A History of the First Nations College Movement of Canada, 1969-2000

Volume 26, No. 3 - Spring 2015
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The First Nations University of
Canada, Regina Campus. Photo courtesy of First Nations University
of Canada.

Since the early 1970s, First Nations people in Canada have established 24 Native-run colleges. This article identifies the important factors that influenced them to create postsecondary institutions. It also highlights efforts in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, where Native leaders played an especially important role in advancing higher education for the Aboriginal population with the establishment of the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College in 1976, later renamed the First Nations University of Canada.


In 1969, Jean Chrétien, minister of the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA), released what became known as the “White Paper.” This declaration was similar to the U.S. government’s House Resolution 108, which sought to terminate the federal government’s trust responsibilities. The Canadian policy called for the gradual elimination of the DIA. Once accomplished, the former functions of the office would be dispersed among other Canadian government agencies and the provincial governments. Those tribes that had treaties with Canada would lose the special Indian status they had possessed for years. The policy also favored the assimilation of Indians into mainstream Canadian society.

In late 1969 and into 1970, various Canadian Indian leaders sponsored a series of meetings to oppose the White Paper and to advocate for retaining Native identity. The meetings culminated in a final gathering in June 1970, when some 200 Indian leaders met with Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. They presented to him their response, known as the “Red Paper.” The leaders opposed nearly everything included in the White Paper and stressed that Indians did not want to assimilate but rather sought to remain Aboriginal. Trudeau scrapped the White Paper, giving the Indians a significant victory.

In this activist era of 1969, First Nations peoples openly expressed their opposition to assimilation in other ways too. They suggested different avenues of how Indian people could preserve their Native identity. In mid-1969, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians (FSI), an intertribal organization representing thousands of Indians in that province, submitted a proposal to the DIA calling for the creation of a cultural college. If established, the institution would offer Indian-oriented courses, including art, dance, and music. The FSI also wanted “Indian students to research the areas of Indian history, anthropology, and sociology so that they could portray a picture of Indian society” (Saskatchewan Indian, Sep. 1972, p. 7). In short, the FSI wanted young Indians to relearn and respect the Aboriginal practices and worldviews of their ancestors. FSI turned to the DIA in 1969 because the Indian people of Saskatchewan did not have the monetary resources to build an Indian cultural college. Unfortunately, the DIA was in no mood to grant funds for the cultural college.

Another voice calling for the creation of an Indian college was Harold Cardinal—a Cree from the Sucker Cree Reserve in Alberta who was serving as president of the Association of Alberta Indians. In 1969, Cardinal published the book, The Unjust Society: The Tragedy of Canada’s Indians, which highlighted the undesirable treatment First Peoples had received throughout Canadian history. But the book was more than an indictment of White society, for Cardinal also made suggestions on how life could be improved for the Indians of Canada. He stressed that the education of Indian children must be controlled by Indian people, referring to the dozens of church-run residential schools established in Canada decades earlier to Christianize and “civilize” Indian children. The Canadian government had worked with the missionaries by removing Indian children from their Native homes and transporting them to the schools. Many Indian parents and families had lost control over the lives of their own offspring (Cardinal, 1969, p. 60).

Cardinal also argued that there was a need for postsecondary education for Canadian Indians. Cardinal was aware that Indians could not easily enter postsecondary institutions until they had acquired a suitable mainstream educational background. He therefore recommended the creation of a new kind of institution or process to bridge that gap for Native people. Although he did not use the words “Indian college,” it was exactly this kind of educational institution Cardinal had in mind (Cardinal, 1969, pp. 117, 167).

That same year, Trent University in Ontario became the first mainstream Canadian university to introduce an Indian studies program. Students could now take various Indian-oriented courses leading to a Bachelor of Arts degree. The program came into existence at the urging of both Indians and sympathetic Whites, and it was an expression of Indians wanting to perpetuate the history and culture of the Indigenous peoples of Canada.

These ideas and developments in 1969 led to further progress in the early 1970s. In 1971, the Canadian government adopted a new policy allowing Indians to develop cultural or adult education centers where the Indians could teach cultural practices and oral traditions. Some of these centers would become “cultural colleges.” In 1972, the largest Canadian intertribal organization, the National Indian Brotherhood, drafted a position paper entitled, “Indian Control of Indian Education,” which would further contribute to the eventual development of First Nations colleges. And FSI remained deeply committed to its higher-education plan despite DIA’s lack of interest.


