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First Nations considering their options on controversial education reforms

Stuart Wuttke, general counsel for the Assembly of First Nations, details proposals dealing for the election of a national chief as native leaders from across Canada attend the AFN's 35th annual general meeting in Halifax on Tuesday, July 15, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

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Stuart Wuttke, general counsel for the Assembly of First Nations, details proposals dealing for the election of a national chief as native leaders from across Canada attend the AFN's 35th annual general meeting in Halifax on Tuesday, July 15, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

OTTAWA - Chiefs attending an annual gathering of the Assembly of First Nations are mulling several counter-proposals to a controversial Conservative bill to reform aboriginal education.

But none of the draft resolutions put forward at the three-day meeting in Halifax recommends accepting the legislation as it is now written — potentially setting the stage for a showdown with the Harper government over First Nations education.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt's office has flatly said the bill will remain on hold and no new money will be spent until the AFN gets behind the legislation.

The big question now is whether aboriginal leaders can find common ground with the Conservatives and somehow salvage the bill and all the money that comes with it, or if they will continue to reject it, leaving the legislation in limbo.

Either way, it's unclear if $1.9 billion tied to the original bill is still on offer. The minister's office would only repeat a talking point from earlier this year when asked if the money is still on the table.

"Our government is extremely disappointed that the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) did not honour its agreement with the government,'' said an emailed statement attributed to Valcourt spokeswoman Andrea Richer.

"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."

Two of the draft resolutions call on the Conservatives to withdraw Bill C-33, the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act. That likely won't happen. Valcourt has said too much time and effort has gone into the bill to start over again.

One of the proposals repeats the AFN's earlier request for 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.

It also calls for the creation of a committee of regional aboriginal representatives that would work with the AFN and the government on a new funding arrangement for First Nations education.

The second proposal doesn't contain a specific dollar figure. It calls for "needs-based" funding to start immediately, not only when an education deal is reached.

But funding before an education deal in place seems to be a non-starter for the government, if the comments from Valcourt's office are any indication.

The chiefs met behind closed doors for a few hours on Wednesday to discuss the draft resolutions. They are scheduled to discuss the subject again on Thursday morning before the annual meeting ends.

The Conservative legislation has deeply divided the aboriginal community and precipitated the abrupt departure of Shawn Atleo as national chief of the AFN.

Some saw it as a first step — with a substantial dollar amount attached — that could improve the lives of First Nations children.

Others viewed it as the government exerting too much control over aboriginal education.

"A lot of this, it has a sort of tone to it that's like the Indian Act," said University of Northern British Columbia professor Ross Hoffman. "You know, where it says, 'the minister, the minister.'

"I could see clearly how progressive First Nations communities ... would find this offensive because it's still, not to be flippant, but it's kind of still 'Father knows best.' It's still paternalistic."

Regional chiefs briefly showed their support for the education bill by attending an event in February with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Atleo, but that support quickly evaporated.

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

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