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On Monday, only three days after Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Shawn Atleo resigned, Prime Minister Harper’s Conservative government has made its move. Contrary to Harper’s usual backroom politics and secret meetings with the National Chief, Harper has switched it up. He has decided to play this political game out in the open for all to see. Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) Minister Bernard Valcourt offered a statement to the press today saying that it will put consideration of Bill C-33 First Nation Control of First Nation Education Act on hold until the AFN clarifies their position.

With the support of the Assembly of First Nations, our Government introduced historic legislation, the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act (Bill C-33) in April. However, given the recent resignation of the National Chief, following today’s second reading vote, any further consideration of this legislation will be put on hold until the AFN clarifies its position.
Our Government firmly believes that First Nations students deserve a quality education, like every other Canadian.

The First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act provides the structures and supports necessary to help First Nations students reach their potential and become full participants in the Canadian economy. It would entrench in law the five conditions for success identified by the Chiefs in Assembly last December.

This is a very calculated move on the part of Harper’s government and serves a three-fold purpose. Firstly, this move serves as an indication to the AFN that Harper will give it another chance to get back in line. The carrot being offered is the promised funding attached to the bill (post-conservative-election funding). If the AFN confirms their support of the bill, they’ll all kiss, make up and move on as they were pre-Atleo. Atleo’s resignation would go down as a minor hiccup for Harper.

Secondly, this move could serve to cause internal chaos at AFN. Harper is essentially casting his line to see which member of the AFN executive will take the bait — that is, who will step up to replace Atleo and maintain the status quo relationship between the AFN and Harper government. Saskatchewan Regional Chief Perry Bellegarde has been front and centre in the media supporting the Atleo-Harper education deal — at least until Atleo’s resignation. Then, there’s always New Brunswick Regional Chief Roger Augustine, who recently wrote an open letter trying to convince Chiefs to support Bill C-33 — so maybe it will be him? It’s hard to say at this point.

However either of these two scenarios turn out — they both miss the point. It simply doesn’t matter if the AFN Executive jointly issue a statement clarifying their support for the bill, or one of the Executive is appointed as interim National Chief and supports the bill. The AFN has no legal or political authority to allow, approve or in any way provide permission for this bill to proceed through the legislative process. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the AFN is not a rights-holder — it is an advocacy organization. To those with Aboriginal, treaty and inherent rights to education, it doesn’t matter what the AFN says, except in so far as the AFN has the power to negatively impact our struggle to preserve those rights. We are the rights holders and we are the only ones who can decide. Our strong opposition to this bill is what’s really scaring Harper and motivating this move.

Finally, and perhaps most ironically, what this recent move by the federal government does is focus attention away from the education bill and place it back on the AFN. Harper is hoping to reduce the building momentum against this bill by directing our attention to the AFN. Many people are now waiting to see what the AFN will say. The media is fixated on the AFN election and who the candidates might be. Some have even commented that AANDC’s announcement to put the bill on hold is a sort of victory.

But perhaps that’s the idea. Maybe in putting this legislation “on hold” Harper hopes this will be enough to snuff out the fire that has been lit in our communities to defeat this bill.  Keep in mind, First Nation leaders and citizens, together with Canadians, have organized major rallies for May 14 in Ottawa to voice their opposition to this bill. Maybe Harper is hoping we’ll see no need to rally, now that the bill is on hold — but they’d be wrong. We have to use every single day to our advantage to oppose this bill.

Bill C-33 is still in Parliament, still in Senate pre-study (though on hold) and could be re-animated and rammed through Parliament at a moment’s notice. We have to maintain our focus on killing this bill and worrying about the AFN later. We need to ensure that our voices are heard and that we do everything we can to ensure this bill does not pass. We all want to change the status quo and address the crisis in First Nation education — but giving up control over our education to the Minister is not the way to do that.

AANDC could start addressing the crisis by providing fair funding and addressing the cumulative deficit in education. AANDC could literally address the chronic underfunding today. It’s a choice they make — against every study, domestic and international law, our treaties and even economic recommendations — not to do so. Look at the lengths Canada will go to in order to defer, deflect and deny the problem of purposeful, chronic underfunding of First Nation education. All of these many decades of studies, reports, and meetings, followed by more studies, reports and meetings are meant to delay the inevitable conclusion — First Nation education must be funded.

But if Harper has his way this bill will pass and so too will our chance to protect our future generations from Harper’s assimilation plans.

We have to stay focused. We have the power to defeat this bill. Hopefully, AFN will have learned from all of this and stand behind the people. But, either way, as sovereign Nations, we have to stand up and defend our sovereignty and jurisdiction over the education of our children and give them hope for their future.

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Pamela Palmater

Dr. Pamela D. Palmater is a Mi’kmaw lawyer and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick. She teaches Indigenous law, politics and governance at Ryerson University and is the Ryerson...