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

Feb 23rd, 2015 | By | Category: 26-3: Global Indigenous Higher Education, Research
By Steven J. Crum

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).

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