“The coup d’état played out like a Movie Channel sci-fi flick, Vice-Chief Watson yelling out orders to the executive assistants, dragging staff members to the board room and lining them up for questioning in a manner reminiscent of a sentencing court in a Third World dictatorship.”
February 17, 2005
The day begins with the smell of bacon, sausages and pancakes cooking on the grill outside the new First Nations University of Canada (FNUC) Regina Campus building designed by Douglas Cardinal. The atrium is packed with students, staff and community members participating in the annual Winter Festival. The high spirits and laughter are slowly quelled, however, when news arrives that the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) vice-chief, Morley Watson, has taken over the campus.
Watson was acting in his capacity as chair of FNUC’s Board of Governors when he and his entourage of security guards, personal supporters, a locksmith and a few chiefs stormed the FNUC executive office. He promptly suspended three senior officials and launched a forensic financial audit based on “evidence” housed in a “sealed envelope,” which he refused to show anyone until months later. Simultaneously all seven finance and four human resources staff members were evicted, the downtown international and special programs office staffs were dragged out, and strangers with four portable hard drives invaded the technology area and copied the central server drive containing faculty records, research and e-mails, and student records. Once emptied, the office locks were changed.
The coup d’état played out like a Movie Channel sci-fi flick, Vice-Chief Watson yelling out orders to the executive assistants, dragging staff members to the board room and lining them up for questioning in a manner reminiscent of a sentencing court in a Third World dictatorship. Three FSIN political appointees were immediately installed to replace the three suspended senior officials, and the reign of terror began.
The crisis caused by this heavy-handed political takeover has not only damaged the credibility of the institution and raised serious questions about the authority and methods of the FSIN, it has sent the institution, its partners and communities into 10 months of spiraling mayhem, with still no end in site.
What Is FNUC?
FNUC is the only First Nations-controlled university in Canada. A conception of the Chiefs and Elders of Saskatchewan, it became a legal entity in 1976 through the passage of the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College Act by the Legislative Assembly of the FSIN, and the provincial Non-Profit Corporation Act. SIFC/FNUC is a federated college of the University of Regina, which is ultimately responsible for its academic integrity and the granting of all degrees.
Mandated to provide a bi-cultural and relevant education to First Nations and other students, SIFC/FNUC grew from nine students in 1976 to just over 1,000 students by the fall of 2005, and has graduated over 3,000 students from across Canada and as far away as Guatemala with certificates, diplomas and Bachelor and Master of Arts degrees.
Though both the SIFC Act and Saskatchewan Non-Profit Corporations Act require the institution to be governed by a Board, the requirements differ, and the only functional Board is the one created under the SIFC Act.
Unlike regular university boards made up of an average of 12 members, FNUC’s board has 31 members representing: the universities of Regina and Saskatchewan, the governments of Canada and Saskatchewan, three student associations, one faculty observer and 23 elected First Nations officials including two FSIN executive members, two FSIN senators, one FSIN member-at-large, 14 tribal councils and three independent bands – among them a total of 16 chiefs. Under the SIFC Act, “The Board” only consists of the First Nations elected officials and student reps. Observer status only is conferred upon the faculty rep and external third parties, and the SIFC Act can be superseded only by the FSIN Convention Act and the FSIN Saskatchewan Indian Education Act. Also, unlike other universities, all FNUC out-of-scope senior managers fall under the FSIN Personnel Management Act and regulations.
The current chief of the FSIN is Alphonse Bird. The senior managers at FNUC on February 17 were Dr. Eber Hampton, president; Dr. Denise Henning vice-president academics; Wes Stevenson, vice-president administration; Esther Sanderson, dean of Northern Campus; Dr. Winona Wheeler, dean of Saskatoon Campus; and Dawn Tato, dean of Regina Campus and acting registrar. The executive assistant to the president and Board was Marlene Lerat-Stetner.
