March 20, 2010
An Open Letter to the Elected Officials of Saskatchewan and Canada:
I write this as a long-time faculty member of the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (SIFC) / First Nations University of Canada (FNUniv). I have been a member of the Department of Indian Languages, Literatures and Linguistics for almost 17 years, and have served for the past year and a half as the Department Head, though I am spending this term on a pre-arranged leave as a guest researcher at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands.
There are so many issues that I could address in this letter. As a faculty member, I have witnessed one crisis after another through the past five years as we all have tried to continue the work for which we were hired, hoping that changes would finally be made to bring First Nations University back in line with its original vision and allow our reputation to once again move forward along with the work we have continued to accomplish. The AUCC attempted to help us with this and some progress was made, but clearly not enough despite the lifting of AUCC censure. CAUT then stepped in with their own censure, controversial at best among faculty, but with the good intentions of forcing the changes necessary. But the AUCC and CAUT are not governments. Through this period the faculty and students had waited for the necessary changes, perhaps waiting for the provincial and federal governments to intervene in a helpful way. But we saw nothing. It is very surprising to me to continually hear now from our provincial and federal officials about all the efforts that have been made to bring about reform within FNUniv governance, when those efforts were largely internal and did not seem ever to include anything helpful from government. Only in the past few months, with serious allegations of mismanagement of funds, have the provincial and federal governments seen fit to make an effort. And instead of helpful, the first real acts are to essentially threaten the complete destruction of the entire educational institution that is FNUniv in a belated “effort” to right the wrongs of the past administration and governance. Now, conditions have been set, and are being met with astonishing speed and skill by a dedicated group of educators from FNUniv and the University of Regina, our new Board of Governors, and government officials. But despite these efforts, we are still threatened with an end of funding and thus an end to the institution. The effort only seems to be lacking on one side of this situation.
These are important issues, but they are being addressed by many others with more knowledge and expertise in these areas than I. For my part, I wish to inform you of the unique programs of my department which are not going to be matched by any other institution, regardless of the rhetoric we have heard about First Nations students receiving equal opportunities elsewhere. First Nations language classes were among the cornerstones of SIFC upon its founding in 1976 and within 10 years the dedicated individuals at this institution had created a full Department of Indian Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics. Through further refinement, not only have we been offering language courses in all of the First Nations languages of Saskatchewan – Cree, Saulteaux (Plains Ojibwa), Nakota (Assiniboine), Dakota, and (through our northern campus extension) Dene – but the first and only full degree programs in any Canadian First Nations languages were built here for Cree and Saulteaux. These programs are matched nowhere else. The dedication of such individuals as the late Dr. Ahab Spence, Dr. Jean Okimāsis, and Margaret Cote, and of their students including Solomon Ratt, Doreen Oakes, and Lorena Cote, has kept this a vibrant and growing department, while many more of their students are teaching their languages and creating language programs in their communities. We have worked with our colleagues in the Department of Indigenous Education as they have built corresponding language teaching certificate, diploma, and minor programs, as well as a new Cree immersion program, to address the great need for language teachers. We have most recently been working on minor programs for Nakota, Dakota and Dene as contributions to expanding the scope of the Indigenous Education programs to meet the needs of all the language groups of our province and beyond. At this time of supposed reconciliation for the disastrous effects of the residential school system, language is the last great issue remaining to be addressed by the governments of this land, and we at FNUniv have been anticipating this by working under constrained budgets to build just the kind of programs needed by First Nations people in their attempts to reclaim and revitalize their languages. At a time when programs such as these should see increased funding, instead we are faced with ceasing to exist because of funding cuts and the misguided belief that any other institution is capable of offering what we offer.
During the early period of SIFC’s growth, another Cree scholar, Freda Ahenakew was beginning her work in Cree language instruction and text collection, for which both the University of Saskatchewan and University of Manitoba have since bestowed upon her honorary doctorates. At the time, however, there was no place for a First Nations language instructor at the U of S, let alone a language program, and she needed to leave the province to work at the University of Manitoba and help build a small Cree language program there. Dr. Ahenakew’s major academic contributions have been in the publication of Cree texts, and the inspiration of many students (including myself) who have chosen a career working with First Nations languages in one capacity or another. In addition to the aforementioned doctorates, she has been recognized by First Nations and non-First Nations people alike, at the provincial (Saskatchewan Order of Merit) and federal levels (National Aboriginal Achievement Award; Order of Canada). Although garnering less attention from the Saskatchewan and Canadian governments, Dr. Jean Okimāsis has similarly achieved recognition for her accomplishments and dedication to her language and culture, and among other awards was granted an honorary doctorate from the University of Regina. These two woman, and many others who have struggled to help their people maintain their languages, should continue to be recognized for the shining examples they have set. Instead, at this time, a very large part of what they and their students have built is being threatened. This is not only unacceptable, it is unconscionable. The decision to cut funding to FNUniv must be reversed so that we may continue our important work to support and revitalize the First Nations languages of Saskatchewan and Canada. There is no replacement if these programs cannot continue.
