[Editor's note: Young Aboriginals in Canada, a fast-growing group, have their gaze set on taking expanding roles in realms such as politics and the economy. But most of those roles require a post-secondary education. With mainstream university settings clearly falling short, this series by Tyee Solutions Society reporter Katie Hyslop looks at some unconventional institutions or programs which have set out to deliver post-secondary-level instruction, with a clearly indigenous voice. Find the series so far here.]
If you want to earn a university degree from a Canadian institution that integrates First Nations culture and ways of knowing into every class, rather than cordoning it off into one or two departments, First Nations University of Canada isn't just your best option -- it's your only one.
Located on three campuses in Regina, Saskatoon, and Prince Albert and operating on a smaller scale in several First Nations communities across Saskatchewan, First Nations University (FNUC) offers many of the courses you'd find at any comprehensive university: social work, business, fine arts, education, and of course, indigenous studies. But rather than tacking on some facts about first peoples, its courses are designed from the ground up for indigenous ways of knowing and learning.
"We focus on incorporating indigenous languages, cultures, history and worldview into our curriculum, as well as into the day to day activities at our university," FNUC's acting president, Juliano Tupone, told The Tyee Solutions Society.
"You can do a degree in business administration at our university, and while you'll learn about accounting and finance and human resources management and marketing, you'll also learn about indigenous concepts and worldviews, as you will with any of our programs."
Although a university in name, FNUC is actually a federated college of the University of Regina. The institution's courses are accredited through that university, and its students are able to complete their degrees with classes from both institutions. FNUC currently has about 750 full-time students, over 90 per cent of them identifying themselves as Aboriginal, and an 82 per cent indigenous faculty.
Started by the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations in 1976 under the name Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, the institution has come a long way from the small space it initially occupied on the University of Regina campus when it began.
Its growth hasn't been without struggle and setbacks, from longstanding allegations of political meddling from the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, to a traumatic withdrawal of funding by the federal and provincial governments in 2010. Against that backdrop, it's something of an academic miracle that FNUC is still around. But more than that, the school is growing.
"You'll never get [anywhere] if you're always looking back," said Brad Bellegarde, vice president, communications, for the First Nations University of Canada Student Association.
"I honestly see that 10 years from now, we're going to be a lot larger than we are now, and held in the highest regard with regards to indigenous education."
Growing towards credibility
Alexander Blair Stonechild was the first professor hired by the original Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, in 1976. After earned his undergraduate degree at Quebec's McGill University, Stonechild was moving home to Saskatchewan from a teaching position at Manitou Community College in La Macaza, Quebec, when he received the new institution's job offer.
Stonechild remembers his first class at the fledgling university had only eight students. "We were brand new, we didn't have any history of students. It wasn't like there was any cohort waiting to come in," he says now.
The initial academic focus, at the direction of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations elders at the time, was the reclamation of indigenous identity and culture, an emphasis on indigenous history, and discussion of land and treaty rights, Stonechild recalled, "because those were very much in jeopardy at the time."
For many years, he led its Indian Studies Department at the Regina campus. But as the years went on, the school expanded its course offerings, and in 1989, Stonechild became its first academic dean.
Acting-president Tupone was among the students who passed through its halls. A member of the Sweetgrass Nation, Tupone remembers being one of many children who accompanies their parents to classes in the early years after the school had opened its Saskatoon campus in 1981.
"At that time our Saskatoon campus was probably just one or two small floors in a small office building downtown," he said. It "was a very family-friendly, supportive environment."
His family association with the college eventually drew Tupone back in the mid-1990s to complete his certificate in indigenous business administration, a partnership between the college and the University of Saskatchewan's College of Commerce.
The era saw growing enrolments for the fledgling school, but it also brought big challenges, not the least to its academic credibility. "We had to not only master the knowledge of our own people -- understanding our own history and culture -- but also we had to master the white man's world," said Stonechild.
Many observers compared the school's situation to that of black colleges in the United States, which were also struggling to be taken seriously. "Part of the motto of our college back then was bilingual, bicultural education," Stonechild remembers. "It was an ambitious vision. We had to be the best in both arenas."
