How the First Nations education act fell apart in matter of months

With the Assembly of First Nations in disarray after Shawn Atleo's departure, the future of First Nations education in Canada is as uncertain as ever.

The deal marked a fleeting moment of consensus that took years to forge

The education bill, for which which Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised $1.9 billion in federal funds, was never beloved by the chiefs in the first place and is now on hold. (Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press)

The photo itself isn't particularly striking. The fact it was taken at all is nothing short of remarkable.

It's a picture of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, standing before a gathering of regional chiefs from across Canada as he announces a breathtaking $1.9 billion in federal money for First Nations education.

The deal — the result of backroom horse-trading between the governing Conservatives, the chiefs and Assembly of First Nations national chief Shawn Atleo — marked a fleeting moment of consensus that took years to forge.

It came apart in a matter of months.

Today, Atleo has quit, leaving the assembly in disarray. The education bill — never beloved by the chiefs in the first place — is on hold. And the future of First Nations education in Canada is as uncertain as ever.

Getting to that February day at Kainai High School in southwestern Alberta took every bit of Atleo's skill as a negotiator. For those close to him, the Feb. 7 announcement was a highly emotional affair, overcome as they were with relief that it had actually happened in the face of so many obstacles and persistent doubt. The significance and symbolism of the occasion were not lost on others in the room.

"With the Truth and Reconciliation panel sitting there, it buttressed the argument that this was an attempt to show that reconciliation could be made between a government and its peoples," said George Lafond of the Office of the Treaty Commissioner in Saskatchewan.

Lafond had been selected by both the Assembly of First Nations and the government to help lead a task force that would fix the First Nations education system, and had developed a personal attachment to the file.

He walked over to Wayne Wouters, the clerk of the Privy Council, to savour the historic significance of the moment.

Wouters told Lafond the education initiative was the second phase in the government's attempt at reconciling with First Nations, the first being Harper's historic 2008 apology on the floor of the House of Commons.

"One of the biggest criticisms was, OK, it's one thing to say we're sorry and seek reconciliation of the past. Where's the actual action? Where's the talk and where's the walk?" Lafond said.

"The comment I got back was this was the second phase ... here was the act of reconciliation, which was education."

Old wounds re-opened

The heady optimism of that winter's day is long gone, the old wounds of past battles re-opened. One by one, the chiefs of the Assembly of First Nation's executive committee abandoned Atleo, egged on by outspoken rivals and critics of the education bill. He was derided as a sell-out who helped the government perpetuate a cycle of colonialism that has kept First Nations people down for centuries.

On May 2, Atleo quit, fearing more of the stress and personal attacks he endured during the Idle No More protests in 2013 — an ordeal that eroded his health and left him with political wounds from which he never fully recovered.

For Atleo, it was the only way to salvage a cause he holds dear. What happens next is anyone's guess.

The events leading to the February announcement started in December when an email interrupted the Canadian delegation's final dinner in South Africa.

Atleo, Harper and a cadre of former prime ministers and dignitaries were there for the funeral of Nelson Mandela. Atleo had opted to skip a special meeting of chiefs, where he had been scheduled to speak.

Meanwhile, in the Quebec hotel ballroom where Atleo was supposed to be, Grand Chief Doug Kelly of the Sto:lo Tribal Council and Chief Joe Miskokomon of the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation were crafting a resolution that would support the Conservative legislation but also oppose an earlier version of the bill that First Nations found totally unacceptable.

One by one, people agreed on the wording of the resolution. Then Kelly called a vote.

"I asked folks to stand if they supported the resolution, and I was talking about chiefs, proxies and observers," Kelly said.

"Everybody in the room stood. There was a very powerful demonstration of unity and support for that resolution that was endorsed in December last year."

Kelly later told Atleo he should travel to South Africa more often. He was joking, but it was nonetheless clear Atleo was a polarizing figure — too close to the Harper government for some within the aboriginal community.

"I said, 'If you were in the room, I'm not sure we would have got that resolution endorsed,"' Kelly said.

Word that the chiefs would back the Conservative bill on five conditions reached Atleo's BlackBerry in South Africa. He shared the news, inspiring applause from around the table, according to an account by former NDP strategist Robin Sears in a recent issue of Policy magazine.

Harper later told Atleo the two of them would get the deal done, according to a source.

But with budget day looming and still no agreement, pressure was mounting on Harper and Atleo. They managed to squeeze some time into their hectic schedules to talk economics and education.

To those who have heard it, Atleo can make quite a compelling case.

Economist Don Drummond recalls getting into a long, thoughtful conversation with Atleo about spending on First Nations education that relied on the economic case, rather than the usual social or moral arguments.

So compelling was Atleo's pitch that Drummond completely lost track of time.

List of demands

"I remember when we finished and took a breath, we looked up and the entire room, which had had something like 2,000 people, was almost empty and the maintenance staff was stacking up the chairs."

Harper did not need much convincing of the merits of funding First Nations education. Like Atleo, he too realized it held the key to improving the quality of life of aboriginal people while also giving the economy a boost.

But like Atleo, Harper had his own list of demands.

The two men spoke a few days before budget day with only their top aides in the loop. There would be money for education, Harper said — but only if accompanied by legislation to improve quality and accountability. And the AFN would have to publicly support the bill.

They hashed out a deal and, according to two sources, Harper personally insisted $1.9 billion be included in the budget only days before it was to be published.

Atleo sent an email to the regional chiefs on Feb. 5 to tell them the Conservatives were about to agree to their five conditions, and invited them to join him in Alberta for the announcement.

Details of the deal were still being finalized the night before Harper and Atleo were supposed to make their announcement. Sure enough, the regional chiefs turned out for the event and sat prominently in the front row, right behind the podium.

To Atleo and his supporters, getting the chiefs' support was a major victory. But it would not last.

The night before he quit, Atleo called Kelly, his longtime friend and former campaign manager.

They had just seen each other the previous day during an event in British Columbia. But it was on the call that Atleo broke the news to Kelly that he was about to resign as the assembly's national chief.

Atleo's mind was clearly made up.

"He sounded determined. He sounded tired. He sounded reflective. And, honestly, he sounded like he had come to a good place. There was no doubt whatsoever," Kelly says.

"So because of that, he asked for my support and I gave it to him."

Two factors weighed heavily into his decision to quit.

The first was that those same regional chiefs who showed up to support the education bill back in February had begun to abandon him.

Betrayal and push for 'special assembly'

The last straw came when Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, an erstwhile leadership rival to Atleo, announced his opposition to the federal legislation. Atleo felt betrayed.

That same week, the federal opposition parties had indicated they would not support the education bill. Atleo had hoped they would support it and then argue for amendments.

The second factor was a growing push for a "special assembly" to address the education bill.

Rather than endure a meeting that may have led to a vote of non-confidence, and knowing he had become a distraction in the ongoing debate over First Nations education, Atleo decided to leave on his own terms.

What stands out most to Kelly is his friend's smile just before he announced his resignation.

"When I see him, I'm going to tell him, 'Man, you should have saved the smile for another 10 minutes. Give your speech and as you're exiting, then you smile,"' says Kelly.

"He was telling the world that he's happy with his decision. He made the right decision. It was the right call. So all of those folks that were working themselves up into a lather to impeach him, they can't impeach him. He's gone."