Carrying on

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One year after the crisis at FNUniv, students and staff are working hard to move forward

John Cameron
Editor-in-Chief

It was like a tornado, Cadmus Delorme tells the crowd – “We didn’t know where we were going get spit out, we didn’t know where we were going to get picked up, and we didn’t know where we were going to get dropped off.”

There’s a small crowd in the atrium of the First Nations University of Canada (FNUniv) today, watching Cadmus speak from a podium. FNUniv interim president Shauneen Pete and elders Velma Goodfeather and Isadore Pelletier are seated at a blanket-draped table near the podium, as is the guest of honour, University of Regina president Vianne Timmons; FNUniv student association president Jesse Robson stands off to the side.

It’s Thursday, Feb. 10, a year after FNUniv students were given the chance to confront president Charles Pratt and vice-president Al Ducharme. But Pratt and Ducharme didn’t show up, and students were greeted by then-board chair Clarence Bellgarde, who gave them and their concerns 30 minutes – which he then talked through.

The students were furious. Soon, they crammed into a bus and headed north to Saskatoon, where they told the assembled politicians of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations that the time had come to take a stand for their university.

And, while students were meeting with the FSIN, the provincial and federal governments withdrew funding from FNUniv.

The institution was plunged into chaos. Pratt, Ducharme, and eventually Bellegard were dismissed, but that wasn’t enough to bring the funding back. FNUniv students didn’t give up; instead, they organized marches and rallies, and when that failed, they conducted a 72-day live-in on FNUniv’s grounds. At the end of that period, the funding was temporarily restored, with FNUniv ceding financial autonomy to the U of R.

That’s in the past now, on this bright February morning, but the crisis lasted a long time, and its effects are still lingering. You can hear them when Cadmus says he’s “still” a student here. But you can also hear lots of pride. And hope.

“… We are a family here, and many people support this university. It is a great cause. As First Nations people, it is said that we are on a healing journey, and this institution speeds up that healing journey for us, and helps me to identify myself as a First Nations person and rediscover my past.”

During the crisis, he said, people came together. People like Jesse Robson, Shauneen Pete, Vianne Timmons, and Cadmus himself.

And they all had a role to play.

When Shauneen Pete brings me into her office, one of the first things she does is joke about how messy her desk is.

Dr. Pete is, like any university administrator, busy, so it’s understandable. Reports to and from various agencies are spread across the surface of her desk. She laughs and straightens it up a bit.

But neither a packed schedule nor a cluttered desk is new to Pete. Even in the period between being fired from the post of VP Academic and being hired as president at FNUniv, Pete was active, doing a school review study in La Ronge with her own independent educational company. She was finishing up this process, in fact, when she heard that FNUniv students were demanding accountability from Pratt and Ducharme.

As an observer, she says, she was unsurprised. During her tenure as VP academic, she had questions about accountability at FNUniv. Questions she wasn’t afraid to ask. Questions that eventually got her fired.

“As a member of the executive team, I never shirked my responsibility to ask those questions,” Pete explains. “In fact, I thought it was more important that I asked them from inside, as a member of the executive team. Those questions weren’t always viewed with the intention that they were asked.”

“… I mean, a comment that was directed to me was, ‘You make it look like I can’t control you.’ And my response was, ‘Why is controlling me the issue?’”

So, on Feb. 5, 2009, Pete was fired without cause. And almost exactly one year later, shortly after Murray Westerlund’s firing, she was finding out news about FNUniv the way everyone else was – reading the newspaper and watching TV. She also remembers cheering students on the whole time.

Her first steps back into the FNUniv community were hesitant. Pete attended a fundraiser for the student movement, unsure whether she’d be welcome at the event or whether she’d run into people with lingering resentment over her tenure at the college, such as Prat and Ducharme. But, she says, it was a good decision to have gone – the students welcomed her warmly, as did Del Anaquod, FNUniv’s then-Chief Operating Officer, who asked her if she’d consider seeking the office of FNUniv president.

“I was actually humbled by the way I was greeted when I arrived at the event, because a whole table full of people stood up and applauded, and I was like, ‘Okay, cool. That’s good.’ That gave me a sense of hope.

“And many, many people came by and said, ‘I never got to see you when you were fired. Will you come back? Can you come back?’ And I was really taken and touched by that, and I said to the COO, ‘Yeah. I will.’”

Pete began to get more involved with the student protests, attending them and speaking at students’ behest. She was actually attending a protest the night she was hired as interim president. She remembers it clearly; it was the same night her daughter joined the live-in. She was hired, and soon had to face several tough decisions, such as the sale of FNUniv’s Saskatoon property in order to pay for the severance of the employees that the college, according to their Memorandum of Understanding with the federal government, had to downsize.