In conjunction with our language programs, FNUniv offers a full Linguistics program and it is unique among Canadian Linguistics programs in the high percentage of First Nations language content. Although the program itself has continued to expand, funding limitations at FNUniv and the University of Regina have never allowed it to grow beyond three full-time faculty, all at FNUniv. Despite this, we had until recently managed to offer a small Masters program, one which even produced a Rhodes scholar, Dr. Lindsay Morcom, who has just completed her doctorate at Oxford. Many other students have experienced success in graduate programs in Linguistics and Speech Pathology and Audiology programs throughout Canada. The students who come through our program, in large part non-First Nations people, are uniquely equipped with knowledge and understanding of First Nations language and culture which is invaluable to them in their future work in Canadian communities. These are educated and enlightened individuals of the type diametrically opposed to those displaying outrageous levels of ignorance and downright racism on the news blogs of our country’s media outlets during the past few years of crisis. Our students could teach these poor uneducated individuals a few things. Our faculty can teach them much, but not if the current funding decisions mean the demise of our programs.
Beyond our programs at FNUniv, our Linguistics Faculty have connections to teaching and research institutions throughout the world. Dr. Jan van Eijk and now retired Professor Emeritus Dr. Brent Galloway are experts in Interior and Coast Salish languages respectively and between the two of them they have published extensively and have connections to institutions such as UBC (Vancouver), Berkeley (California) and Leiden (Netherlands) to name a few. Our newest faculty member, Dr. Olga Lovick has contacts in numerous Athapaskan First Nations communities and ties to die Universität zu Köln (Cologne, Germany) and the Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska (Fairbanks). I myself work extensively with Cree communities and have research partnerships with Miyo Wahkohtowin Community Education Authority at Ermineskin Cree Nation (Alberta; the Cree Online Dictionary Project) and Dr. Marie-Odile Junker at Carleton University (Ottawa, and East Cree communities in Quebec; the Cree Atlas Project). Additionally, my research through de Universiteit van Amsterdam has also provided me with extensive research networks including colleagues here and at Aarhus Universitet (Denmark), la Universidad de Oviedo (Spain), and a Universidade Estadual Paulista (Brazil). These are important national and international connections that are under threat of being cut along with the funding to First Nations University. Again I must ask: where exactly can anyone reasonably expect our students to go to get this unique blend of Canadian and international perspective?
The University of Saskatchewan does not have such programs, and the considerably smaller Linguistics program at the U of S is virtually devoid of First Nations content. The language component at the U of S consists of two Cree courses that have been in place for over 25 years, without addition. Furthermore, for the last 10 years plus, for the Cree classes that the U of S has taught, FNUniv has supplied the instructors. The Universities of Manitoba, Alberta, and Calgary, with far larger Linguistics components, do not have programs the equal of ours in First Nations perspective. Smaller programs as at Lethbridge and Brandon have scholars who attempt, through their duties in “Modern Languages” programs, to address First Nations language issues within the constraints of their respective programs, but again they cannot match our programs dedicated to First Nations languages.
First Nations University is the center for First Nations languages and Linguistics in Saskatchewan and beyond. We can be that center for the entire country. Taking the exact opposite approach at this moment in Canadian history is a foolhardy mistake that could have dire consequences for First Nations Education, the health of Saskatchewan and Canadian society, and Canada’s reputation internationally. I would like to personally thank the opposition parties for their unanimous support of our institution and their understanding of the importance of FNUniv to First Nations Education at all levels. And I urge the Provincial Government of Saskatchewan and the minority Conservative Government of Canada to reconsider their current position on First Nations University and restore funding to allow us to do the important work that is so obviously necessary for our society.
Associate Professor, Department Head
Indian Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics
First Nations University of Canada
1 First Nations Way
cc: Del Anaquod, Chief Operating Officer, FNUniv
Joely BigEagle, Chair, Board of Governors, FNUniv
Randy Lundy, Chair, Academic Council, FNUniv
Diane Adams, President, Students’ Association, FNUniv
Chief Guy Lonechild, Chief, Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations
Dr. Vianne Timmons, President, University of Regina
Brian Wildcat, Director, Miyo Wahkohtowin Community Education Authority
Dr. Marie-Odile Junker, Carleton University
Dr. Kees Hengeveld, Universiteit van Amsterdam
Dr. Peter Bakker, Aarhus Universitet
Dr. Daniel García Velasco, Universidad de Oviedo
Dr. Marize Dall’Aglio-Hattnher, Universidade Estadual Paulista