Shawn Atleo defends his actions over the aboriginal education bill

Shawn Atleo is defending his actions in the lead-up to the federal government's tabling of the aboriginal education bill, nearly six months after quitting his job as national chief for the Assembly of First Nations.

Atleo says his job was to press for the 5 conditions outlined by chiefs-in-assembly

Shawn Atleo, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, is shown at a news conference in Ottawa on Jan. 25, 2012. Atleo's resignation earlier this year ended a tumultuous term that began with high hopes but finished with faltering support and charges he was too cosy with the Harper government. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Shawn Atleo is defending his actions in the lead-up to the federal government's tabling of its controversial aboriginal education bill, nearly six months after quitting his job as national chief for the Assembly of First Nations.

Speaking publicly for the first time since he vanished from the national spotlight, Atleo said he was simply doing his job when he pressed Stephen Harper to amend a draft version of the aboriginal education act before the prime minister announced $1.9 billion in funding for aboriginal education starting in 2015.

"I was instructed by the chiefs to advocate and press, and that is exactly what I undertook to do, was to press for the federal government to respond to the chiefs," Atleo said from Vancouver Island in a telephone interview with CBC News.

His resignation came amid criticism from chiefs who accused Atleo of selling out First Nations by siding with the government on its retooled aboriginal education bill after an initial draft had flopped.

Atleo insists he did not overreach his mandate.

"I pressed the prime minister to respond and that's what he did, when he stood up publicly in Treaty 7 territories in Alberta, we all learned at the same time what the final response of the federal government was to the five conditions that the chiefs had tabled by resolution in December," Atleo said on Thursday.

The AFN, under the direction from national chiefs, had outlined five conditions the government would have to meet to receive the support of First Nations for its prized education bill.

"My responsibility was to advance the five conditions, which I did," Atleo said.

The government tabled the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act in the House of Commons in April — a bill Atleo said, at the time, contained some of the "key elements" First Nations had asked for.

He abruptly quit his post in May, less than three months after Harper's "historic agreement" with the AFN, saying he wasn't prepared to be a "lightning rod" for criticism of the government's aboriginal education bill,

Atleo 'clear on the record'

Nearly six months after leaving Ottawa, Atleo maintains he was not negotiating on behalf of First Nations when he amended the draft bill in a document made public by the federal government as part of its legal defence against a bid for a judicial review. The case is currently before the courts.

"I think it's really a matter of having it clear on the record that I did not agree to something on behalf of First Nations chiefs and leaders across the country on their behalf with the federal government, with the prime minister.

"I pressed and advocated — just as I was instructed to do, as national chiefs before me have been instructed to do — and upheld with integrity the responsibilities of office, with particular focus and attention on our communities and especially the young ones," Atleo said.

Since Atleo's departure, the government has maintained its prized bill would remain on hold until it receives the support of the AFN. But in the face of a judicial review to overturn the aboriginal education act, the future of the bill remains uncertain. 

Atleo urged First Nations to continue striving for control of First Nations education, but said that effort can't be led by the AFN.

"It must be driven by communities themselves, by nations, by regions. It's not for my previous office to implement," Atleo said.

"I think that in the months that have passed since I left the role, I think that the focus can now return back to the work that must happen, driven by nations and regions to find solutions with governments."

Atleo turned up in Port Alberni at the end of September where it was reported that he'd had "enough" of his six years in Ottawa.

The former national chief said he wanted to "clarify" the gist of those remarks. 

"It was mostly really about the Ottawa winters. When it's 40 below and you need to tuck into a Tim Hortons to get warm.

"Otherwise, I found my previous work to be a tremendous privilege and learned an incredible amount," Atleo said.

On Thursday, B.C. Premier Christy Clark announced that Atleo agreed to work as the province's first Speaker for Indigenous Dialogue based out of the Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo.

Atleo will be expected to facilitate discussions between B.C.'s First Nations, government and industry but he made it clear he will not be negotiating on behalf of Clark's B.C. Liberals.

Earlier this month, Atleo also took on another academic position with the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education as a Distinguished Fellow in Indigenous Education.