The Current Crisis
Following the suspensions of Wes Stevenson, Leonzo Barreno (director of international and special projects) and Kim Sinclair (finance director), Board Chair Watson installed Al Ducharme (former Liberal candidate for Churchill River) to replace Stevenson, Florence Watson (sister-in-law of Morley) to replace Sinclair and FSIN employee Danette Starblanket as “special advisor.”
From the beginning, President Hampton and the university lawyer, Don Worme, tried consistently to advise Watson and the Board of the legal, financial and reputational risks of their actions. He urged them to follow their Governance Policy, explained how the inappropriate actions violated good university management practices and offered a number of solutions to the governance issues and ways to protect university interests. Hampton is a highly respected and qualified academic leader and, under his leadership, the university flourished. But his pleas were ignored: the Board surrendered more authority to Watson, and Worme was fired and replaced with Watson’s lawyer, Larry Sieferling. Dr. Hampton left FNUC after his contract ended. Lerat-Stetner, the 17-year veteran executive assistant to the president and the Board, was fired soon after.
Censorship at Work
It was made very clear to all that any questioning or criticism of Board actions would be dealt with swiftly. Vice-President Academics Dr. Henning publicly expressed her objection to the copying of faculty files and student records from the central server, and to the continued monitoring of employee e-mails, and demanded their return. She left FNUC a few months later, when many of her responsibilities were taken away. Dr. Wheeler’s position as Saskatoon Campus dean was “abolished” with no stated reason or notice. Dawn Tato, the acting registrar and Regina Campus dean, and Leonzo Barreno, the director of international and special programs, were fired. Dr. Blair Stonechild’s keynote presentation to the First Nations Forum on Post-Secondary Education was cancelled by the FSIN to silence him. Two other faculty members, Dr. Jan van Eijk and Randy Lundy, received disciplinary letters and instructions to “refrain from defamatory comments, insubordination and actions and comments that entirely undermine the functioning of the institution.”
After questioning and protesting against the secrecy and methods employed throughout this fiasco, students on the Saskatoon campus were threatened with disciplinary action and ordered to inform campus managers if they intended any further actions, including posting any notices or inviting media to campus. The finance staff continues to work under stressful conditions. One of their most recent grievances is against the installation of surveillance cameras above staff workstations.
It is important to stress that at no time did any staff members, faculty, or students resist the forensic audit. All agreed that, if problems existed, they needed to be found and fixed, and better checks and balances instituted. The resistance continues against the heavy-handed, inappropriate and secretive decisions and actions of Watson’s Board and political appointees in senior management. Respect is a two-way process, and university governance is no place for Machiavellian methods.
The Forensic Audit
Under the auspices of a “routine” forensic audit, Watson’s tactics resulted in 20 senior managers, faculty and staff being fired, chased out, resigning, or on sick leave; over 20 grievances and at least six pending lawsuits; volatile internal dissension; financial crises; millions of externally funded research, program and project dollars withheld or withdrawn; declining student enrolments; and serious questions concerning the overall quality of education students are receiving. The loss of qualified instructors with graduate degrees has resulted in increased numbers of undergraduate courses taught by instructors with undergraduate degrees.
By mid-April the forensic audit and related costs (extra Board costs, security guards, new salaries and benefits, contract fees, etc.) reached over $250,000. The “sealed envelope” was opened around the time the interim forensic audit report was done in early May. It contained an affidavit written in January by Greg Stevenson, who made allegations of misspending against his own brother, suspended Vice-President Administration Wes Stevenson. Greg and his wife Brenda received a $4,000 cheque for their efforts.
The only financial irregularities identified by the forensic audit amounted to about $20,000. At no time during or after the audit was Wes Stevenson given the opportunity to explain the spending or answer any questions. Despite this irregularity, Wes Stevenson was terminated “for cause.” His termination was even more grievous as the “cause” was never explained.
The forensic audit was never officially made public. Watson claimed to have filed it with the RCMP’s criminal investigations unit and then requested an additional $225,000 from the federal and provincial governments to expand the forensic audit to include capital expenditures, international and special projects, and information technology. When his request was rejected, the funds were garnered from the over-taxed FNUC operating budget by increasing the Board of Governors’ already bloated $300,000-plus budget to $612,957. The academic budgets were slashed to cover these and other costs – including monthly living and vehicle allowances to new senior managers, a $12,000 two-month contract to an FSIN employee to help write the AUCC and other reports, and various pay-offs to supporters.
