The Saskatchewan government has announced it will not fund the First Nations University of Canada after April 1, saying it has lost confidence in the leadership of the institution.
The province's annual contribution to FNUC amounted to $5.2 million, or just over a fifth of the school's annual budget.
"Our government has lost confidence in the governance and management of First Nations University," Rob Norris, the provincial minister of advanced education, employment and labour, said in a statement.
"It is our duty as government to protect our province's students and taxpayers. Sadly, it has become clear that we can no longer protect their interests by continuing to support First Nations University."
The move follows an intense period of public and behind-the-scenes discussions involving the province, students and First Nations leaders.
On Wednesday morning, at a meeting of First Nations leaders on a reserve outside Saskatoon, students called for the university board to be replaced.
The funding cut, announced Wednesday afternoon in Regina, adds significant financial pressure on First Nations University.
Previously, the federal government announced it was holding back $1.2 million in grants, saying it would release the money as soon as an external review of the institution was finished. That review, which was to provide recommendations for a new governance structure, was expected to be available this week but was pushed back to March.
Years of turmoil
"This is a regrettable but necessary decision," Norris said. "It is time for politicians to step back and the academic leadership to step forward. I encourage the University of Regina to work with relevant parties in identifying future directions for these student and their programs."
Since 2005, First Nations University of Canada has experienced internal turmoil, including the firing or departure of numerous senior officials, allegations of financial irregularities and accusations that academic freedom is under attack.
"For years there has been uncertainty swirling around this institution," Norris said. "Instead of getting better, frankly, most recently we've seen the intensification of that trouble."
'The cloud that has consumed this institution is actually beginning to tarnish the reputation of post-secondary education in Saskatchewan and I'm not going to let that happen' — Rob Norris, minister of advanced education
Norris said the main reasons behind the government's decision were the lack of progress on governance reform and questions about financial accountability.
"I think the challenges with this institution are so deep and so structural that I think it's safe to say a chapter has come to an end," Norris said.
After a daylong meeting of chiefs, on a reserve south of Saskatoon, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations — which controls FNUC — decided to hold another meeting to work out its next moves.
The federation said another meeting of chiefs would take place March 1. By then, the chiefs hope to have reports dealing with finances, as well as a consultant's report on governance.
Clarence Bellegarde, a chief in the federation and the chairman of the board of governors of First Nations University, said Norris should have tried to meet with First Nations leaders before acting.
"How he was proceeding with this through the media is totally inappropriate," Bellegarde told reporters Wednesday night. "We don't like dealing with our business through the media. We should have had a meeting set up."
Norris said he has met with officials at the University of Regina and has encouraged that institution to play a greater role in shaping the future of First Nations University.
"We want to see the academic leadership in the province, most especially the University of Regina ... step forward [and], working with relevant partners, help map out future directions for the students and their programming," Norris said.
The University of Regina president Vianne Timmons is to outline on Thursday how the university will respond to the latest developments, a news release said.
Students can finish classes
Norris said he's also worried about the broader implications of what's happened at First Nations University.
"The cloud that has consumed this institution is actually beginning to tarnish the reputation of post-secondary education in Saskatchewan and I'm not going to let that happen," he said.
But while provincial funding will end, some money will be available to ensure students can finish the courses they've enrolled in for the current academic year.
"The students are so passionate," Norris said. "We're going to work tirelessly for those students."
Adam Martin, a fine arts student at FNUC in Regina, told reporters he left a meeting with chiefs feeling uneasy about the future of the school.
"I don't know what the hell they're going to do," Martin said. "They're back to playing the political game."
Martin, who said he could only speak for himself, expressed concern that First Nations chiefs on the university board were more interested in the perks of the position than they were in the school.
Officials from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, the federal agency that also provides about $7 million in annual funding to the university, said they were studying Saskatchewan's move and hadn't decided what they would do.