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Native leaders reaffirm call on feds to drop aboriginal education legislation

Perry Bellegarde, chief of the Little Black Bear First Nation in Saskatchewan, addresses the audience as native leaders from across Canada attend the Assembly of First Nations' 35th annual general meeting in Halifax on Thursday, July 17, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

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Perry Bellegarde, chief of the Little Black Bear First Nation in Saskatchewan, addresses the audience as native leaders from across Canada attend the Assembly of First Nations' 35th annual general meeting in Halifax on Thursday, July 17, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

HALIFAX - The Assembly of First Nations concluded its annual meeting Thursday with no sign it is budging from its position that a contentious aboriginal education reform bill needs to be dropped, an issue that has put it at odds with the federal government.

After considering various counter-proposals to the legislation during their gathering in Halifax this week, First Nations leaders opted to stay the course and continue their call for the withdrawal of Bill C-33, the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act.

While the federal government put the bill on hold after First Nations representatives from across Canada flatly rejected the changes in late May, the assembly's interim national chief said that for many native leaders, suspending the plan fails to go far enough.

"There needs to be a clear indication that the bill is being withdrawn," said Chief Ghislain Picard.

"What is even more important is that the assembly agrees there is a process that needs to take place, that it be as broad as possible and that it be as inclusive as possible."

The proposed legislation — along with $1.9 billion in accompanying funding — deeply divided the aboriginal community, with some viewing it as an opportunity to improve the lives of aboriginal children and others dismissing it as exerting too much control over First Nations affairs.

The suspension of any additional funding for aboriginal education while the bill remains in limbo has led to general frustration among aboriginal leaders.

"They have a fiduciary responsibility to provide education to our kids and they've got to start changing their attitude and be more accommodating and work with us," said Chief Ava Hill of the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory in Ontario, who put forward the education resolution that was ultimately adopted by the assembly.

"If the (aboriginal affairs) minister is serious about doing something here, he should be open to sitting and meeting with us."

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt's office has said the bill will remain on hold and no new money will be spent until the assembly gets behind the legislation. Valcourt has also said too much time and effort has gone into the legislation to start over again.

Valcourt expressed his own frustration earlier this year, saying the assembly walked away from its agreement with the government.

The assembled chiefs also voted Thursday to begin discussions with the federal government on settling existing title claims on a treaty-by-treaty basis in the wake of last month's historic Tsilhqot'in ruling from the Supreme Court.

"We view that as a victory for all indigenous nations," said Saskatchewan regional Chief Perry Bellegarde.

"We've got to do the legal assessment, the legal review, to see how it impacts on us, to see how we can work with it, how it can strengthen us."

In late June, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously to award 1,700 square kilometres of territory to B.C.'s Tsilhqot'in First Nation, providing long-awaited clarification on how to prove aboriginal title. The ruling also formally acknowledged the legitimacy of indigenous land claims to wider territory beyond individual settlement sites.

"These are peace and friendship treaties, not cede, surrender and relinquish the land and resources to the Crown," Bellegarde said. "We didn't give up everything — we're just sharing the land."

During its three-day meeting, the assembly also made renewed calls for a public inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women. There are to date more than 1,100 cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada.

Before adjourning Thursday, the assembled chiefs agreed to reconvene for a special chiefs assembly in Winnipeg on Dec. 9 to elect a new national chief, who would serve for 3 1/2 years. That follows the premature resignation of former leader Shawn Atleo in May.

Atleo stepped down suddenly after becoming a self-described lightning rod of controversy for backing the proposed changes to First Nations education. Picard said Wednesday he is considering running for national chief.

In all, more than 300 chiefs attended the annual general assembly.

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