In September 1971, FSI outlined a list of objectives and purposes for its proposed college. The plan stated that FSI would 1) teach Indian students “their history and culture”; 2) make the larger Canadian society aware of Indigenous cultures; 3) provide an education for “urban-bound” Indian students; 4) introduce courses to outlying and rural Indian communities; 5) serve as a “clearing house” on information about Canadian Indians; 6) “identify, promote, and support talented Indians in the arts, professions, and sports”; and 7) move towards the ability to confer accredited bachelor’s degrees in courses related to Indian cultures. Thus FSI, which served some 42,000 Indians in the province of Saskatchewan, had developed a blueprint for a full-fledged Indian university in the early 1970s (Saskatchewan Indian, Sep. 1971, p. 7).

Finally, in September 1972, FSI created the Saskatchewan Indian Cultural College (SICC) after it received $500,000 from the DIA for institutional development. SICC was Indian-controlled and governed by a 12-member board of directors. SICC received the bulk of its funds from the DIA. Additionally, SICC cooperated with other postsecondary institutions such as the University of Saskatchewan, which offered college-level courses.

In the first half of the 1970s, SICC offered a number of programs to Indian students who were both rural and urban, including GED and teacher education programs. Certification allowed them to teach Indian subject matter in the various Indian schools of Canada. Later, SICC introduced a nine-month Indian art program to prepare Indian students to teach art. SICC also offered six-week programs in art, dance, music, Native religion, the legal status of Canadian Indians, and Indian psychology. Outside the academic classroom, SICC established other resources that enriched college community life. It had a cultural center devoted exclusively to the research and study of Indian cultures of Canada, and an “action centre,” which prepared curricular materials to be used by teachers instructing Indian children (Saskatchewan Indian, Sep. 1972, p. 7).

With its variety of programs and resources, Indian people in Saskatchewan recognized SICC as a legitimate postsecondary institution, but the larger Canadian public did not. Unlike larger, mainstream colleges and universities, SICC was not accredited. For this reason, the FSI sought ways to elevate the status of SICC so that it would be viewed as a quality college by both Indians and non-Indians. FSI leaders met with officials from the University of Regina (UR) and asked if SICC could become a federated college within the larger university. Petitioning UR specifically made sense as the university already had worked with SICC in developing a joint program to train Native social workers. In May of 1976, UR approved FSI’s proposed arrangement. UR’s president, Lloyd Barber, maintained that such a model advanced a “smaller learning” atmosphere and would also make the federated college “administratively and financially independent,” while at the same time give it a connection to a larger existing university. Once UR approved a federated academic arrangement, FSI incorporated the college under the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College Act (Stonechild, 2006, pp. 45, 90-91).


Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien visits the SIFC campus. Like many TCUs in the U.S., SIFC had humble beginnings, holding
classes in trailers. Photo courtesy of First Nations University of Canada

The UR senate went on to allow the newly established Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (SIFC) to award bachelor’s degrees in Indian studies. Because of the federated academic arrangement UR extended a certain amount of autonomous control to SIFC, giving the college the ability to appoint its own board and hire its own faculty. One thing SIFC did not receive from UR was full funding. The college had to rely on the DIA for a large percentage of financial support—and the DIA made it clear that such funding would be on a matching basis only.

Besides the creation of the SIFC, FSI also founded a separate institution that focused on adult education programs. They initially called it Saskatchewan Indian Community College, but in 1982 changed the name to Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies (SIIT). The entity also awarded certificates and diplomas in various technological and vocational fields.

SIIT’s enrollments markedly increased over the years, beginning with only 232 students in 1976, but reaching 1,639 by 2000 (“Celebrating 25,” 2001, p. 31; “School Praised,” 2001, p. 24).

Another FSI initiative was the maintenance of the initial cultural college. The cultural college made special efforts to keep some of the Indian-oriented courses, including Native dance, law, music, and political science. It also sought to encourage talented students to pursue careers in various professions, including art and sports.

SIFC remained under Aboriginal control, despite its growth and connnection to UR. The college initially started out with only two academic programs, including its two-year certificate program in social work. The other was a baccalaureate program in Indian studies, which grew quickly. Indeed, enrollments in both programs rose rapidly: there were 28 students in 1976, but only two years later enrollment increased to 188 (Saskatchewan Indian, May 1979, p. 14).

Beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, SIFC added new academic programs to its curricula, including a Bachelor of Indian Education degree, a Bachelor of Indian Social Work degree, and a Bachelor of Indian Art degree. Besides these four-year degree programs, SIFC continued to award two-year certificates. Thus, in less than a decade, the federated college provided an array of academic programs.

Although Native people administered the college, SIFC still remained dependent on both UR and the DIA for funding. The federated relationship required university approval of major developments within SIFC, including the creation of new academic degree programs. Because of this dependency, SIFC was subject to government cutbacks and undesirable DIA education policies. For example, in 1988, the DIA reduced travel expenses for Indian students who attended colleges and universities. It also required Indian students to finish their bachelor’s degrees in 40 months and their master’s degrees in eight months. SIFC officials quickly realized that such policies would hurt the federated college because Indian students from all over Canada attended the college. Additionally, many students, regardless of background, took longer than the time frame specified to finish degree programs. In a counter proposal, SIFC argued that the college would “become a university solely for Indians from southern Saskatchewan, rather than for Indians all across Canada.” SIFC wanted the federated college to be “a provincial, national, and international centre of excellence,” not a college serving students in only one province (“New Guidelines,” 1989, p. 11). In the end, the DIA backed down and abandoned its potentially harmful proposals.


