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Indigenous post-secondary institutions still lack stable resources

BY Ben Powless Feb 1, 2022

Indigenous post-secondary institutions need stable funding, support and accreditation, according to academic research and interviews with leaders at the First Nations University of Canada (FNUC) located in Saskatchewan. 

It’s a long-standing problem. According to a comparative study by Dr. Andrea Jenkins submitted in 2008 as her master’s thesis at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, institutions in Canada and the United States were sorely lacking in funding, with Canadian institutions faring even worse than their US counterparts. 

Jenkins observed that institutions like the First Nations Technical Institute in Ontario faced diminished support as the-then Harper government repeatedly slashed or entirely cut funding sources to the institution. 

“Indigenous post-secondary institutions in both countries are severely underfunded in comparison with their mainstream peer institutions, creating multiple layers of hurdles to stability and growth,” wrote Jenkins, who subsequently received a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Chicago in 2016, only a year before she passed away.

“This undermines the work of these institutions, destabilizes the lives of Indigenous peoples, and continues to push aside the potential contributions of educated Indigenous peoples not only to their communities, but also to society more broadly.”

In an interview, Dr. Bob Kayseas, VP Academic for FNUC, said the problem continues: “There is no framework that exists for the majority of institutions regarding funding.” 

Rebecca Morris-Hurl, Institutional Resource Planner for FNUC, says that the FNUC operated for its first 10 years without any federal funding – while charging the highest tuition rates in Canada. The university started receiving federal monies in 1986, but funding has remained stagnant since 2017, despite rising costs.

“We’ve been here 45 years and we still don’t have any kind of real sustainable funding model; we’re still on a proposal-driven model with the federal government,” Kayseas lamented. “I believe that the government hasn’t really supported the growth of the post-secondary educational industry broader than supporting cultural programs across the country.” 

In 2019, the federal government agreed to a proposal by the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) that would begin a regional process to develop models to support post-secondary education. The 2019 budget committed $7.5 million over three years to support discussions. At the time, the AFN was encouraged, stating: “First Nations can now begin the important and essential work of designing their own approaches to [post-secondary education].” 

Morris-Hurl said that the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations was working with the AFN and communities across the province to develop a funding model to address the needs of First Nations students and institutions. 

However, even with a funding model in place, Morris-Hurl says legislation is needed so that another government cannot simply revoke the policies. “I’ve been here under Harper and Trudeau and the experience has been very different,” she noted. 

Accreditation is another issue that Indigenous post-secondary educations across Canada and the US struggle with. The FNUC is likely the only Indigenous post-secondary institution with a federated agreement with the University of Regina that allows it to confer degrees, Kayseas said. But the university is pursuing academic autonomy that would allow for broader accreditation.

One of the difficulties comes down to a clash of worldviews, according to Kayseas – most universities are based on a western worldview that differs strongly from an Indigenous perspective. 

“It’s different from a western perspective,” he said. “When we go into a sweat, we understand that we’re praying to grandmothers and grandfathers, but when you try to incorporate that into a course, it’s a challenge to western knowledge.”

Kayseas says that institutions like FNUC create opportunities for a positive student experience where students have exposure to Indigenous professors, Elders and a broader Indigenous community outside of campus. This includes support for personal issues such as intergenerational trauma. But he feels that governments don’t recognize the value or need for these kinds of institutions. 

He also sees Indigenous post-secondary institutions as fulfilling a vital role in the efforts toward decolonization and reconciliation, to the hundreds of non-Indigenous students who also attend courses at the university. 

“That’s been part of our role ever since we started 45 years ago,” Kayseas said. “Education is a path to reconciliation.” 

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.