The following is an unofficial and unedited transcript of a meeting of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. This document is being sent for information purposes only and may not be quoted, as it may contain transcription errors. The edited, translated transcript will be available on the Committee’s website (http://www2.parl.gc.ca/CommitteeBusiness/CommitteeHome.aspx?Cmte=AANO&Language=E&Mode=1&Parl=40&Ses=3) within the next two weeks.
The Chair: We now go to our second videoconference witness, and that will be Mr. Lorne Dennis.
I’m going to ask our other two witnesses, who are joining us by videoconference, you’ll have to turn your microphone off so that Mr. Dennis will be able to join us with his being on. So we’ll do our best. That would be Minister Norris and Ms. Macdonald, make sure your microphone buttons are off, and we’ll see if we can get Mr. Dennis up on line here.
Mr. Lorne Dennis (As an Individual): All right, coming through.
The Chair: So it works when we want it to.
You’ve heard the audio here, Mr. Dennis. Delighted that you could join us here this afternoon from Edmonton. Members may know that Mr. Dennis is a former CFO for the university.
Mr. Dennis, you have five minutes for your presentation.
Mr. Lorne Dennis: Thank you so much.
And thank you for giving me, as an individual, the opportunity to actually address the committee. As I’m not representing any group, I suspect the flavour of my comments may be somewhat different than what you’ll hear from others, and I beg your forgiveness if I may not be quite as politically correct as some.
The issue I’d like to address is if there is a significant long-term value in keeping FNUC open and operational.
And let me give you a little bit of background as to why I have anything at all to say on this topic. I became connected with the First Nations University of Canada in the first half of 2004 and the last half of 2005 when I was under contract to the school. I was indeed the senior financial officer.
I came to FNUC as a skeptic. I was a management consultant, an MBA with a 15-year history dealing with businesses in crisis–bankruptcies, insolvencies, and turnarounds. I had seen it all from the perspective of bad management and I was led to believe that I would see more of it at FNUC.
I found the school to be a place of extremes. I was impressed with the overall competence of the staff. I was also profoundly struck by their commitment and passion for the school. Conversely, I was extremely frustrated by the ongoing interference of the FSIN, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, in both operations and financial processes.
I worked at the school for about a year. In July of 2005, following Dr. Dr. Eber Hampton’s retirement as president of FNUC, I was instructed to use funds belonging to Dr. Hampton’s Indigenous Peoples Health Research Center for FNUC operations. I refused, and offered my resignation, or perhaps more accurately, I terminated my contract at that time. So that’s my connection.
Why is FNUC important? From my perspective, let me make a couple of general comments. Higher education is aligned with greater employment opportunities within Canadian society. If we are going to be concerned about growing aboriginal employment, post-secondary education for aboriginal peoples needs to be preserved and developed.
Those of us in the west and the north are painfully aware of the need for both skilled aboriginal workers and aboriginal professionals. First Nations people understandably and correctly demand that they be participants in northern development but they need the educational and intercultural tools to do so.
First Nations population growth is explosive, running at six times the national average. Where aboriginal peoples exercise control over their own education, success rates are dramatically improved. However, aboriginal involvement in post-secondary education still lags well behind that of the non-aboriginal population. FNUC, I would suggest, is a bright light in this relative darkness.
First Nations, Métis, and other indigenous peoples’ success in higher education will breed more success, and it will also fuel our country’s economic engine. As a corollary, it will reduce social assistance.
Let me make some FNUC-specific comments. First Nations University of Canada is a unique institution, growing out of the Indian Federated College, founded by the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. When it became FNUC, that expanded to include all indigenous people of Canada. Its staff and faculty are almost all first nations and Métis, and are competent as well as committed. Nevertheless, the school is not exclusive. It offers higher education in a first nations-friendly environment, but provides that education not just to first nations folks but to all who choose to attend.
A culturally compatible education at FNUC provides the tools for first nations and Métis people to achieve academically. A vanilla, heterogeneous approach is much less successful than a culturally compatible or culturally relevant program.
What I observed at FNUC was that they empower students intellectually, socially, and emotionally. The school uses specific first nations culture, including cultural objects and symbols, to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes. The school’s faculty create a bridge between first nations students’ experience and their education, while still meeting the needs of the curriculum. Its approach to teaching utilizes first nations background, knowledge, and experience to frame and help inform each professor’s lessons and methodology. Then the experience is reinforced through its own affirmation of first nations culture, and it works.
Now, in my opinion, using the current governance structure or indeed any governance structure that gives a political organization control will not succeed.
Points have been made before with regard to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada and their longstanding issues. as well as NFU’s volatile history, clearly shows a governance incompatibility with regard to the school and its political masters.
The Chair: Mr. Dennis, if I could just ask you to sort of sum up now. We are a bit over time, so if you could just bring it to a close, that would be great.
Mr. Lorne Dennis: Thank you.
I guess the question then becomes is it wiser to repair or to allow the broken institution to die and then start fresh. While a green field approach can be attractive, in the business world it’s an option that’s seldom chosen. It’s much more difficult to start a new business than to save one that’s not completely gone.
Apart from politics, NFUC has been a success in every way. Rather than ignoring those success and giving up on the vision, I strongly believe we should be remedying the clear and identifiable problems and then moving forward.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak.
The Chair: Thank you very much, Mr. Dennis.