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First Nations leaders ready to play hardball on education reform

KATHRYN BLAZE CARLSON AND GLORIA GALLOWAY

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

First Nations leaders are moving to reject the Conservatives' on-reserve education bill and open new talks with the government, pressing ahead with a vision that challenges the powers of the leaderless Assembly of First Nations executive and confronts Ottawa anew.

A rare meeting of the AFN Confederacy of Nations – the first such population-based gathering of First Nations leaders in a decade – passed a resolution on Wednesday that rejects the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act and calls for a Confederacy committee to enter into discussions with the federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister on an education “accord.”

A separate draft Confederacy statement, obtained by the Globe and Mail late Wednesday, threatens “economic shut-down” if the government doesn’t heed certain demands.

“Should Canada not withdraw and cease all imposed legislation on First Nations without our free, prior and informed consent, we will strategically and calculatedly begin the economic shut-down of Canada’s economy from coast-to-coast,” it says. “First Nations will determine whether or not there is international economic certainty for economic development on Turtle Island.”

The seven-point resolution, also obtained by the Globe, moved to suspend the AFN committee on education and direct the AFN secretariat and executive to “support all aspects of this Confederacy decision.” The AFN executive includes the National Chief and the regional chiefs.

Anything decided at the Confederacy gathering, expected to continue Thursday, will have to be approved at a special chiefs assembly scheduled for May 27, as per the AFN Charter. The special assembly is also expected to determine a timeline to elect a new National Chief – a position vacated earlier this month with Shawn Atleo’s surprise resignation over his support of the education Act.

The draft statement, circulated Wednesday to the AFN executive and slated for release Thursday, says the Confederacy wants Ottawa to create a “new fiscal transfer mechanism” – what it also calls “direct Treasury transfers” – so First Nations communities can control the way dollars are spent on education.

The Confederacy is a special forum of chiefs from every region with representation based on population. Even before its resolution and draft statement surfaced, questions swirled around the future of the AFN, which is in transition after Mr. Atleo’s resignation and is now staring down growing dissatisfaction with the representation it has provided.

At least one chief immediately expressed concern that the resolution, as distributed Wednesday evening, could pave the way to the disintegration of the AFN. And earlier Wednesday, Peter Kulchyski, a native-studies professor at the University of Manitoba and a founding member of the aboriginal activist group Defenders of the Land, said the return of the Confederacy model signals “things are very much in play at the AFN, including maybe even the survival of the AFN.”

AFN spokesman Don Kelly could not immediately be reached for comment just before midnight Wednesday, but earlier in the day he said it is “healthy” for chiefs to consider how the AFN should function, adapt and possibly evolve. “Any time First Nations are gathering to discuss key issues – and certainly at times like this, which is not a typical moment for First Nations – it’s important, and it should happen,” he said.

The Confederacy resolution also demands that Ottawa pick up the tab for the meeting, “including costs of travel of delegates, and costs related to the Confederacy Co-ordinating Committee and its Working Group.” The co-ordinating committee, the resolution says, is to be comprised of one delegated chief from each region, who is to report back to his or her respective region for “instructions” on how to proceed with federal discussions regarding an alternative to the education Act.

Wednesday’s Confederacy meeting was called by chiefs from across the country who said they wanted to convene in the forum that exists in part to address “emergency” matters. It came one day before a previously scheduled AFN education committee meeting, which is expected to be blended with the Confederacy gathering as it continues to meet Thursday.

“I think what’s important with the Confederacy of First Nations is that it gives the voice to the grassroots,” Stan Beardy, AFN’s regional chief for Ontario who called for the Confederacy session two weeks ago, said early Wednesday evening.

The First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act has been on hold for more than a week, since shortly after Mr. Atleo stepped down. Many native leaders said the law would allow the government to interfere in their schools and provides too little money, too late.

The Confederacy’s draft statement says the bill “does not promote First Nations control of First Nations education. It promotes federal control of First Nations education.” It says the Confederacy will reconvene on May 28 – the day after the special chiefs assembly.

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