“The introduction of this legislation comes after years of unprecedented dialogue and consultations with First Nations all over the country and the Assembly of First Nations, who identified a need for a better education system for First Nation children.”
— A press release issued by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, April 28, 2014.
“We need to understand exactly what’s in the bill. We need an opportunity to discuss it and third is what course of action do the leaders in Canada see going forward.”
— Assembly of First Nations regional Chief Stan Beardy, May 1, 2014.
Shawn Atleo’s surprising resignation as the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations last Friday may well doom the federal government’s proposed First Nations Education Act, unless Canada’s leadership treads more carefully.
Atleo’s decision to step down, he says, was rooted in unending criticism of his stance of support for the government’s legislation. As such, he saw himself as an impediment to any meaningful overhauls of the First Nations education system.
“This work is too important and I am not prepared to be an obstacle to it or a lightning rod distracting from the kids and their potential,” he said during a news conference in Ottawa last week.
More than a year ago, chiefs who were critical of Atleo’s more co-operative and business-like approach with the federal government were at the heart of a move to oust Atleo as national chief. While that move was unsuccessful, their criticism of Atleo intensified as he continued to champion the Tories’ First Nations education overhaul, after the bill was tabled on April 20.
Atleo had essentially argued that the status quo in education was intolerable for Canada’s aboriginal people, and that the bill would act as a vital step forward in handing over control of schooling to First Nations, while respecting their treaty rights and recognizing their language and culture.
CBC reports that the roughly $1.9-billion deal was supposed to bridge the gap between what First Nations’ children receive in federal government funding for schooling and what non-aboriginal children receive from their provincial governments.
But there are two main problems with the bill, as cited by critics. The bill allows the federal government to retain the final say about how much of a reserve’s education would be managed, a move they say would give the federal minister too much power over the system. But, given proper consultation, this situation could have been — and may still be — worked out.
More problematic, however, was the close relationship between the Tories and the AFN under Atleo’s leadership. While the federal Conservatives have treated the AFN as the main negotiating partner for Canada’s First Nations, the AFN is not a national government and has no mandate to act as one.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt’s office has maintained that First Nations have been given ample consultation, but chiefs across the nation feel they have not been given the same opportunity to comment.
It does not matter, then, that the legislation apparently meets five conditions set out by the AFN and chiefs during a meeting in December of last year, as Valcourt argued. The apparent patronizing attitude donned by the federal government and national aboriginal leadership have prompted Atleo’s downfall.
As of yesterday, the federal government has placed its controversial education act “on hold” until the Assembly of First Nations re-examines its position on the legislation. But waiting for the AFN to proclaim yay or nay on the act would be a mistake.
We think this situation could have been avoided had the government actually convened more extensive meetings with the some-600 aboriginal communities in Canada to outline what the education overhaul would mean for them.
There may still be a chance to rectify the situation, but it will take negotiation, not mere platitudes and empty promises from Ottawa. If we want First Nations peoples to be partners in the Canadian economy, we have to treat them as such.