“[The layoffs were] the worst,” she says, sighing. “… We ceremonied that day. We sat with the elders and we smudged and we readied ourselves. We practiced. And then we delivered the messages. And that was one of the most difficult days professionally for me, ever.”

But the university shrunk its staff in order to stay open, and that means – difficult or not – moving on. So Pete tries to keep her door open to students and faculty, travels regularly to Saskatoon and Prince Albert to meet with students, and makes herself available when prospective students are visiting the campus. The atmosphere she wants at FNUniv isn’t just academic, it’s one of openness, transparency, and community – which means she finds herself working toward what the students demanded of the previous administration. And it’s work she’s proud to do.

“It’s such a privilege to be in this position, even in this troubling time. To have seen it through, it’s pretty damn fine.”

Jesse Robson’s big hands are gripping the sides of the podium. He’s leaning semi-casually on it and talking into the microphone, speaking with the ebb and flow of his own memory as he recalls meeting with the FSIN. Cadmus had just thanked President Timmons for her work on behalf of the students during the crisis; she sits silently, watching Jesse hold onto the podium and remember.

“It seemed like we were climbing this mountain, and it seemed like that day, with that meeting, we were maybe about to make some progress and get to the top of that mountain.

“And I remember, we received a phone call – I think, it actually appeared on the news, we heard it on a radio broadcast over the Internet, that the provincial government had pulled the funding from our school. And I remember, from that point, it was kind of like a blur. There were a lot of tears being shed, and there was disarray, and we didn’t know what to do. It seemed like, we tried to hold our heads high, but I remember that bus ride. For me, it was very long. I was very quiet, and very frustrated. To me, it felt like the battle was over at that point.

“The very next day, I realized the battle was just beginning.”

 

When he remembers how students went to face down Charles Pratt and Al Ducharme to demand answers only to be met with Charles Bellegarde, Jesse Robson chuckles, exasperated.

“It was – it was so frustrating,” he says. “Because it felt like this was the day we were actually going to get to talk to these people. A group of us. And we felt like we weren’t able to be intimidated, because there was more of us than there were of them. And we were going to remain very respectful, but the moment their replacements showed up, it just felt like – I dunno. You felt like a little kid whose dad forgot to pick him up after the baseball game, you know? Just cheap.”

That was the moment, Jesse says, that the student movement within FNUniv coalesced. After years of ignoring their concerns, the school’s administration had finally outright insulted students. So students took action, approaching the FSIN and demanding change at the university. But, Jesse says, they didn’t want that change to come at the cost of their education.

“We didn’t want them to get in a tug-of-war with the government. We kind of wanted them to hold their hands up in the air and cooperate,” he remembers.

And it was during that meeting when funding was withdrawn.

“It was probably three o’clock,” he says. “We’d been there all day. And we heard on the news on the Internet that the province has pulled the funding from our school. And I remember, it was just like – the students were surrounding this meeting, so we heard before Chief Guy Lonechild heard and before any of the chiefs actually heard. So we’re watching their communications guy write up this memo that he’s about to hand to Chief Guy Lonechild as he’s addressing all the chiefs … I remember it felt very historic to be standing there, watching this memo be handed to the chief of the FSIN.

“In my mind, it plays back like a movie. I can see that hand, and I can see him looking down and stopping and looking up and realizing the very thing we’re talking about right now has just been turned on its head.”

From there, things just got harder for the students. They had worked to keep FNUniv from becoming a political battleground; now, they were working even harder just to ensure that there would even be a fall semester. The student association, in collaboration with the FSIN, worked to organize protests and marches. But March arrived and, despite changes to FNUniv’s staff and board, the university was still without its funding for the following year. So the students decided to do something more dramatic.

“I don’t know who said it,” Jesse admits. “But I just remember hearing, ‘If they wanna close our school, we should just move in. And we won’t let them take it from us.’ … And that sort of was the defining moment, that was, like, ‘Well, if that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes.’”

In the FNUniv student association lounge, a few metres from where I’m interviewing Jesse, there’s a bulletin board filled with news clippings and information for students. One of the letter-sized paper sheets is a list of rules for the live-in, covering everything from littering to the respect of elders to reminding participants that they still had to fulfill their academic commitments, meaning attending classes and turning in assignments and doing all the things that the students on campus whose college isn’t facing imminent closure also had to do.

