We’ve heard it all before. A worthy government-First Nations endeavour is in jeopardy; native leaders blatantly refuse to be accountable and any good that might have come from the project thus far will be undone unless the government restores funding. As the infamous Yogi Berra once said, “it’s deja vu all over again.”
This time the focus is on the First Nations University of Canada (FNUC). It started as an affiliated college with the University of Regina in 1976, with the intent of serving “the academic, cultural and spiritual needs of First Nations’ student.” In 2003, it morphed into its own native-run university and the Queen herself was present to open its new home—a spectacular $27-million building designed by renowned native architect Douglas Cardinal.
But less than two years later, FNUC had a $2-million shortfall and the board of governors had evicted staff members, fired a vice-president and seized computer hard-drives while commissioning an audit. A task force was established to evaluate the situation and make recommendations that would bring FNUC’s overly politicized governance and questionable operating procedures up to university standards. The recommendations were widely acclaimed, yet ignored, and allegations of financial impropriety have been ongoing ever since.
In 2006, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada put FNUC on probation. That status remains today.
In 2008, the Canadian Association of University Teachers voted unanimously to censure FNUC and its members were asked to not accept jobs, awards or any academic association with the university.
In December 2009, FNUC fired its CFO after he submitted reports suggesting there had been inappropriate and extravagant spending (including questionable expenses for trips to Hawaii and Las Vegas) by university officials. He has now launched a wrongful dismissal lawsuit.
This month, the federal and provincial governments decided enough is enough and announced that all funding for the university will be cut off by April 1. That’s when FNUC dissolved its board of governors and created a new board that supposedly met the standards that should have been implemented five years ago. But questions about individuals on the new board remain and there are reports that the old board is refusing to surrender control and about to launch a lawsuit.
In other words, chaos remains. As long as board members are more intent on playing politics than doing what is best for their students, that won’t change.
Even a change in leadership and a determination to maintain standard university procedures won’t save this doomed institution. Nor, contrary to the outcry of students and university officials, will more government money.
That’s because the real issue that inhibits its success is skin colour, and I don’t mean to say that in any discriminatory or racist way. I mean that it is time to stop treating aboriginals as separate people. The very idea that aboriginals can only succeed (in academics, life and in maintaining their unique culture) if they are separated from mainstream culture is fundamentally wrong. A First Nations university only perpetuates the idea that aboriginals can only be understood by, empathized with and represented by other aboriginals.
If that’s true, then individual differences are truly dictated by the colour of one’s skin, rather than one’s character—and that’s the polar opposite of Martin Luther King’s dream.
It’s government-sponsored segregation. Such policies supposedly died in the 1960s and ‘70s as we learned that cultural identity isn’t found through segregation; it’s found and strengthened through integration. So why return to failed policies and ideas?
Granted, for a variety of reasons, aboriginals have faced years of discrimination and cultural/ educational disadvantages. For years, many of their problems were caused by a flawed system that tried to isolate aboriginals rather than integrate them into society. But it’s time to move on and, in this case, recognize that selfish native leaders are the source of FNUC’s problems, not a lack of government funding.
Author and researcher Shelby Steele famously encouraged blacks to “begin the shift from . . . fighting for opportunity to the seizing of it.” The opportunity exists for natives to make FNUC work and prove me wrong. Until then, I’ll continue to call for education policies based on integration.