It is estimated that by December the political takeover costs in additional expenses and lost revenues will reach $1 million. Fears of financial crisis heightened in the summer when FNUC failed to turn over employee contributions to pension and health benefits, union fees and parking-space dues for two months, and a number of suppliers refused to accept FNUC purchase orders. Had Indian and Northern Affairs (INAC) not stepped in with top-up funding, FNUC might have reached insolvency.
Battle Lines Drawn
The explosion of internal dissension is perhaps the saddest and most damaging impact to date. Battle lines were drawn between the pro-Watson faction and those struggling to uphold and protect the integrity of the institution and academic freedom. Pro-Watson support came in many forms. The social work department threw a welcoming party for Ducharme, complete with pastries and balloons; a pro-FSIN demonstration held outside the Regina campus in June touted anti-USAmerican Indian, anti-Metis and pro-Saskatchewan First Nations “hiring only” placards. Threats, intimidation and silencing tactics reigned, and this even after the Regina Campus Elders petitioned the Board to resolve the issues peacefully: “The actions taken on February 17, 2005 have deeply affected and are continuing to affect the students, faculty and staff. Our family within this university is suffering.”
Despite early alarm bells, very few of the external stakeholders have stepped up to the plate to demand accountability, transparency and good university governance practices from the Board and new management. The only public support against the tyranny has come from the University of Regina Faculty Association (URFA) and the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). In April, CAUT President James Turk gave a presentation to a full house on the fundamentals of academic freedom and, in early November, CAUT and the newly established URFA Aboriginal Advisory Group hosted a symposium for open academic discussion regarding the events. Well over 100 Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars from across Canada participated.
The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) has been provided with ample evidence demonstrating that the actions of the Board have blatantly breached at least three, possibly four, membership criteria: protection of academic freedom, open and transparent Board governance, academic governance and undergraduate instruction by senior academic staff. The report the AUCC requested from FNUC was written by an FSIN employee and an all-new senior management that could hardly speak to past practices. Whether the AUCC will stand up and defend the integrity of its membership criteria is yet to be seen.
Tainted Task Force
Alarm among the Saskatchewan chiefs was finally sounded during the summer Legislative Assembly, when they called for an arm’s-length (from FSIN) task force to review the past and future operations and governance of FNUC. What we got was a Board with three out of five members having direct ties to the FSIN and an FSIN employee hired to write the report. Serious questions like these have not elicited much confidence in the final task-force report (due at the end of November). However, the mostly silent external stakeholders – the AUCC, the provincial and federal governments and the University of Regina – are hoping for recommendations that will resolve the current issues.
Many inside the institution and those who have been fired or suspended, or who have resigned, suspect that the task force will do little more than tacitly support the actions of Watson and his Board.
The task force is costing FNUC thousands of dollars – to produce a preliminary report with results that could have easily been gleaned from the media coverage to date and by interviewing FNUC employees. Any qualified investigator could have done this work at much lower cost.
Many of the once engaged and passionate faculty – some of the best and brightest Indigenous faculty and staff in Canada – struggle to muster the strength to continue on. However, there is always optimism, even though enrollments are down. Students at FNUC bring hope for the future and joy to those inside who endure the negative atmosphere. Our students are a constant reminder to us all to remain true to the university’s mission and vision, and to the dream of all that First Nations control of First Nations education can and should be – a dream that many of us have dedicated our lives to serve. Any hope that FNUC can fulfill that dream depends entirely on restructuring the current governance to ensure a future free from political interference. Time will tell if the First Nations of Saskatchewan have the strength to support a real First Nations University where academic freedom and traditional knowledge and teachings can be practiced without fear of reprisal.
This article appeared in the January/February 2006 issue of Canadian Dimension (Politics and Religion).