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A students walks by the Regina campus of the First Nations University of Canada in Regina in January. (Troy Fleece For The Globe and Mail)
A students walks by the Regina campus of the First Nations University of Canada in Regina in January. (Troy Fleece For The Globe and Mail)

Troubled First Nations University gets $4-million lifeline from Ottawa Add to ...

Ottawa has thrown the struggling First Nations University of Canada a financial lifeline that students hope will keep their beloved school afloat.

Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl said on Wednesday that the federal government will invest up to $4-million in programming for the school's students from September, 2010, through March, 2011. The money will not go directly to First Nations University but will flow through the University of Regina, which has a partnership with the aboriginal school.

"It's what the students have been fighting for the past six months," said Cadmus Delorme of the school's students' association. "It's not long-term, it's not the core funding that we were asking for, but we're definitely happy that the federal government is coming through and they're showing that they know the importance of the First Nations University of Canada."

The money is coming from the Indian Studies Support Program, which is proposal-driven. It is not intended to repay the aboriginal school's debt or to cover operational costs.

The federal government said in March that it would use $3-million from the same program to help First Nations University students finish this school year. But students and staff were concerned there was no guarantee that the Regina-based school would stay open beyond the end of August.

Mr. Delorme said the new funding gives him hope.

"It does give me confidence that this university will stay open. We're taking the right steps," he said.

In February, the federal and Saskatchewan governments cut more than $12-million in funding to the country's only aboriginal university over allegations of financial mismanagement and years of problems with its administration.

The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, which oversees the university, has taken steps to save it and rebuild its tarnished reputation.

Federation chiefs dissolved the board of governors and put the administration on leave. An interim, non-political board made up of native academic professionals was appointed.

Interim president Shauneen Pete said the new funding means the school can know with certainty that it can deliver courses and programs in the 2010-2011 academic year. But she added that a major restructuring is still needed.

"With our partners at the University of Regina, we have established a series of task forces, which will assist us to decide what areas we can cut back without losing sight of our mission and vision - to deliver indigenous bilingual and bicultural education to first nations and non-first nations students alike," Ms. Pete said in a news release.

Mr. Strahl gave a lot of the credit to federation Chief Guy Lonechild for righting "what has very much been a sinking ship."

The minister said he's encouraged by the university's progress so far and looks forward to seeing it become increasingly stable, both in its finances and in its governance. The funding depends on continued reform.

"I reinforced that in a letter to them today to say that those milestones must be reached. We can't slide back, because this has happened before, unfortunately," he said.

There is hope for the university beyond next spring, he added.

"We wouldn't be putting $7 million into it if we didn't think it had a long-term future," Mr. Strahl said.

Liberal MP Ralph Goodale, who represents the Regina riding where First Nations University is located, said the new money is a step in the right direction, but added that the school needs long-term, sustainable financing. It can't depend on "hand-to-mouth funding," Mr. Goodale said.

The Saskatchewan government restored its $5.2-million grant after a partnership was reached with First Nations University, the University of Regina and the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations to reorganize operations at the aboriginal school.

Saskatchewan Advanced Education Minister Rob Norris called the new funding a "significant gesture of confidence" in the efforts to fix the school's problems.

"I think the future is far brighter for First Nations University," Mr. Norris said from Bangalore, India.

"It's a day that I hope all stakeholders are appreciative of because it really provides a fresh start for First Nations University. I think at last it can move out beyond that cloud of bad news that has haunted it over the course of the last five years."

The Canadian Press

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