Native tradition and modern ambition

November 11, 2005

Amid controversy at Canada's only aboriginal-run university, First Nations student numbers are booming. But problems such as prejudice and lack of funding persist. Philip Fine reports

Hundreds of people - among them politicians, aboriginal elders and even Prince Edward - witnessed the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College become the First Nations University of Canada (FNUC) in 2003. The 1,200-student college in Regina made a name for itself with programmes such as First Nations Community Nursing and the Indigenous Centre for International Development, which had signed agreements with other aboriginal peoples.

But in February 2005, the chairman of the FNUC's board of governors, Morley Watson, came into that same building and seized confidential computer hard drives. He suspended the university's new president and two other senior administrators for allegedly playing fast and loose with travel budgets.

The man who carried out the suspensions - and the subsequent firing of the president - is also the vice-chief of the First Nations authority of the province. Many have compared this level of political interference to an education minister coming into a university and firing senior staff. Now a task force is to try to settle what is seen as a governance problem, and to answer charges of repressing academic freedom. The university seems to be trying to win back respectability in the eyes of its critics, which include the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

But the saga at the FNUC - the country's only aboriginal-run university - is only part of the story. Education tailored to and on the subject of Canada's aboriginal population has been growing at a pace that gives hope to First Nations people who have been disappointed with the FNUC.

General enrolment numbers across Canada are impressive. Aboriginal participation rates have increased faster than among the general Canadian population. Figures from the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation show that the number of First Nations students enrolled at Canadian colleges and universities grew from 4,100 in the late 1970s to almost 26,000 by 2003.

Canada has close to a dozen university departments of native studies. These include smaller liberal arts institutions such as Trent University, which offers 50 native studies courses; large universities such as McGill, which has recently unveiled an endowment for indigenous studies; and the University of Saskatchewan, which has more aboriginal students than the FNUC.

Some 3,600km north of its main campus, the University of Victoria hosts Canada's first Arctic law school - an example of how aboriginal traditions can be incorporated into a university curriculum while keeping students close to their families and their culture.

Eleven students, who all studied in Iqaluit, the capital of the First Nations-administered Canadian territory of Nunavut, graduated last summer.

Victoria law professor John Borrows, who was involved with the project and is from the Anishinabe nation, says that as well as taking standard courses such as constitutional and contractual law, students would welcome lectures on subjects such as the native law of obligation.

Borrows says that programmes such as these can bring university education to a sector of the Canadian population that suffers higher-than-average rates of poverty. But he laments the freezing of the federal Government's aboriginal student assistance programme, against a background of steadily rising tuition fees nationwide. Some of the challenges of enrolment also stem from the way that financial assistance is distributed. Most federal student funding is awarded via individual First Nation bands, and those in poorer areas may wish to address more pressing problems.

"The decisions are at the discretion of the band. So they may end up deciding to invest more in secondary education," says Burrows, adding that there are now more aboriginal students taking out loans. But like other poorer Canadians, they are shocked when they see the cost of student fees and living expenses.

There are hopes that the task force investigating the FNUC's troubles may throw some light on aboriginal higher education as a whole. Besides the governance issue, the FNUC has experienced both a whiff of racism in statements directed at qualified First Nations faculty and punitive measures against some of those who make their complaints public. FNUC faculty member Blair Stonechild says: "University education has to be broad-based."

He says that aboriginal-run institutions should concentrate more on simply offering quality programmes. He adds that it has to be accepted that there is a basic charter by which all Canadian universities have to abide, no matter who they are serving.
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