By Olesia Plokhii -
The Assembly of First Nations will plan its continued offensive against Ottawa's aboriginal education bill Tuesday at an annual gathering in Gatineau, just as a rally against the proposal comes to Parliament Hill.
The AFN Special Chiefs Assembly, which is the group's biggest annual political gathering after their general assembly, will focus on issues including claims reform, treaty implementation, energy and education reform, the latest rallying point for aboriginals against the federal government.
National Chief Shawn Atleo, who was scheduled to speak at the meeting Tuesday, will now attend only on Thursday, after a last minute decision to attend the funeral of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. Unveiled in draft form in October, the education bill is silent on funding and gives the minister power to impose third party management on under-performing schools, as well as to remove First Nations school boards. It also lays out three options for governance of schools.
"First Nations need the freedom to pursue whatever options they want to pursue," AFN communications director Don Kelly said Monday. "First Nations have to have control about how they want to organize themselves."
He added that assurances from Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt that he will use unilateral powers rarely was "not good enough," and that communities still recovering from the residential school crisis were not eager to trust the government.
"People are not willing to give [Ottawa] the benefit of the doubt," he said. Kelly said regional chiefs would discuss a "number of actions that can be taken" on education before the end of a 75-day consultation period on the draft bill, set to formally wrap up at the beginning of January. One of the regional chiefs attending the meeting, Ghislain Picard from Quebec and Labrador, has already threatened to take Ottawa to court over the legislation.
Still, Kelly said Ottawa appears to be listening to concerns on the bill.
"The ball's in the federal court at this point," he said, adding it remains to be seen if they will show "leadership and flexibility" to address concerns.
Valcourt has repeatedly said the government had not made a final decision on the contents of the bill.
A group of AFN chiefs also plan to attend an Idle No More Ontario rally against the education bill Tuesday. Protesters will march from Victoria Island to Parliament Hill around noon, and NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus is expected to speak, as is Liberal aboriginal affairs critic Carolyn Bennet. NDP MP Romeo Saganash is also expected to attend, the group said on its Facebook page.
The AFN meeting also comes on the anniversary of the hunger strike of Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence, whose fast fueled the Idle No More movement and ushered in a symbolic meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and aboriginal leaders in January.
Kelly said chiefs had something planned for the occasion of Spence's anniversary. He said he thought she would attend, although the chief could not be reached. Several hundred people are expected to attend the summit, Kelly said, from chiefs to councillors, elders and youth.
The AFN is asking Ottawa to pour $1.9 billion into education over the next three years: $510 million in basic funding to keep schools operational; $1.2 billion in curriculum and language service funding; and $266 million in infrastructure money.