I point it out to Jesse, who tells me that the combination of media presence and actual coursework was “surreal”. But he adds that the live-in protest was always about the school, first and foremost. According to him, it never left the students’ minds.

“No matter whether it was the live-in itself or just everyday classes here,” he remembers. “The fact that we were students, it was always present.”

In between speakers, Cadmus is thanking a slew of people: gifts go to Del Anaquod and the daughter of board chairwoman Joley BigEagle, and verbal gratitude goes to the U of R Students’ Union’s Kyle Addison and Kaytlyn Barber, unidentified arts faculty professors, and community elders who stayed overnight.

And, finally, he’s able to start thanking Vianne Timmons. She was, he says, a tireless champion of the students, not only at the level of provincial and federal politics, but even on the level of just waking up early one morning and bringing the live-in participants huge sacks full of breakfast sandwiches from McDonald’s.

“Our saviour!” Cadmus cries, to laughter and applause.

He’s still grinning as the applause dies down, but his voice becomes more serious. “She also helped the students. A lot of the students, we endured too much pressure from what was going on and a lot of us kind of got away from our studies. Well, she gave us her word: ‘If you need any help, you come and see me.’

“To me, that was support,” he continues. “To me, that was someone really stepping up and telling us, ‘We’ll support you any way we can.’”

When she accepted the presidency of the U of R in fall 2008, Vianne Timmons didn’t have FNUniv’s governance on her mind. The University of Prince Edward Island, her previous employer, didn’t have federated colleges. In talking about it, the words “learning curve” do come up. But she does say that having FNUniv on campus was a factor in her taking the job; after all, she’s spent years working on educational outreach programs for Aboriginal students and families.

Above all, President Timmons is very diplomatic, and although you can’t help but wonder what she might have been thinking of FNUniv’s governance when Dr. Pete was fired midway through Timmons’ first year in office, her answer is measured and pragmatic.

“She was let go without cause; that meant that it wasn’t anything to do with her job performance. And one of the challenges of administration is you have to have a team that works together. So I didn’t get involved in any intrusive way, I just listened to both sides and asked both sides to act and move forward in a positive way.

“And I have to compliment Dr. Pete, because she did,” Timmons continues. “… It was devastating for her, and she kept her held high. And it was without cause, and I think she managed to handle that in a classy way.”

But at the time of Dr. Pete’s firing, Timmons had bigger concerns – namely, the college’s hemorrhaging budget, which Timmons says was full of issues that weren’t being addressed. Eventually, Murray Westerlund’s airing of these issues were what got him fired.

Still, despite faculty and student ire over at FNUniv, Timmons maintains that herself, her administration, and her board attempted to remain as neutral as possible, working with Pratt to try and resolve the college’s budget crisis without impinging on their autonomy from the U of R proper – the strongest action she took was to push FNUniv’s executive toward having a fallback plan for their budget beyond waiting for more government funding. It was only after Pratt and Ducharme were dismissed and Bellegarde’s board dissolved, Timmons says, she brought the main stakeholders in FNUniv together to try and resolve the school’s ongoing crisis. But she says that the credit for getting everyone involved – the governments who withdrew funding from the school included – doesn’t belong exclusively to the U of R administration.

“I would credit the students … I think the students’ voice mobilized the provincial government to come to the table,” Timmons said.

When talking with Jesse, I tell her, he’d expressed concerns about both the FSIN and the provincial government, in terms of how the students had explicitly wanted discussions of FNUniv to be about academics, not politics.

“I would say that the students didn’t allow that to happen,” she said. “The students were so consistent and passionate in their messaging. They were always visible, and always respectful. I can recall one of the students saying, ‘If things do not work out, we’ve been assured that U of R is there. And I’m proud to be a First Nations student and I’m proud to be a U of R student.’ I think that really stayed with me and really kept me on a straight path.”

Timmons is cagey about the U of R’s involvement during FNUniv’s crisis. While she says she was constantly talking with figures involved, she also says she wanted the U of R “out of the spotlight” as much as possible.

There’s plenty of possible reasons for that, but there’s one in particular she wants to highlight; as she shows me out of her office, after I’ve turned off my recorder, she emphasizes to me how she feels the story of FNUniv belongs more than anyone to the students.

And she’s right. More than belonging to the U of R, or to FSIN, or any of the other higher bodies to which its executive has to report, the ones who have the greatest claim to ownership of FNUniv – those fighting for accountable administration, fighting for appropriate funding, fighting for its very existence – are and have always been those taking its classes. The school’s future is still uncertain, but it’s bright. And it belongs to its students.

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