Inspired by Nelson Mandela's legacy, the National Chief for the Assembly of First Nations Shawn Atleo delivered a message of reconciliation in his opening remarks to a group of chiefs gathered in Gatineau, Que., Tuesday morning.
Atleo's message came just as the federal government promised new funding for schools on reserves if they receive the support of the AFN and a First Nations Education Act becomes law.
The national chief is currently in South Africa where he is representing First Nations as part of the Canadian delegation that attended Mandela's memorial service.
"We lost an incredible, courageous, and inspirational indigenous hero last week, Madiba, as he was known to his peoples," Atleo said in a video message recorded before his departure to Johannesburg.
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"The connection to all indigenous people is critical and it is important to pay our deepest respects to a man that not only lifted the oppressive chains of apartheid from his people, but also helped a nation come together with their painful past and find a place of reconciliation.
"Indeed he showed the world not only why reconciliation was essential, but how it can be achieved," Atleo said.
'Progress' on education reform
First Nations leaders are gathering for a bi-annual special assembly of chiefs from Dec.10-12 in Gatineau to address the priorities facing their communities, including the government's controversial proposed First Nations education reform.
Atleo, in his pre-recorded video message, appeared to indicate that some progress had been made on the proposed First Nations education legislation since the he wrote to Bernard Valcourt, the minister of aboriginal affairs, two weeks ago.
In an open letter on Nov. 25 to Valcourt, the national chief said "the current federal proposal for a bill for First Nation education is not acceptable to First Nations."
On Tuesday Atleo said, "we are calling for First Nations control of First Nations education in systems that meaningfully recognize our languages and cultures supported by stable, sustainable and fair funding."
"We’re making progress and continue to press ahead," Atleo said in his message to the chiefs.
Valcourt announced this week that the federal government will provide new funding for schools on reserves but only with the support of First Nations and only when new legislation is passed.
"Our government intends to invest new funds in K-12 education on reserve once a new legislative framework is passed, but we will not be able to advance legislation without support from First Nations," Valcourt told CBC News in a written statement on Tuesday.
Valcourt described the federal government's resolve to seeing that First Nations children have access to the same education rights and protections that are currently available to other Canadians as "strong."
During question period on Tuesday, Jean Crowder, the NDP critic for aboriginal affairs, criticized Valcourt for making new funding for schools on reserves contingent on support for the government's proposed education reform.
"This minister is promising new funds only if he gets his way," Crowder told the Commons on Tuesday.
Valcourt fired back "we must work together – First Nations, governments, stakeholders, parents, students – in order to ensure that we have a system that can provide First Nations students with a good education system."
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau also pressed the federal government on funding to First Nations education.
Consultations over a First Nations education draft legislative proposal are ongoing.
The federal government hopes to have new legislation in place by the fall of 2014.
Idle No More protesters
While their leaders met, First Nations protesters marched from Victoria island to Parliament Hill in support of the Idle No More movement.
Atleo, in his video message, said the real enemy is "the status quo."
"There are always reasons to say no. We can always criticize any new approach or initiative whether it’s by the government or by us. But that’s not enough. That’s only half the job."
The national chief called on all First Nations to come together to bring about the change they want to see in their communities.
"Division allows governments to ignore us. The elders remind us that the colonizer loves nothing more than when we fight amongst ourselves."
You can watch Atleo's speech here: