Shawn Atleo has resigned as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations after chiefs across the country opposed his support for the federal Conservative government’s efforts to revamp education on reserves.
Mr. Atleo told a news conference on Friday that First Nations education has been the cornerstone of his tenure as head of the country’s largest aboriginal organization.
“I have fought for this work and to achieve this mandate. 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 in a prepared statement. “I am therefore resigning today as national chief. I have carried out my actions based on principle and on integrity.”
Native leaders from across the country said earlier this week that demonstrations and economic disruption will be their only recourse if the federal government pushes ahead with reforms of on-reserve education that are opposed by large numbers of First Nations.
And some said there would be repercussions for Mr. Atleo who stood behind the government’s First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act.The bill was intended to give First Nations control over their own education. But the many chiefs who oppose it say there has not been adequate consultation. They say the bill imposes standards on First Nations while allowing the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs to intervene in on-reserve education through a council dominated by his appointees.
The AFN is the representative of First Nations in Ottawa and is not a governing body that has a right to negotiate on their behalf. Even so, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt has pointed to Mr. Atleo’s support of the education act when asked whether he was prepared to make it law without the support of most chiefs.
That prompted First Nations leaders to question Mr. Atleo’s public endorsement of the legislation even as they were critical of it. Some have said there would be consequences for the AFN and Mr. Atleo and there has been quiet rumblings of impeachment. Mr. Atleo was in the second year of his second three-year mandate when he quit but, even before he was re-elected, critics were complaining that he was too close to the Conservative government.
But, even as he was offering his resignation, Mr. Atleo continued to speak in favour of the bill as a constructive effort on the part of Prime Minister Stephen Harper to take a step forward.
“This work is a challenge for all Parliamentarians and it is a challenge for our Nations,” he told reporters. “Throughout and, with that mandate of chiefs, I and many others with me have done everything possible to achieve this change. “
An AFN analysis of the bill that was released to chiefs last week says the bill is a “constructive and necessary step, supportive of goals expressed by First Nations for control, respect for treaty and aboriginal rights, recognition of language and culture and a clear statutory guarantee for fair funding.”
Although the bill allocates $1.25-billion over three years in additional funding starting in 2016, some chiefs say it may ultimately be insufficient to meet the needs of a ballooning aboriginal population.
Derek Nepinak, the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, has said pushing the legislation through Parliament over the objections of chiefs would be an act of discrimination and racism.
Follow Gloria Galloway on Twitter: @glorgal