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First Nations leader fires back at minister over stalled education bill

OTTAWA - The war of words between some First Nations leaders and the Conservative government is heating up.

A member of the Assembly of First Nations from Quebec blasted Bernard Valcourt on Friday, one day after the Aboriginal Affairs minister vented his frustration over a stalled bill to reform First Nations education.

"This way of doing things clearly constitutes a breach of the principle of the honour of the Crown in its dealings with First Nations," Quebec and Labrador Regional Chief Ghislain Picard said in a statement.

"It is high time the minister seized the opportunity presented to him to honourably make amends instead of closing the door on any alternative as he has already done."

Though Picard has been speaking on behalf of the Assembly of First Nations since Shawn Atleo abruptly quit as national chief in early May, the group said Friday's statement was issued in his capacity as regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador.

Picard also accused the government of misleading Canadians about the level of funding for schools in aboriginal communities, which he says do not receive enough money.

"In recent years, First Nations have gone to many lengths to demonstrate that their schools are underfunded," the statement said.

"The government had always denied this up to Feb. 7, 2014, when it announced additional funding that would enable quality education to be provided. Therefore, the government has lied to the public and kept First Nations schools in a precarious financial situation."

In response to Picard's comments, Valcourt's office referred The Canadian Press to its previous statement on the matter.

"Our government is extremely disappointed that the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) did not honour its agreement with the government," says that earlier statement.

"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."

The latest exchanges between the two sides are sure to further escalate the already heightened tensions around First Nations education.

Chiefs from across Canada voted this week to reject Conservative education reforms, and they demanded a new agreement with First Nations that provides transfer payments to aboriginal communities.

They also want the government to provide $1.9 billion tied to the original bill immediately, with a 4.5 per cent escalator until a new deal on education is reached.

But Valcourt is refusing to go back to "Square 1." He says too much time and effort have gone into the bill to start over again.

The legislation remains on hold as the government considers its options.

Meanwhile, the aboriginal community is also split over the education reforms. Some see it as a starting point with $1.9 billion of badly needed money attached to it. Others feel the government is trying to impose too much control over First Nations.

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Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version that moved May 30 suggested Picard was speaking on behalf of the broader Assembly of First Nations.

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