First Nations divided over education act and their leadership

Controversy over the Canadian government's proposed First Nations education bill is dividing aboriginal chiefs and spurring the resurgence of a movement to oust Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Shawn Atleo.

Movement to oust AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo ahead of July assembly a sign of growing discontent

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left, and Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo have said First Nations education is a priority. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Controversy over the Canadian government's proposed First Nations education bill is dividing aboriginal chiefs and spurring the resurgence of a movement to oust Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Shawn Atleo.

On social media, there is talk about rejecting both the bill and Atleo's leadership at the AFN's assembly in July.

Either Atleo and the regional chiefs have to come to the table and be accountable to the grassroots people, and if not, then they deserve to be removed," said Pam Palmater in an interview with CBC News.

Shawn Atleo has stopped defending our rights.- Pam Palmater, Ryerson professor and former Atleo opponent

Palmater is chair in indigenous governance at Ryerson University in Toronto, and ran against Atleo in the last election for national chief.

But she said her opposition and the impeach Atleo push are not about that battle.

"I'm not looking for his job," she said. "Now individual chiefs are making the same call, but I'm making that call because Shawn Atleo has stopped defending our rights."

Palmater is one of many who are convinced the proposed First Nations control of First Nations education act is fatally flawed. She said it gives too much control to the minister of aboriginal affairs, doesn't protect treaty rights and the money attached falls far short of what is needed to make a difference for First Nations children.

There are many regional chiefs and even local chiefs who have expressed support for the bill. But on Monday, five chiefs from across the country held a news conference in Ottawa to voice their displeasure with the proposed legislation. They argue that the bill is the result of closed-door, backroom meetings between the AFN and the federal government. And they said they represent the majority in each of their provinces.

AFN Response

But AFN's New Brunswick and P.E.I. regional chief, Roger Augustine, says he's fed up.

"The other side, if there's another side, say we have to protect the rights of our children. But do we do that by walking away each and every time? I've seen it so often that people just say 'no' and then maybe 10 or 15 years later they come back and say, 'OK, let's discuss this again'."

Augustine conceded the bill is far from perfect, but said it's a huge improvement over what most First Nations have now. 

"Someone has to step forward now at this point, just like National Chief Atleo is doing. Step forward and take a chance," he said.

He questioned the motives of the opposition, saying some chiefs have legitimate concerns, but that many who are calling for Atleo's head are really after power.

Augustine said AFN national chiefs often get bruised during their time in office.

But those on the other side have warned that rather than be Atleo's legacy, the education act could be his undoing. 

Government's efforts complicate situation

In the meantime, the Conservative government's strategy to sell the bill might actually be making things worse. 

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt has often highlighted the AFN's support of the act and has pointed out Atleo has said that the act reflects the principles that First Nations insisted be in the bill.

In a letter dated April 17 and written to NDP aboriginal affairs critic Jean Crowder, Valcourt wrote:

"I was pleased that the National Chief Shawn Atleo confirmed on the day of introduction of Bill C-33 that the bill reflected the five conditions for success."

For those opposed to the legislation and suspicious of both the government and the AFN, that's proof they're complicit.

The act is in second reading in the House of Commons and will soon likely come before committee ,where it may or may not see amendments made.