Debates of the Senate  
3rd Session, 40th Parliament,Volume 146, Issue 9.
  Tuesday, March 23, 2010
 
Question Period: Indian Affairs and Northern Development

  First Nations University of Canada

Hon. Lillian Eva Dyck: Honourable senators, my question is for the Leader of the Government in the Senate, and it relates to funding for the First Nations University of Canada.

As honourable senators know, Minister Strahl recently made a decision to withdraw $7.2 million in funding from this world-class institution. It is now on the brink of destruction.

I am pleading for a reversal of that decision, because it will abandon over 800 Aboriginal students, 65 faculty members, all the support staff and about 1,200 University of Regina students who take classes at this institution.

Last year, at the Council of Ministers of Education, First Nations University was held up as a model of best practices. In addition, there is a Treaty 4 obligation that indicates there is a federal responsibility to fund post-secondary education.

How can the minister justify such drastic action?

Hon. Marjory LeBreton (Leader of the Government): Honourable senators, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada has been working for many years with the First Nations University to address long-standing and systematic problems related to governance and financial management. Throughout this period, scandal after scandal has rocked the public's faith in this school.

Minister Strahl met with a delegation from First Nations University on March 11 and, as previously stated by the minister, we will no longer fund the university directly. However, we are working on options regarding how this funding could best support Aboriginal post-secondary students.

Senator Dyck: Honourable senators, it is true that there have been scandals. However, those scandals have been enormously magnified in the media. In fact, many reviews and audits of the university have not given substance to those scandals.

The University of Regina has agreed that it will institute a management system with First Nations University. They have agreed to a working group to put together a memorandum of understanding. Pressure has been put on them to produce that document within a matter of two days, which we know is not possible.

I am hoping that the minister will use her office to persuade the minister to allow this agreement to proceed. That agreement will take care of all the financial and administrative matters that have been brought to the attention of the minister.

We have new leadership in the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations in Chief Guy Lonechild, who has taken a strong stance on this matter. All the chiefs support it. The Canadian Association of University Teachers supports it. Everyone is supporting it. It is time to reverse that decision. Can that be done?

Senator LeBreton: Honourable senators, the minister and the government will not reverse the decision. While we understand this situation creates difficulty, we need to be accountable and transparent to all Canadians, including the First Nations.

As I mentioned earlier, Minister Strahl met with the delegation from the First Nations University. The honourable senator mentioned the offers from the University of Regina. He met with the delegation on March 11 and I believe that together they are working to ensure that the students are well supported.

As far as further funding is concerned, the decision has been made and the government and the minister will not reverse the decision.

Senator Dyck: With all due respect, the Standing Committee of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development will discuss this issue later today. I hope that committee will come to a resolution that will help us end this impasse.

The federal government, through the Indian Studies Support Program, has signed an agreement to provide annual funding to First Nations University and has been doing so for at least the last five years. How is it that the agreement can now be broken by the minister? That is a signed agreement.

Senator LeBreton: Honourable senators, I am certain the various committees of Parliament and many members of Parliament, whether they are in the House of Commons or the Senate, would be interested to hear how these matters can be dealt with in the future.

In the case of this particular university, the long-standing and systematic problems have gone on for years. The misappropriation of funds has rocked not only the Aboriginal community but also the public. The decision of the minister is firm. Our government has done a great deal to invest in education for our First Nations people.

With regard to the First Nations University, there is no point in pursuing the matter further. The decision is final.

Senator Dyck: With respect, Honourable Minister, my mailbox is filling up with email messages from people across the country, asking the minister to reverse the decision. One of the latest communications is from the Canadian Union of Public Employees, representing 54,000 members. They are urging the minister to restore funding to First Nations University.

I urge the minister to use her powers of persuasion to convince the minister to take another look at this issue and reverse his decision. Will the leader be able to do that?

Senator LeBreton: Honourable senators, I think the minister, the government and I have all been clear. The decision with regard to this university has been made and the matter is now closed. However, I will inform honourable senators of all the things Minister Strahl has done for education. Since 2006, our government has invested $395 million in the completion of 94 school projects. Canada's Economic Action Plan provided for 10 new schools and three major renovations. Also, the Building Canada Plan provides for eight new schools or renovation projects. As I have mentioned many times, last year we invested $100 million over three years in the Aboriginal Skills and Employment Partnership, and $75 million in the new two-year Aboriginal Skills and Training Strategic Investment Fund.

In December 2008, Minister Strahl launched two new programs to help Aboriginal students succeed academically: the Education Partnership Program and First Nation Student Success Program. We worked closely with British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick and regional First Nations on initiatives to improve educational outcomes. In February, the minister signed a memorandum of understanding with Alberta and the Assembly of Treaty Chiefs, an historic partnership to strengthen First Nations education in that province. Furthermore, Budget 2010 provides additional funding to strike agreements with remaining provinces and First Nations to support better education for First Nations students.

Honourable senators, the government has invested great sums of money in the education of our First Nations people, and obviously does not want a situation where they are investing good money in good projects and then must go back on a decision and no longer fund the First Nations University because of problems of the university's own making and their own incompetence.