Chiefs gather in Ottawa to decide fate of $1.9-billion education bill

Future of reforms to First Nations education uncertain

OTTAWA — The first sign that common ground on controversial changes to First Nations education would be hard to find came early Tuesday when chiefs at a special meeting couldn’t even agree on an agenda for the day.

The aboriginal community is so split over the Harper government’s education bill that something seemingly as innocuous as the schedule became a sticking point.

The chiefs eventually opted to discuss First Nations education before deciding how to choose a new leader to replace Shawn Atleo, who quit this month as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

But the brief impasse spoke to the significant obstacle facing both the assembly and the governing 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.

Shortly before noon, the chiefs voted to break away into regional groups and meet behind closed doors to talk about the draft resolution.

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.

“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.”

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.

The chief’s assembly was scheduled to continue Tuesday afternoon.