March 5, 2010
The Honourable Rob Norris
Minister of Advanced Education, Employment and Labour
2405 – Legislative Drive
Dear Mr. Norris,
As a faculty member of the First Nations University of Canada, I am writing to you about your recent decision to withdraw funding from the First Nations University of Canada, a much need institution of higher learning for First Nations and non-First Nations students and society.
I am a self proclaimed returnee to Saskatchewan, after two decades working as an Alberta citizen. In 2005 my wife and I and four children moved back to Regina after getting an offer to teach Indian Fine Arts at the First Nations University. I am one of those who moved back to Saskatchewan responding to a public pitch by government officials that Saskatchewan has become revitalized, has gone back to being one of the most prosperous growing provinces in Canada. Since I was raised and educated on the economically challenged Red Pheasant Reserve nearby Saskatoon, I found this news to be very uplifting. By contrast, the news today is not so good – the possibility of closing down the university was the most demoralizing news of my career and I am now beginning to regret my move.
Provincial and Federal governments have always encouraged higher education of First Nations people to solve the problems of drugs, alcohol, the soaring rate of illiteracy, poverty, gangs, suicide and incarceration. For over thirty years the First Nations University (formerly the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College) has been in the forefront of realizing an all important goal of improving the lives of young First Nations students by graduating thousands of youth. In the five years I have had the privilege of working in this magnificent building, I have witnessed the success stories of students who were once destitute and who are now major contributors to our economy. Closing down the First Nations University of Canada would be a devastating blow to all students who prefer taking these unique courses and programs that are offered nowhere else in the world.
Since your announcement to discontinue FNUC funding, I have been in a state of denial that hundreds of students will not be able to realize their dream, that hundreds of faculty and staff will possibly lose their jobs because of mismanagement by a hand-full of individuals. Three unqualified individuals in Senior Management controlled our academic offerings, finances, and who we hired as compared to at least 70 faculty who were powerless to make the governance changes that we all wanted and deemed essential for our survival. 3 against 70-some equation that is. The threat of firings by Senior Management and the Board of Governors – all of whose record has to be one of total and absolute incompetence – of those who spoke out in favor of a better governance system was a real possibility so faculty were afraid to speak for change, to hold a vote of non-confidence. We had to try to teach under a regime that knew next to nothing about academic freedom, about academic governance and when it came time to implement or try to make those badly needed changes, could care even less. Now that FSIN has taken the leadership, under Chief Guy Lonechild, to let us make our own governance decisions and systems work, we feel more confident that we are now on the right road and I feel, as a faculty member, that we as a group are more confident than ever before. I continue to trust that Prime Minster Harper’s government officials will work hard to develop a constructive solution to avoid affecting our innocent workforce. I just cannot see any valid reason to close down a university where all the hype in the media in Saskatchewan is about how productive this province is that economically, we are the fastest growing province in Canada. Synchronize this with the fastest growing population of First Nations people in Canada and I continue to ask, is this the proper time and place for your withdrawal of urgently need funding and what looks to be the ultimate closure of this university?
The First Nations people are still on this long journey to recovery from the effects of colonization and residential schools. The irony here is that the Canadian government through the DIA has been on the forefront of demanding that First Nations people become educated, for well over a century. What is happening now? Just when First Nations students and the people themselves are beginning to have some faith and trust in the validity and pedagogy of their own restored educational foundations and systems, you pull the funding! How realistic is that? Your actions make absolutely no sense. I continued to have anxiety and mistrust in the western education system as applied to First Nations people by non-Indians. It was only when the government made a public apology to all First Nations people of Canada, when the churches of Canada publically admitted their duplicity in the colonization of First Nations people and what a sorry chapter in Canadian history that is, did I have a glimmer of hope that our students education will finally be taught by First Nations professors with unique but solid qualifications, expertise, empathy and sincerity. The oppression of residential school continues to affect our children and will continue to affect our grandchildren as well and it is only through our own efforts, as First Nations professors and people, will First Nations people finally be able to eradicate over 200 years of colonial oppression, theft of land and resources, eradication of our spiritually and moral base and mismanagement of our lives by those in Ottawa.
To cut funding at this time, is a step backwards by your ministry, by the Harper government, not just one step backward but a step back entirely into the Nineteenth Century.
The First Nations University can be thought of as a valuable place for sharing common experiences and concerns, of the healing and bringing together of all races in Canada by finally being given the opportunity to teach and learn our languages, traditions, cultures and spirituality that were severed by the Federal Government in the Nineteenth Century, a policy that still has lasting effects on all of us today, including you and your grandchildren. It appears that you are taking us back to that earlier time where only the white man’s knowledge was deemed to be appropriate and necessary for the education of First Nations people. In this contemporary world of the ubiquitous internet, cell phones, satellite television, cars that park themselves, the globalization of education and on and on, that can hardly be the case. Our First Nations students need the experience, the wisdom and sagely advice of First Nations elders, the knowledge and expertise of First Nations professors.
The impending possible closure of the First Nations University of Canada is a mirror image of the negative historical and destructive effects of the so-called education of First Nations people in Canada’s past and should never be allowed to happen or to be repeated. “Those who do not know their history are condemned to repeat it”, as the saying goes.
Do not be one of those who do not know Canada’s own history. On behalf of our future leaders we trust you will continue to be our sincere partner in making First Nations University of Canada, the province of Saskatchewan, and the country of Canada wonderful and unique places in which to live and work.
Thank you for your attention to this matter.
Lionel Auburn Peyachew
Assistant Professor of Indian Art
Department of Indian Arts
First Nations University of Canada
(306) 790-5950 Ext. 3290
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