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Lawsuit launched against First Nations University.

A dispute between the former vice-president of the First Nations University of Canada (FNUC) and the university board of governors has gotten a number of degrees more serious.

At a May 15 press conference, Dr. Wes Stevenson announced he was launching a lawsuit against the board, three months after he was suspended from his job as academic vice president, and a weekend after he was fired.

"To all those responsible, this is fair warning that as of today we will launch a lawsuit that will uncover the malicious and unethical nature of what has been called the 'normal, annual audit,'" the academic said.

"We will uncover the layers of lies and deceit and the many characters who were part of this conspiracy, including a board that did not have the wisdom, nor the guts, to stand up to such a tyrant," Stevenson said in apparent reference to the board chairman, Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) Vice-chief Morley Watson.

Dr. Stevenson, who served as the university's administrative vice-president for the past decade before his suspension last winter, said he has never been given any reason for his dismissal by the university, nor was he allowed to defend himself in the investigation.

The previous Thursday, Stevenson was handed a one-line letter from the university's president, Dr. Eber Hampton, saying that he was being fired for 'just cause.' The dismissal came three months after he and two other FNUC senior staff were suspended and escorted from the university campus by Regina police.

Watson's story concerning the suspension changed as the crisis at the university deepened. On the day of the suspensions he said the action was taken in accordance with the university's annual audit. In fact, no staff members had ever been suspended in the university's history during the annual inspection of the university's financial records.

Two weeks later, during the FSIN legislative assembly in Regina, Watson said he was presented with an affidavit alleging financial misconduct by the university administration. He refused to make the affidavit public, even to other members of the university's board of governors.

After Stevenson's press conference, Watson told reporters that the FSIN and the university would have nothing more to say on the matter, pending the results of an RCMP investigation. The FSIN announced that it had turned over the university's financial records to the commercial crimes unit on May 15, the same day as Stevenson's press conference.

The RCMP had a different story. No one from either the FSIN or the university had been in contact with anybody in the force regarding alleged financial wrongdoings at FNUC, said Heather Russell, a media affairs officer with the RCMP's F Division in Regina. Russell was contacted by Windspeaker one day after the FSIN made the announcement.

Stevenson welcomed the news that the FSIN was going to the police, saying that if the university's board had any evidence of wrongdoing by him or the university administration, the RCMP should have been called in at the start of the investigation.

"I welcome the opportunity to clear my name," he said.

Stevenson talked about the rumors that have floating around Regina concerning the reasons for his dismissal. Though no one from the university talked to him, he said the FSIN had spread stories about financial improprieties, mostly concerning the sale of computers--"Which I have no knowledge of," he said--and private vacations taken using university travel money.

Stevenson said the only case that may have caused the slightest controversy happened last year when he went on a nine-day trip to Halifax. He attended a conference for five days, but stayed an extra four days to visit friends and academic colleagues.

He told reporters that during the extra days he stayed with friends and did not charge anything to the university. As well, his round-trip plane ticket cost the same as it would have if he came and went only for the conference.

Two of the three people who replaced the suspended staff appear to have no experience in university academic or administrative circles. They do seem to have strong connections to the current FSIN leadership.

Al Ducharme, who took over as administration vice-president, is described as a close friend of Grand Chief Alphonse Bird, while Florence Watson, the sister-in-law of Vice-chief Watson, was appointed director of finance.

The board's actions, apparently done at the behest of the FSIN leadership, reflect a serious problem in governance, Stevenson said. The majority of the members of the university's board of governors are political appointees, and appear more interested in building political bases than with the welfare of the university, he alleged.

The FNUC's board of governors has more members--and political employees--than the boards governing Saskatchewan's other two universities. Sixteen members are appointed by provincial tribal councils, the FSIN senate or the FSIN. Three are appointed by students. The federal and provincial governments, the universities of Regina and Saskatchewan and the FNUC faculty appoint one member each.

The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada refused to grant full membership to Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, as FNUC was known before 2003, until the mid-1990s because of the overtly-political structure of the board, saying it could possibly compromise academic freedom, said Stevenson.

An official from the association refused to comment on Stevenson's allegations.

"We don't talk about our membership in public. Our membership criteria meetings are handled behind closed doors," said spokesman Jeff Pappone.

Dr. Wes Stevenson said the university may lose its association membership in a "matter of weeks." If so, losing the accreditation could make it harder for FNUC students to have their degrees recognized by employers or other universities.

The fate of the other two FNUC staff who were suspended is uncertain as of press time.

The University of Regina Faculty Association is frustrated with FNUC's refusal to meet the union to discuss academic concerns. Since the Feb. 17 suspensions, the union has filed 10 grievances against FNUC over the matter. One of the suspended employees is a union member.

Chair Dorothy Lane said the union files only two or three grievances in a normal year. The union represents academic and non-academic staff at the university, and has about 1,200 members.

The chair, who was also at the press conference, said the next step is to ask for an official hearing from the Saskatchewan Labour Relations board.

The stress resulting from the board of governors' actions has hurt the university's reputation and left staff and students demoralized, said a faculty member.

"I would have to say that morale is lower than it has ever been," said English professor Randy Lundy, chairman of the university's academic council. Staff and students have not been given any answers as to whether any wrongdoing took place. As well, he added, the dispute could make it much harder for the university to attract top-flight students and teaching staff.

By Stephen LaRose

Windspeaker Contributor

COPYRIGHT 2005 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA)
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Author:LaRose, Stephen
Publication:Wind Speaker
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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