Posted on January 29, 2010

Funding Questions Put Aboriginal-Run University in Peril

Elizabeth Church and Patrick White, Globe and Mail (Toronto), January 28, 2010

The country’s only aboriginal-run university may have its funding cut off within days, throwing into question the future of a once-celebrated institution that opened seven years ago with a lavish royal reception.

Advanced Education Minister Rob Norris said today that provincial funding to the First Nations University of Canada is in “significant jeopardy” in light of damning allegations against its senior administration by a former financial officer.

“These allegations are serious, troubling and disturbing,” Mr. Norris said. “Students are being served very poorly. It’s safe to say that public funding from the province sits at some significant jeopardy. We are keeping all options open save one: the status quo.”

If the province cancels its funding–between $4-million and $5-million annually–the federal government would likely follow suit, halting the $7.3-million it is expected to provide the institution this year, according to a regional spokesman for the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.

On Wednesday night, Mr. Norris met with officials from the University of Regina, which grants all FNUC degrees, to ensure that displaced students would be accommodated at the larger school should the aboriginal-run institution shut down.

The current crisis came to the forefront this week with allegations of financial mismanagement by the school’s former chief financial officer. Murray Westerlund, who left the university in December, has filed a wrongful dismissal suit that claims senior administrators and staff received thousands of dollars in payments for unused leave. In a report to the school’s audit committee before his departure, Mr. Westerlund also drew attention to questionable expense claims for trips to Las Vegas, Montreal and Hawaii.

This is not the first time accusations of financial mismanagement have surfaced at the school, which has suffered a string of setbacks over the part five years following a sweep of senior staff by its board of directors.

The school has been strongly criticized by faculty groups for what they see as political interference at the university by the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. Most of the university’s board members are appointed by Saskatchewan’s tribal councils.

Jim Turk, president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, which has placed the school under censure, said repeated attempts by his group to meet with Native leaders and discuss reforms have led nowhere. “It is really sad to see that all of the concerns we had continue,” he said.

“At the end of the day the only way this place can be saved is if the SFIN cleans it up,” he said. “The provincial and the federal governments can cut off funding. They can bring the place down, but the only ones who can fix the problem is the FSIN.”

Second-year business major Cadmus Delorme, the spokesman for the students’ association, said students are outraged by the allegations and are anxious for actions to be taken.

“We are getting tired of waiting,” he said Wednesday before a meeting with the education minister. Mr. Delorme said enrolment at the school has dropped because of the uncertainty and it has been difficult to attract and keep faculty. “Our fear is that the damaged this has caused will set this place back 20 years,” he said. “This is a place that has so much potential. There is room here for so much more.”