Canada’s aboriginal chiefs gather in Ottawa Tuesday for a key meeting that could determine the fate of proposed federal reforms to aboriginal education.
The chiefs from the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) will also decide when to schedule a race to choose their next national chief.
The previous leader, Shawn Atleo, unexpectedly quit earlier this month amid deep division in the AFN over the government’s education reform bill.
The unprecedented resignation left the aboriginal group at a crossroads: It is without a leader when it needs to influence the Conservative government on issues such as education, missing and murdered indigenous women, and pipeline construction.
Atleo’s term was not scheduled to end until the summer of 2015. At Tuesday’s meeting, chiefs will debate whether to choose his successor much earlier — perhaps in the next few months.
If that happens, chiefs could quickly find themselves in the midst of a boisterous leadership race where the main question is whether the next leader adopts a much harder line in dealing with the federal government.
The other pressing decision the chiefs must make Tuesday is to take a formal position on the Conservative government’s bill to overhaul education on First Nations reserves.
Quebec and Labrador Regional Chief Ghislain Picard, the AFN’s spokesman since Atleo’s resignation, said in an interview Monday there’s a wide divergence of opinion among chiefs about the bill. “People are speaking for the bill, people are speaking about the need for substantial amendments to it, other people are just outright rejecting the bill as it is,” said Picard.
Still, he said he believes the majority of chiefs have concluded the bill doesn’t provide sufficient control to First Nations for education.
“There’s too much control in the hands of the minister, despite what the government will say.”
In the wake of Atleo’s May 2 resignation, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt announced the bill would be put on hold in the Commons — which could mean the $1.9 billion the government has earmarked for the initiative will be lost.
Atleo had been a key ally for the government on the bill. He pushed hard last fall for improvements, eventually liked some concessions, and appeared with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in early February when the plan was publicly announced.
The bill, introduced in April, proposes to hand control of on-reserve education to First Nations, while also setting standards and providing additional funds.
Atleo found himself facing a public revolt from some aboriginal leaders,
Some chiefs, such as Manitoba’s Derek Nepinak and Saskatchewan’s Perry Bellegarde, say the bill fell short of providing sufficient funds for schools on reserves, was prepared without adequate consultation, and gave the federal government control of the system.
“There are some people who will say somehow the mechanism of our own internal consultation has failed somewhere,” Picard said of the chiefs’ reaction to Atleo.
“There are other people who will go right to the point and say it was a sellout.”
Two weeks ago, some chiefs who met in Ottawa prepared a draft statement which was leaked to the media but held back from official release.
“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 shutdown of Canada’s economy from coast-to-coast,” said the statement.
Valcourt reacted angrily, saying MPs should condemn those who threaten “the security of Canadians, their families, and taxpayers.”
Here are highlights from the government’s proposed legislation, dubbed the “First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act”:
– First Nations can set up school boards.
– Minimum standards are required, consistent with provincial standards.
– $1.9 billion is provided to get new system started.
– Core curriculum that meets provincial standards must exist.
– First Nations’ languages and culture can be taught.
– Students must meet attendance requirements.
– Teachers must be properly certified.