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For Aboriginal people the 8th of April 1993 will be remembered as a turning point in the history of the province's largest university. University Council (composed of tenured faculty, senior administrators and student politicians) adopted a Mission Statement which had been actively opposed by those involved in Aboriginal programs.
Vice-president Patrick Browne set the course for this University Mission Statement which was intended to set academic priorities to outline a direction for principles and policies of the University of Saskatchewan. In the first draft, the Mission Statement acknowledges Aboriginal people stating that University policy was to be directed in order "to ensure the greater participation of Indian and Aboriginal peoples in all university activities."
However, subsequent drafts of the Mission Statement made no mention of Aboriginal aspirations. Yet, the `Our Heritage' section of the statement makes a great deal of the "vision of the early settlers." The Task Force that drafted the Mission Statement could not acknowledge that the University was built on land that Indian people agreed to share through Treaties. Audrey Hobman, an Aboriginal student at the University of Saskatchewan, contends that "the growing Native population in this province alone warrants more consideration from this University. Future students will be wanting education but not from an institution that won't even recognize their place in this province's history."
Any explicit recognition of Aboriginal aspirations for post secondary education or acknowledgement of the neglect of Aboriginal students for past decades has implications for academic priorities and planning. Most of the funding for the existing programs aimed at Indian and Aboriginal students comes from external sources such as Bands, Tribal Councils, Indian Affairs and the Provincial Government. Publicly, University officials take a great deal of credit for these programs, yet there is little fiscal commitment on the part of the University for Aboriginal students.
During the course of the drafting of the Mission Statement, and especially with the intense lobbying that occurred in February and March, it is clear that certain hostile forces campaigned against the inclusion of Indian and Aboriginal aspirations. The final draft of the Mission Statement offered no protection to the existing programs and ensured that the University would not be making any future commitments to the Aboriginal community.
The current economic situation of the university perpetuates the idea that any commitment to Aboriginal programs are a threat to the established status quo. The growing significant presence of Aboriginal communities and the recognition of their needs are passed off with a shrug of ivy tower elitism.
The Task Force Committee's opposition to the inclusion of any reference to Aboriginal people had the effect of bringing together diverse programs and committees such as SUNTEP, ITEP, National Native Access to Nursing, the Native Law' Centre and Native Studies. A common position was agreed to and a letter was circulated to faculty. Explicit suggestions were made to the Task Force Committee on how Aboriginal people could be included. The notice stated that the University should explicitly acknowledge the existence of the Aboriginal people and acknowledge its right and obligation to provide post secondary education for Aboriginal people.
Frank Tough, Head of the Native Studies Department, observed that "curiously, once the long-awaited Mission Statement had been finalized, it received no hype. This Mission Statement was hidden in a committee report and the agenda was presented in such a way as to not attract attention to the decision that University Council was about to make." Attendance at the meeting was correspondingly low with approximately 200 out of 1,000 or so eligible voters present.
At the last minute, the Task Force Committee proposed an amendment to include education and employment equity for Aboriginal people, the disabled, visible minorities and women. This reflected a concession to the lobbying efforts, however, it was not in line with the proposals from the Aboriginal programs.
Student politicians, displaying a much higher participation rate at this meeting than faculty, opposed even this weak amendment. One student politician suggested that an effort to include Aboriginal people would be as futile as attempting to accommodate the future population of left handed people. Aboriginal concerns seemed to be viewed by the student representatives as an insignificant issue. The opposition to the inclusion of Aboriginal people was articulated through the student block, which voted with the senior administrators. The opposition to the acknowledgement of Aboriginal people of Saskatchewan was, according to Tough, "a recycling of the same assimilationist thinking as the White
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with the senior administrators. The opposition to the acknowledgement of Aboriginal people of Saskatchewan was, according to Tough, "a recycling of the same assimilationist thinking as the White Paper of 1969 or the intransigence of Meech Lake. Of course, lots of promises are made about the future."
Such a defense of the University's Mission Statement reflected the fear by some that the Task Force Committee was split and immobilized during the, consultation. Rather than prioritize the input from consultation, the Task Force was rescued by an American scholar. The very general nature of the Mission Statement stems from inspiration offered by an American scholar Ernest Boyer. Thus the Task Force's hostility to Aboriginal people can be readily understood since it could not, in the era of Free Trade, even seek a Canadian vision of what a University should be all about.
At the council meeting, the Mission Statement itself thereafter came under severe criticism, with the faculty appearing uneasy with the product. A motion to refer the statement back to the Task Force for improvement was defeated by one vote-a clear indication that the faculty was split. President George Ivany cut off Professor Verna St. Denis, the only Aboriginal person at the council meeting, while she was making a point about racism. The faculty's unease with the Mission Statement is also apparent from the fact that many of the so-called `progressive' faculty members stayed away from the meeting. There seems to be a tendency for academics to talk a lot about social change, but just so long as it does not affect them.
The Mission Statement then passed with a 96 to 53 vote--hardly a unifying document. The opposition to recognizing Aboriginal people by the University of Saskatchewan Mission Statement was out of step with the Johnson Review Panel's concern about Aboriginal access. This Review states that "access to higher education must improve for [the Aboriginal population] to contribute to its own and the province's well being." Senior administrators often seem to be upset by provincial government funding decisions, especially when compared to the University of Regina. Perhaps it is time for the administrators to do more than champion commercially viable research and to reflect on their own elitist and reactionary politics.
More significantly, the Mission Statement and the failure to take seriously the aspirations of Aboriginal people contradict President George Ivany's intentions in his installation speech, where he argued that there was a need to do more for Aboriginal students and that universities should champion social justice. The President of the Indigenous Students' Council reacted to Ivany's position on the Mission Statement by observing. that while 1993 has been designated by the United Nations as the International Year of the Indigenous Peoples it is ironic that the University of Saskatchewan refuses to acknowledge the Aboriginal community.
Students and faculty associated with the Aboriginal programs have been encouraged by Chief Roland Crowe's attention to this issue.
The curtailment of Aboriginal aspirations by the University of Saskatchewan is reflected by the number of Aboriginal peoples the institution employs. From clerical, maintenance and technical staff to faculty members, Aboriginal persons consistently make up less than 1 % of total employees. The inability, of the Mission Statement to recognize Aboriginal contributions to the University perpetuates this trend. In order to facilitate full Aboriginal participation in educational institutions in Saskatchewan, academic and fiscal priorities must begin to focus on the aspirations of Aboriginal peoples.