Another challenge was responding to the expanding needs of First Nations communities. In addition to its three campuses, the college was offering programs like teacher education or social work on reserves. Unionization of its faculty added more tension: the movement was viewed with skepticism by college administrators who thought it would undermine First Nations control of First Nations education.
Outside efforts to influence administrators created a further issue. Georges Sioui, who succeeded Stonechild as academic dean in 1992, recalls that he often received inappropriate requests from higher ups: "Things like 'My wife would make a much better teacher than this one that you have hired in that department,' [or] 'My son would deserve much better marks than that. Can you do something about it?' I would always say no, of course, and they would say, 'We've hired you guys to look after the interests of our people. If you don't we'll know what to do about you.'"
Sioui says he holds no grudges against those leaders of the time. Instead, he places the blame squarely on the province and the federal governments which, he says, underfunded the school.
"[The school is] a very beautiful, great experiment, educationally," Sioui said. "But there needs to be a vision shared by governments and people that control the money, and it was never really there. We were always scrounging for funds to do what we set out to do, and the needs were so much greater than the resources.
"We were not backed up by the governments, we never had the support. Basically, [it was] discrimination and racism."
Sioui left the school in 1996, after a year of educational leave. Although he says he had the "support and friendship of everybody" at the school itself, he says he grew tired of deflecting pressure from its Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations sponsors to award jobs or tenure. Sioui now coordinates the Aboriginal studies program at the University of Ottawa.
The Tyee Solutions Society made several attempts to secure an interview with the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations about its relationship with the college, but was eventually informed by a communications representative that vice-chief Bobby Cameron was not answering emails regarding the request.
Name change a game changer
The 10 years that followed were relatively scandal-free for the school, which changed its name in 2003 to First Nations University of Canada. Although technically it remained a federated affiliate of the University of Regina, the new name lent the institution a credibility it had previously lacked.
The name change coincided with the unveiling of a new campus in the provincial capital designed by First Nations architect Douglas Cardinal, whose other credits include National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Que. Then-prime minister Jean Chretien and Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex, attended the ribbon-cutting.
But tensions between faculty and the school's administration resurfaced in February, 2005, when Morley Watson, then-college board chair and Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations vice-chief in charge of education, fired two senior administrators and suspended another over the results of a forensic audit.
Over the following months more faculty and staff were fired or quit, to be replaced by Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations appointments. Stonechild says his own academic freedom was violated during that time, when he was removed from the presenters list at a conference held at the university because administrators feared what he would say about it.
"It wasn't easy," he recalled of the period. "There was a lot of tension in the air. I think there was some split within the faculty itself as to whether or not [they should] support what the chiefs were wanting, which is the politicized board, despite the type of internal problems it was creating."
At one point the board of governors for a university with less than 700 full-time students ballooned to 29 people, all Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations appointees.
Censured and de-funded
Ultimately the turmoil brought critical notice from the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), which serves as Canada's unofficial national post-secondary accreditation board. In May, 2007, the AUCC put the school on probation for the 2005 firings. It gave the school a year to distance itself from the federation in order to lift the probation.
By 2008, FNUC had met that requirement. But the Canadian Association of University Teachers remained dissatisfied and chose to censure the school. That meant that its member academics were discouraged from accepting jobs or speaking engagements at the university until the censure was lifted.
As a First Nations post-secondary institution, FNUC is funded mainly through Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, which provides funding for status first nation and Inuit students, and the province of Saskatchewan, which provides funding for its non-status students.
Unlike other public universities in Canada, FNUC receives no funding from any level of government for capital expenses or for research, outside of occasional special-purpose grants. In addition, its funding from the federal government has been capped since 1996 at a two per cent annual increase.
Then in February, 2009, the provincial government froze $200,000 of FNUC's funding because of a lack of progress resolving its internal issues. By March, half of that funding was restored, but in June the federal government withheld $2.4 million from the university for the same reason.
By 2010 it looked like the university might be headed for bankruptcy. Dissatisfied with the lack of change in the university's board and administration, Saskatchewan announced in February that year that it would not provide FNUC the $5.4 million in funding it was expecting. The federal government was threatening to defund the university altogether, by withdrawing its $7.2 million in annual funding as well.