In subsequent years, SIFC grew due to a variety of new developments. In 1988, the DIA created the Indian Studies Support Program to provide financial support to “Treaty Status Indian students” enrolled in Native-run, post-secondary institutions such as SIFC (Stonechild, 2006, pp. 106-107). The college also continued to create new programs. In 1983, for example, it introduced the Centre for International Affairs, which later became the Centre for International Indigenous Studies and Development. This program encouraged Indigenous students from all over the world to attend SIFC. In subsequent years, Indigenous foreign students earned either college degrees or certificates from SIFC. The largest number came from Chile, followed by Guatemala and Peru. Heartened by growing international enrollment, SIFC embraced the notion that Indigenous peoples around the world need to come together to share common problems and potential.


The tipi design for the entryway of First Nations University of Canada’s main building was dedicated to First Nations veterans. Photo courtesy of First Nations University of Canada.

SIFC has also launched a science department, a business and public administration school that offers a Master of Business Administration degree, and has expanded its Indian studies offerings to include a master’s degree program. In recent years, SIFC established branch campuses, including one in Saskatoon where the original cultural college was born in 1972. And in celebration of its 10-year anniversary, the federated college created an alumni organization.

Despite the establishment of a variety of academic programs and initiatives, the Department of Indian Studies continues to be the core of SIFC. Founded in 1976, Indian studies remains one of the longest existing entities on campus. The first lecturer of the program, Blair Stonechild (Muscowpetung), sought to strengthen Indian studies by consulting with grassroots Native leaders, including elders, to secure their input in areas of Indigenous subject matter and decision-making. By 1998, the department enrolled approximately 200 students.

At the end of the 20th century, the Federation of Saskatchewan Nations (formerly FSI) passed a new Saskatchewan Indian Federated College Act to reinforce the earlier act from 1976. This new act legitimized even further the SIFC as an “autonomous degreegranting university college to serve First Nations people for the purpose of providing university-level education.” This step led SIFC to diversify its curricula even further, including the development of an environmental health program (Stonechild, 2006, pp. 45, 108).

In 2003, officials dropped the original name and gave the institution a new name: First Nations University of Canada. The name change reflected the growth and diversification of the institution. Its new vision statement asserted, “The First Nations University of Canada provides an opportunity for students of all nations to learn in an environment of First Nations cultures and values. The university is a special place of learning where we recognize the spiritual power of knowledge and where knowledge is respected and promoted” (Paquette & Fallon, 2010, p. 301).

That same year, the university moved into a new facility—a four-story, 150,000-square foot building. Designed by Native architect Douglas Cardinal, the building consists of circles and curves to recognize Indigenous patterns and styles. The entrance of the building is a two-story glass structure in the shape of a tipi. Interior motifs include a Native creation story and a fire pit crafted of red pipestone often used for ceremonial and religious purposes. The new structure thus connects the present with the past, and is a manifestation of the First Nations’ commitment to the growth and advancement of higher education.

The First Nations University of Canada—along with other First Nations postsecondary institutions—is the end result of Aboriginal activism and assertion that surfaced more than three decades ago. At times, scholars who examine Native activism of the late 1960s and early 1970s conclude that the movement gradually faded away by the mid-1970s. Although there is some truth to this narrative, perhaps there is another broader way to look at Indigenous activism of times past. The Native education activists of the 1970s left a visible and permanent legacy, and one manifestation is the First Nations University of Canada and other Native-run postsecondary institutions.

Steven Crum, Ph.D. (Western Shoshone), is a professor of Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis.


Cardinal, H. (1969). The Unjust Society: The Tragedy of Canada’s Indians. Edmonton: M.G. Hurtig. Celebrating 25 Years of Post-Secondary Education. (2001, July). Windspeaker, p. 31.

New Guidelines Will Hinder SIFC. (1989, February 2). Kainai News, p. 11.

Paquette, J. & Fallon, G. (2010). First Nations Education Policy in Canada: Progress or Gridlock. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Saskatchewan Indian. Archives, 1971–1974, 1976–1981. Retrieved from http://www.sicc.sk.ca/saskatchewan.html School Praised on 25 Years of Instruction. (2001, August). Windspeaker, p. 24.

Stonechild, B. (2006). The New Buffalo: The Struggle for Aboriginal Post-Secondary Education in Canada. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.

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