By Roger Annis, May 3, 2014
A rebellion of First Nations people in Canada against proposed, federal legislation (Bill C-33) governing education for Indigenous youth has prompted the resignation of Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Grand Chief Shawn Atleo. He was supporting Bill C-33 but faced growing opposition to the legislation within the AFN and calls to resign. He announced his resignation on May 2.
Breaking news on May 5: The Conservative government in Ottawa announced today that it is withdrawing its proposed First Nation Education Act, Bill C-33, from the House of Commons order of business.
Opponents of the bill say Chief Atleo has been too friendly with the Conservative government in Ottawa. His resignation comes as outrage is growing over the cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada and the refusal of the federal government to convene a formal inquiry.
Who will control Aboriginal education?
The education bill is ‘The First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act’. Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaq lawyer and professor of Indigenous law, politics and governance at Ryerson University in Toronto, told the Toronto Star, “We used to be unified in our call for First Nation control of education and the AFN broke that unity”.
Four spokespeople for the Idle No More movement issued a statement on Chief Atleo ‘s resignation stating, “Today, after four years of servility and weak leadership in the face of a Harper government bent on an aggressive agenda of assimilation and termination of First Nations, National Chief Shawn Atleo was forced by popular pressure and a brewing chiefs’ revolt to resign, the first time a national chief has resigned since the creation of [the AFN].”
Palmater also heads Ryerson U’s Centre for Indigenous Governance. She finished second in the election for grand chief at the 2012, triennial AFN conference of chiefs. Chief Atleo won a second term there. Palmater wrote a lengthy critique of Bill C-33 in her blog on Rabble.ca on April 30. Her article was titled, ‘Shawn Atleo should tear up the First Nation Education Act’. She wrote:
It is important to understand that Atleo has absolutely no independent political power as National Chief. The AFN’s Charter is very specific about this. So, all of his deal-making with Canada is outside the legal scope of this authority. The Prime Minister, who is not a signatory to the treaties between First Nations and Her Majesty, is also acting outside the legal scope of his power. Harper has no power to unilaterally amend treaties or violate constitutionally protected treaty rights. Yet, this political duo is taking matters into their own hands and changing the rules in education and treaty rights — just like they both promised at the Crown-First Nation Gathering [January 24, 2012]. (1)
Summarizing the proposed education act, Palmater said,
In simple terms, Canada is retaining all of its control over First Nation education — this is clear throughout the Act. At best, this Act outlines a complex process for how Canada will devolve limited administrative control over some, not all, education to First Nation organizations (not First Nations themselves).
Recognition of First Nation jurisdiction and adequate funding could change lives of First Nations and Canadians as we know it… Not all pressing problems have such simple solutions, but it’s the solution itself — funding — that Canada has taken great pains to avoid.
It’s time to stop shaking hands with those who are trying to eliminate us and start defending the rights of our people.
Shawn Atleo announced his support for Bill C-33 on February 7 of this year, calling it “an historic deal”. Pam Palmater wrote one month later, “Since then, First Nations have been trying to figure out on what authority AFN made this deal on our behalf, and what exactly this deal entails. Every time that Atleo or Harper speaks, it becomes more and more apparent that Atleo and Harper are NOT of the same mind in terms of what this “deal” entails. In case anyone had any doubt about the fragile, if non-existent agreement between AFN and Harper, one need only refer to the letter from AFN dated Feb 28, 2014 requesting clarifications from the Harper government about what the deal means.” (AFN letter of February 28, 2014 here; reply by Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Bernard Valcourt here.)
Until Chief Atleo’s resignation, the Harper regime in Ottawa was pressing to adopt Bill C-33 before Parliament breaks for the summer.
This article first appeared in the Vancouver Observer, May 3, 2014.
1. The Crown-First Nation Gathering was a meeting on January 24, 2012 between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other ministers of the federal government, and representatives of the Assembly of First Nations. The meeting was agreed to by Harper in December 2010 following a series of damming revelations of the poverty and violence inflicted against many of Canada’s nearly six hundred First Nation territories and against First Nations peoples living in urban settings.
One of the factors in compelling Harper to convene the meeting was headlines over the struggle of the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario against appalling housing conditions. At the time, Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat First Nation wrote that the Crown-First Nation Gathering should serve to ‘smash the status quo’ in existing relations between Canada and First Nations. She said the gathering was not a response to conditions at Attawapiskat, “it’s a response to a failed system”.
A CBC news report at the end of the one-day gathering said,
The government is taking a small step toward First Nations governance, promising to remove barriers to self-determination and introduce new mechanisms to update the Indian Act.
But while they also agreed on developing economic opportunities for First Nations, there was nothing in the final statement about resource sharing or specific commitments to increase funding for education and other areas the chiefs have said are lacking.
The Idle No More movement for First Nations rights arose spectacularly in 2012, in part over rejection of the sort of collaborative political process symbolized by the Crown-First Nation Gathering.
In late 2012, Attawapiskat once again captured headlines in Canada when Chief Theresa Spence went on a hunger strike in Ottawa to protest inaction by the Canadian government is helping to resolve the housing crisis on her territory.
There is growing outrage in Canada over the federal government’s refusal to convene a formal inquiry into the nearly 1,200 cases of Aboriginal women murdered or disappeared in the past 30 years in Canada. Read a May 4, 2014 article by Roger Annis on that story here.