As words of both appreciation and censure poured in upon the resignation of Shawn A-in-chut Atleo as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, the fate of the First Nations Education Act remained uncertain.
The representative body of First Nations in Canada appointed AFN Regional Chief for Quebec-Labrador Ghislain Picard as the interim spokesperson “until a National Chief is elected or until such time the Executive determines otherwise,” the AFN said in a statement.
“The AFN Executive stands together in acknowledging the tireless efforts of Shawn A-in-chut Atleo to achieve the change required for First Nations and all of Canada, including advancing First Nation education,” the AFN said on May 7. “His commitment and dedication to fulfilling the vision of healthy, thriving Nations where every child has the opportunity to achieve their dreams has been unwavering throughout his career, and particularly as National Chief.”
The other regional chiefs will continue to hold their respective positions and areas of expertise in the leadership and running of the organization, which is the national organization representing First Nations citizens in Canada—the counterpart to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in the U.S.
Atleo’s sudden resignation on Friday May 2 brought nationwide reaction and at least one call for the exit of Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Bernard Valcourt.
Much of the controversy centered around the First Nations Education Act, which was touted as an overhaul that put First Nations in charge, but was received as anything but. On Monday May 5 Valcourt put the act “on hold until the AFN clarifies its position,” the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development told the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network and other media outlets in an e-mailed statement.
The legislation has been contentious since its inception, dating back to the panel formed three years ago to study the best way to provide education for First Nations in Canada. The result was considered paternalistic and underfunded by most chiefs. Atleo continued to support it, until he felt he was getting in the way.
“This work is too important and I am not prepared to be an obstacle to it or a lightening rod distracting from the kids and their potential,” he said in announcing the move.
By then it was the only honorable option, said Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs to CBC News.
“It's put him in a place where he had very little choice but to make the decision that he did,” Nepinak told CBC News. “His integrity was called into question. I think he brought back some integrity today in the decision that he made."
Chiefs around the country said the government’s “hold” didn’t go far enough and called for the act to be scrapped completely.
“First Nations have been developing their own systems for years and we don’t need the Minister of Indian Affairs looking over our shoulders,” said Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee in a statement on May 6.
“The fact that the minister is waiting for the AFN to come up with another position shows us that his government really doesn’t value the voice of First Nation citizens, because the First Nation opposition to Bill C- 33 is pretty clear,” Madahbee said. “The message the minister should be taking from Shawn Atleo’s resignation is that the National Chief recognized that First Nations across Canada don’t want this legislation. Our people have told their leaders they don’t want Stephen Harper or Bernard Valcourt dictating how First Nations children should be educated. They want that bill killed right now.”