs were dragged out, and strangers with four portable hard drives invaded the technology area and copied the central server drive containing faculty records, research and e-mails, and student records. Once emptied, the office locks were changed.

The coup d’état played out like a Movie Channel sci-fi flick, Vice-Chief Watson yelling out orders to the executive assistants, dragging staff members to the board room and lining them up for questioning in a manner reminiscent of a sentencing court in a Third World dictatorship. Three FSIN political appointees were immediately installed to replace the three suspended senior officials, and the reign of terror began.

Afterward, a series of seemingly dubious fires and questionable hires, Big Brother-like monitoring of emails and files (including faculty and student records), and reports identifying an inappropriately over-inflated Board of Directors followed. This is not to mention, of course, the carrying out of inappropriate (and later identified as illegal) disciplinary actions for anyone who spoke out.

Soon after, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) put FNUC on probation, requiring the university to overhaul its governance ties with FSIN.  After seemingly cleaning up and receiving reinstatement by AUCC in 2008, the past two years have been a tsunami of controversy for FNUC, a laundry list of dirty and corrupt Indian politics and governance practices, including:

And, while officials of the university are claiming FNUC is being “picked on” by the provincial and federal governments, the allegations of impropriety continue.

Then, yesterday:

The provincial government has cut funding to the First Nations University of Canada — calling the problems there “deep and structural” — in a move that casts serious doubt on the institution’s future survival.

“This government has lost confidence in First Nations University. This chapter has come to a close,” Advanced Education Minister Rob Norris said late Wednesday afternoon after emerging from a cabinet meeting at the legislature.

The decision means the government won’t give the university $5.2 million in the upcoming provincial budget.

But Norris said he is retaining control over some additional funds so students can finish the current academic term as well as complete upcoming summer courses. All provincial funding to the university will wrap up by August 2010.

As a former professor at FNUC (2006), and someone who witnessed first hand many of these grievances, it pains me to see this great school — a place where three+ decades of Native hope and vision towards sovereignty — come to this.  Education is a critical part of an Indian future, and we need places like FNUC to make this a reality for ourselves and our people.

As someone too who has spent most of his career interested in decolonization strategies and initiatives, it’s important to realize that it is not simply enough to “have control” of our lives and institutions.  True self-determination must come with responsible leadership, accountability, and ethics tied to values determined by our communities, histories, and intellectual traditions.  Focusing on these qualities and embedding them in the struggles of everyday Indigenous life are very much necessary parts of how Indigenous sovereignty will be actualized.

And, while the removal of funding is not colonialism, the discourses and actions that have led up to this situation at FNUC (and remain still in operation) have legacies of colonialism stamped all over it.  We all live with these legacies, and some better than others. While governments, bureaucrats and zhaaganashag certainly can carry some of the blame for what happened at FNUC, much of the blame should be placed on Indian shoulders. Sometimes our hardest struggles as Indigenous peoples are with the peoples in our own communities.  While not perfect, they need to be held to respectful standards of behaviour.

Some we could start with are:

  • Honesty
  • Humility
  • Love
  • Bravery
  • Respect
  • Wisdom
  • Truth

We can do better.  We will do better.  And, hopefully, we can bring along those who need to do better.  That’s our responsibility as living, active Indigenous peoples — as it has been before for our grandparents, as it will be for our children.

Just like I hope my own, and others, participation in mediaINDIGENA will be.  So, here’s to more major events, and more beginnings then endings.


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