FIRST NATIONS STUDENTS AT RISK OF LOSING FUNDING

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By Joyce Yip

Approximately 150 students could lose their education if the provincial and federal governments can’t decide who should fund the First Nations Technical Institute’s joint program with Ryerson.

The First Nations Technical Institute (FNTI), has been working in a close partnership with Ryerson University for almost a decade. Last spring, the federal government, one of the institute’s biggest financial contributor, cut $1.5 million of funding, arguing that education should be under Ontario’s jurisdiction.

The province, however, claims that FNTI’s head office in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory is on a native reserve, which is not their responsibility.

The school was about to close down in April when the provincial government issued $1.5 million to make up for the cut. But the fund was only a one-time investment and called upon the federal government to take more responsibility.

Karihwakeron Tim Thompson, the president of FNTI, said they are caught in the gap of Canadian federalism.

“We’re only a tiny institute, but now we’re responsible for pulling the two big governments together to solve indigenous problems,” he said.

Unfortunately, almost 500 students were already pulled from the school in 2006 and 2007 because of a lack of funding, added Thompson.

Ryerson and FNTI deliver tailor-made programs in public governance and administration as well as social work in Ontario. First Nations students attend intensive week-long sessions that are six to eight weeks apart and will graduate with a Ryerson University certificate, advanced certificate or degree depending on the length of schooling.

Neil Thomilson, chair of politics and public administration, said the university and FNTI have been working hard to deliver education to students who otherwise wouldn’t have access to it.

“It may not seem like a big difference to us, but for First Nations students, it’s a matter of not being a supplicant to some big daddy white university,” he said.

“If the institution collapses, there will be huge implications for Ryerson because students who are in varying stages of the program will be pulled out.”

According to Thompson, Ontario’s Aboriginal Post Secondary Education Strategy — FNTI’s main source of financial aid other than federal grants — is issuing funds according to student needs back in 1999.

“With the rising cost of tuition and the cost of living, money is becoming an incremental problem for students who are dedicated and want to go to school,” he said.

“Population is going up, and our needs are 2008 needs, we’re not in 1999 anymore. And remember, we’re communities with housing overcrowding and bad water issues.”

But despite the history of stringent funding and the recent close-call, Thompson remains optimistic.

“If we only focus on business, we lose sight of education,” he said. “I have a strong vision of creating opportunity for First Nations students to be the best that they can, to be role models for others.

A strategic consultant report, suggested and paid for by the federal government, will review the institute’s operations and give recommendations on its sustainability.

The report will tentatively be available in three months.

“I’m very optimistic about that report” he said. “Students are a resiliant bunch, but we’re [FNTI] a value added to the system. We create opportunities for first nations students.”

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