Monday, September 22, 2014
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Federal government kills education bill after First Nations chiefs reject it

Mark Kennedy

Ottaw Citizen

The federal government stated bluntly Tuesday that it is dropping its plan for an overhaul of First Nations education and will not “invest” new funds in the system unless aboriginal leaders agree to the necessary reforms.

The announcement came after the country’s aboriginal chiefs demanded that the Conservative government kill its proposed bill to reform First Nations education.

“Our government is extremely disappointed that the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) did not honour its agreement with the government,” said Andrea Richer, director of communications for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt.

“As we have said all along, this legislation will not proceed without the support of AFN, and we have been clear that we will not invest new money in an education system that does not serve the best interests of First Nations children; funding will only follow real education reforms.”

Earlier in the day, chiefs from the AFN gathered for a special meeting at a time of discord within the group.

The AFN’s national chief, Shawn Atleo, unexpectedly quit several weeks ago amid internal complaints that he had publicly supported the government’s bill, C-33, which would have made major changes to First Nations education.

The chiefs at Tuesday’s session unanimously backed a motion that said the government “must withdraw Bill C-33 and engage in an honourable process with First Nations that recognizes and supports regional and local diversity to true First Nations control of education based on our responsibilities and inherent Aboriginal and Treaty rights.”

Another resolution they approved said First Nations “reject” the bill and “demand the government withdraw it immediately.” They called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government to “negotiate” a new agreement, but immediately provide the $1.9 billion promised in connection with Bill C-33.

In the wake of Atleo’s May 2 resignation, Valcourt had announced the bill would be put on hold in the House of Commons “until the AFN clarifies its position.” Valcourt’s statement Tuesday evening confirmed that without AFN support, the bill is now dead.

The heated debate among chiefs exposed a wide gulf among them: some wanted to try pushing for significant amendments to the bill, while others felt the best solution was the outright death of the legislation.

After several hours of debate, some chiefs were dismayed over how they had spent so much time at odds with each other. “This is ridiculous,” said British Columbia Chief Byron Louis. “All we do is sit here and fight amongst ourselves. Eventually, we’ve got to compromise.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, it quickly became apparent there was little support for amending the bill.

“The government in Canada is a dictatorship,” said Chief Gordon Beardy. “Kill the bill. Then we’ll start.”

Chief Gordon Peters, citing the government’s record, concurred: “What are the chances of making substantial amendments? Zero. You have to have a dead bill.”

Atleo had been a key ally for the government on the education bill. He pushed hard last fall for improvements, eventually liked some concessions the government made, and appeared publicly with Harper in February when the plan was announced.

The bill, introduced in April, proposed to hand control of on-reserve education to First Nations, while also setting standards and providing additional funds.

But some chiefs, such as Manitoba’s Derek Nepinak and Saskatchewan’s Perry Bellegarde, said the bill fell short of providing sufficient money, was prepared without adequate consultation, and gave the federal government control of the system.

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