Former FNUniv chair protests the problem he helped create
by Stephen LaRose
Any other time than the noon hour on Feb. 11, it would have the makings of a great news story: more than 250 First Nations University of Canada students and supporters demonstrating in front of the Saskatchewan Legislative Building over the provincial government’s decision to halt FNUniv’s funding — about $5.2 million — beginning in the next fiscal year.
In the middle of the demonstration was someone with a greaser haircut, wraparound shades and a leather jacket looking like a castoff from a dinner-theatre production of Grease.
It was Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Vice-Chief Morley Watson, marching along with the students and a new generation of aboriginal politicians who were trying to undo the damage he initiated.
This was another one of those you-have-gotta-be-freaking-KIDDING-ME moments for anybody covering the Decline and Fall of FNUniv for longer than the late January crisis.
Vice-Chief Watson’s appearance wasn’t the only reason the demonstration had the wind taken out of its sails. About 90 minutes before the first demonstrators arrived — coincidence? — word leaked from the Saskatchewan government on a possible deal that could save the beleaguered institution.
How? Through time travel.
The first break in FNUniv’s fortunes came the previous evening, after the FSIN held a news conference to announce FNUniv’s new board. FSIN Grand Chief Guy Lonechild was getting politically mauled over real and imagined missteps in the announcement. According to one source in the government, he called Advanced Education Minister Rob Norris, saying, in effect: ‘Hey! We removed the old board, for pity’s sake! Now what do you want from us?’
Norris’s response? Get a partner, and the province might — just might — send money through that institution. Call the University of Regina.
Norris not only identified the problem but also the solution to what’s plagued First Nations University for the past five years. The Westerlund report — see the previous prairie dog (now conveniently online at www.prairiedogmag.com!) — illustrated major problems in FNUniv’s administration and bureaucracy, starting with president Charles Pratt and administrative vice-president Al Ducharme. (The new board of governors, co-chaired by Joely Big Eagle and Dr. Bonita Beatty, suspended Pratt and Ducharme and appointed Del Anaquod, the former president of Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, as interim chief operating officer. The new board has also begun talks with the U of R to take over some of FNU’s administration work. The next prairie dog will probably have more on these developments.)
Norris’s solution is to turn back the clock to when FNUniv — in its Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (SIFC) days — had most of its business, such as collecting student fees and government money, handled by the U of R.
In the mid-1990s SIFC took over that responsibility, which, in retrospect, was the last thing the FSIN and former SIFC /FNUniv president Eber Hampton ever agreed on.
Hampton saw this as one of FNUniv’s first steps towards becoming a degree-granting university, in the same way the U of R (as Regina College, then later as the University of Saskatchewan Regina Campus) grew out of its relationship with the University of Saskatchewan.
But what Hampton saw as a continued evolution to an independent university was instead apparently perceived by the FSIN — including one of its then vice chiefs, Morley Watson — as a new tool for FSIN patronage.
In February 1999, Vice-Chief Watson, whose portfolio then included FNU, called a board meeting in Regina to discuss firing Hampton and administrative vice-president Wes Stevenson. In her report to the board, FNUniv Regina Students Association president Kim Turner said the board’s apparently unprovoked attacks on the two in general — and Watson’s initiative in particular — left the university in danger of destabilization.
“Because of the maliciousness and negativity at the meeting and rumours flying around concerning the firing of the President and other senior management, many of us feel insecure about the College,” wrote Turner, who was also a member of the board of governors, in a written submission to the board on Feb. 23, 1999. “Other students and I feel insecure about the College’s future, the quality of our education and about our own personal futures — including us, our children and families, and our communities.”
Turner’s fears came true in 2005, when Watson — by then the chair of the board — instigated the takeover of FNUniv’s administration, booting Stevenson out and installing FSIN people into positions of power.
Hampton left shortly after.
Since that takeover, First Nations University has limped from crisis to crisis, hobbled by incompetence, misunderstandings, and allegations of misuse of college funds.
The takeover created work for aboriginal governance consultants, of which Dr. Manley Begay is the latest. Begay’s 208-page “First Nations University of Canada Governance Plan” was released — late — on Feb. 19, and it says pretty much what two other reports say: that the 2005 All Chiefs’ Task Force and a 2009 provincial government-sponsored study were right. FNUniv’s board of governors is too big and unwieldy, too political and too filled with people who know too little about how a college should be governed to operate it effectively.
It’s open to debate whether the First Nations University of Canada’s old board of governors would have filed it on the same dusty shelf where other unimplemented reports apparently languish. The board — once when Watson chaired, and again when Little Black Bear First Nations Chief Clarence Bellegarde chaired it — failed to seriously act on similar recommendations made in the previous reports.
The provincial government’s announcement that funding was cancelled — and later, the feds’ —probably changed some people’s thinking on things.
Whatever he does with the rest of his life, the five years of controversy, misspending and general ruin brought to the First Nations University of Canada will be Vice-Chief Watson’s legacy to the aboriginal people of Saskatchewan. He has helped accomplish what a battalion of Jim Pankiw clones couldn’t in their lifetimes: brought discredit, dishonor and ridicule to the very concept of aboriginal government.
And all of it, presumably, so the FSIN could get absolute control on First Nations University.
At least Watson was man enough to come out and see the results of his handiwork.