National News

Chiefs reject First Nations education bill

By Steve Rennie, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - Chiefs from across Canada have rejected controversial changes to First Nations education, and are calling on the Conservative government to provide $1.9 billion in funding now with more money to come later.

It took most of the day for a special assembly of chiefs gathered in a downtown Ottawa hotel Tuesday to agree on how they would respond to the Harper government's education bill.

They eventually voted in favour of a resolution that rejects Bill C-33, dubbed the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, and calls on the government to negotiate a new education agreement that provides transfer payments to aboriginal communities.

The resolution also asks Ottawa to provide $1.9 billion tied to the original bill immediately, with a 4.5 per cent escalator until a new deal on education is reached.

How the Conservatives respond to these new demands remains to be seen, but they have said repeatedly that funding won't come until there is reform and accountability.

"Our Government is extremely disappointed that the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) did not honor its agreement with the government," Andrea Richer, a spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Berard Valcourt, said in an email.

"As we have said all along, this legislation will not proceed without the support of AFN, and we have been clear that we will not invest new money in an education system that does not serve the best interests of First Nations children; funding will only follow real education reforms."

Regional chiefs initially showed their support for the education bill by attending an event in February with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Shawn Atleo, the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. But that support quickly evaporated.

Atleo, a self-described lightning rod in the controversy over the legislation, shocked many by abruptly quitting his job this month, leaving the AFN in limbo.

Heading into Tuesday's meeting of the chiefs, the aboriginal community was deeply divided over the education bill. Some saw it as a first step with a substantial dollar amount attached to it that could improve the lives of First Nations children. Others viewed it as the government exerting too much control over aboriginal education.

The first sign that common ground on controversial changes to First Nations education would be hard to find came early when chiefs couldn't agree on an agenda for the day.

The chiefs eventually opted to discuss First Nations education before deciding how to choose a new leader to replace Atleo.

The brief impasse spoke to the significant obstacle facing both the AFN and the Conservatives: getting hundreds of aboriginal communities in Canada to agree on an issue as deeply personal as how their children are educated.

Quebec and Labrador Regional Chief Ghislain Picard, who has been the assembly's spokesman since Atleo resigned, urged the aboriginal leaders gathered in at a downtown Ottawa hotel to take a unified stance, one way or another.

"The facts are that we have a bill before the House, which has been shelved by the minister ... so that's where I feel we need to find a way to come together," Picard said.

Bill Erasmus, the Dene National Chief and AFN's regional chief for the Northwest Territories, said it's not fair to ask the country's hundreds of First Nations to all agree on such a major issue.

"It's the dilemma that Canada has to understand," he said.

"First of all, if you asked all of the mayors in Canada to come to consensus, would you expect them to? That's what we need to ask: why wouldn't you expect them, but you expect us to?"

By mid-day, a move was underway to overhaul a resolution the AFN executive drafted before the meeting that calls for First Nations to "co-develop" education reforms with the Conservative government.

Most of the people who took turns speaking at microphones around the room said they wanted to scrap the education bill.

"I don't want to engage with this government about the five conditions any longer," said Grand Chief Gordon Peters of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians.

"We talked about co-development from way back. There has never been any co-development that I'm aware of ... but as far as we're concerned there has been no relationship, no development, no co-development that has ever taken place with respect to any of this work."

After closed door meetings and lengthy discussion, the chiefs voted to scrap the original draft resolution in favour of a new one that outright rejected Bill C-33.

In doing so, the chiefs send a message to the government that their education legislation was unacceptable, Picard said.

"To me, the only clear indication here is that we ask, or we tell or demand from government that they redraw the bill, as is, today," he said.

But Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt has defended the bill, saying it meets the five conditions outlined by the AFN and chiefs during a meeting in December and received the support of the assembly.

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