People in Saskatchewan are still processing the news of Shawn Atleo's abrupt resignation as Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
Atleo's move, Friday, was in response to criticism over his position on proposed changes to education for Aboriginal people. The changes, contained in Bill C-33 currently before Parliament, have proven controversial and Atleo said he did not want criticism of him to distract people from the broader issues relating to First Nations education.
"I have fought for this work and to achieve this mandate," Atleo said. "This work is too important and I'm not prepared to be an obstacle to it."
Among those who are unhappy with Bill C-33, Chief Perry Bellegarde, head of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations.
"I'm just as shocked and surprised as you all are," Bellegarde said Friday, when asked about Atleo's move.
Bellegarde, who ran against Atleo in the most recent AFN leadership contest, said his differences with Atleo were never personal.
"Anytime you see a leader resign it's a sad day, because it's a difficult job," he said.
Max Fineday, a student leader and keen observer of First Nations politics, said Friday he believes some chiefs have been overly harsh with Atleo.
"There's been a lot of criticism for [his] being a puppet of the Canadian government that I think wasn't warranted," Fineday said. "I know Shawn Atleo and he's been doing the work he's been mandated to by the chiefs."
Prior to stepping down, Atleo had publicly backed Bill C-33, the so-called First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, calling it a step toward long-standing aboriginal demands for control of their schooling, respect for their treaty rights and recognition of their language and culture.
But critics say the legislation strips away First Nations rights and puts too much control over their children's education in the hands of the federal government.
"It's a flawed bill," Bellegarde insisted Friday. "It needs to be withdrawn and a proper consultation process with all First Nations leaders across Canada needs to be undertaken pretty quick."