First Nations University: Ten Years After

It was just over 10 years ago that the First Nations University of Canada was plunged into a devastating, nearly fatal, and ultimately needless power struggle at the behest of its political overseers. At the time of the takeover, First Nations University of Canada was one of the most respected aboriginal academic institutions in North America and playing an important role in redeveloping aboriginal society. Now, it’s academically and administratively learning to walk all over again.

It’s interesting to note that many of those on the political right in Canada used the FNUC incident as a lesson that aboriginal governments were/are too immature to be trusted with the future of their societies through such institutions. And, in one perspective they’re right. The allegations of corruption at the top of the college’s administration, made by then FSIN vice chief Morely Watson, were a mere MacGuffin (especially considering that in 2009-10, the college nearly foundered on charges of corruption, incompetent spending, and general stupidity by its administration that dwarfed any alleged (or in the case of Wes Stevenson, a charge for which he pleaded guilty) wrongdoing done by the previous administration the FSIN turfed out. And the FSIN went to the wall to defend their hand-picked administrators, who nearly destroyed the college.

No, the takeover was done for one reason only. Watson’s idea had nothing to do with the academic or intellectual health of the institution – it was to make the college a mere cog in the FSIN patronage machine. To do that, Watson and the FSIN had to ‘make their own reality’ – that the college was biased against the Cree of Saskatchewan, that aboriginal control of an aboriginal education meant aboriginal political control of aboriginal education – which is definitely not the same thing. Inventing one’s own reality – unless you’re a fiction writer, which in that case, have at ‘er – is not only dangerous, it’s a sign of delusion, and mental illness.

But inventing one’s own reality, and the efforts people and governments (in particular) make to live in that alternate reality, aren’t limited aboriginal governments. Anybody who’s watched Stephen Harper in action for the past decade would understand that Harper doesn’t live in the real world, where climate change is a reality, where the oil industry doesn’t have a long-term future, where he’s pissed off the leader of the free world, and where governments now run with no real long-term planning except to say that governments now run for the economic and social benefit of corporations, not for the people who elect the government.

And that’s why, when Canadians confront the mess and havoc that the HarperCons have created this country will be in the same kind of crisis that First Nations University of Canada was in during the ugly time of 2009-10. FNUC was saved by the combination of social media and student activism – the kind of activism, led by the FNUC student council, that put the student radicalism of the 1960s to shame. If it wasn’t for the actions of the student council in protesting the corruption at the top, lobbying the provincial government to assist in changing the structure, and telling the people back home that what was happening was going to destroy the institution if the chiefs wouldn’t reform it, and get themselves out of the way in favour of aboriginal people with academic and administrative expertise – FNUC would have been a memory by Christmas 2010.1

Maybe it’s because it’s my birthday, and I am passing into the netherworld of old fogey-ness, but I wonder whether there’s the same kind of grass-roots political will amongst a younger generation of Canadians are willing to do the same with the HarperCons, whose political cronies they appoint to boards are incompetent at their jobs, who regard the words of their Maximum Leader as unalterable law, who destroy and restrict evidence that doesn’t fit into their world view, and who, as far as actually running a government, are not so much over their heads as they are floundering on the bottom of Challenger Deep. And I also wonder why the HarperCons have it in for aboriginal peoples, since the way they run the Canadian government is almost exactly the way they allege band and tribal council governments are run – corrupt, stupid, and not in the best interests of their people.

1. At the FSIN Chiefs’ congress outside of Saskatoon in February 2010, the chiefs initially threatened to pull FNUC out of its funding operations with the federal and provincial governments and pay for it themselves. Given the only thing that has kept the FSIN and some of its member bands anywhere close to financially solvent during that time (and today) has been gambling revenue from the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority – and considering that money’s pretty much spoken for – I can’t imagine anybody in Ottawa or Regina doing anything but laugh when the chiefs made that threat.

Author: Stephen LaRose

2006 winner of the Canadian Association of University Teachers's Award of Excellence in Journalism for a bunch of prairie dog stuff. Invited into the best homes in Regina. Once.