"I never would have imagined that it would have sunk to the depths that it did where our funding was totally withdrawn," said Stonechild. "When the federal cabinet makes a decision, that's usually the end of the story. I think a lot of us thought that it was the end of the dream."
But it was not. To the "surprise and shock" of Stonechild and others, the province, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, University of Regina, and FNUC signed a memorandum of understanding in March 2010 handing administrative and financial control over the floundering university to the University of Regina. Shortly after, both the federal and provincial governments restored FNUC's funding in full.
In a twist of fate, it may be the school's near-death experience that accounts in part for its current vitality.
Brad Bellegarde wasn't enrolled at the university when its funding was in jeopardy. But he attend events there with friends from the school, including a "live-in" that students at the Regina campus staged for over two months in spring 2010 to pressure governments to re-fund the university.
"There were marches with all the students, elders, and First Nation community members from all across Saskatchewan that were supporting the institution, and there were hundreds of people that would march down Albert Street, the main drag of Regina," he recalled.
It was the sense of solidarity and camaraderie the events evoked that drew Bellegarde to enroll in FNUC's Indian Communication Arts program the following January.
"I would see how much a community it was, in comparison to anything else," said the 35-year-old member of Saskatchewan's Little Black Bear First Nation. "You'd see students living together [in the protest occupation] for three, four weeks -- a month, two months, it's pretty impressive."
Despite the years of controversy, Bellegarde isn't worried about history repeating itself. The university has made changes, fulfilling recommendations made in reports that dated as far back as 2005, including reducing its board members down to nine people.
Although the board is still selected by the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, there are several restrictions in the provincial First Nations University of Canada Act of 2010 which is designed to prevent the federation from exercising undue influence, including a prohibition on the appointment of current politicians to the board.
As FNUC's acting president Tupone explains: "We went from a very large, political, appointed board, to a board made up of professional volunteers. It's also a national board, we have representation from all across the country.
"We have three lawyers on our board; we have the former vice president of the Royal Bank of Canada; we have an educator who is a dean at the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology, who is also an alumnus of our university; we have a governance expert; [and] a former manager of the prairie region for the National Centre for First Nations Governance."
Student enrollment has also increased. Where numbers had dropped as low as 670 full-time students in 2010, down from a peak of 1,150 in 2005, they've recovered in the 2013-14 academic year to 750 full-time enrollees, a 15 per cent increase since 2011.
Roughly 4,000 outside students, from the University of Regina or other affiliated institutions, also take part-time courses at the federated college, including a significant number of international and exchange students.
"They really like the smaller environment, they like the supports, they like the sense of community, they like our small classrooms, and they feel they get that attention that they might not get in a lecture hall with 500 students," said Lynn Wells, FNUC's vice president academic.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the federated college's name change to First Nations University of Canada. The administration is marking the occasion by developing an academic strategic plan that Wells says will include "some program prioritization. And the will for that will come from the faculty themselves and from the students, to hear what program areas we want grown [and] what program areas we may not proceed in, in the future."
FNUC's board has also hired West Vancouver's Geldart Firm to find a suitable candidate to be its new permanent president. (Tupone, who joined FNUC as vice president of finance administration in 2011, took on his acting role last April, after former president Doyle Anderson stepped down for family reasons.) He or she is expected to take the institution's reins by September 2014.
Not everyone applauds the current restructuring. Critics feel the University of Regina's stewardship of the federated college has weakened First Nations' control of First Nations' education.
Stonechild, who still teaches at FNUC, disagrees, arguing that First Nations continue to create and operate their own academic programs there. Moreover, he says, full independence for the school isn't realistic right now. "We have many advantages being federated with the university," he said, "especially access to some of their administrative systems like registration and the various services they have like graduate studies.
"Under the original treaties that were signed, they talked about partnerships, about working together in partnerships. My sense of much of our history here has been one of a very cooperative and fruitful relationship between the University of Regina and our university, and I think that's a large part of the reason why it was so successful, especially in its early stages."
FNUC may still be some way from achieving complete autonomy under its current arrangement. But stricter controls overseen by the University of Regina have helped restore its damaged credibility, giving indigenous students their own place to receive a university education that honours their identity both inside and outside the classroom.
Tomorrow: A view inside a unique indigenous post-secondary centre, north of 60.