Native leaders say demonstrations and economic disruption will be their only recourse if the federal government pushes ahead with reforms of on-reserve education that are opposed by large numbers of First Nations.
Chiefs from five provinces want the Conservative government to scrap the legislation it calls the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act. The bill is supported by the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and its National Chief, Shawn Atleo, but opposed by what the chiefs say is a majority of native communities in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec.
Grand Chief Michael Delisle of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake told a news conference on Tuesday that the bill’s opponents “are going to utilize every means possible” to ensure that Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt and his government get their message. “We will not relinquish our control of education,” Mr. Delisle said.
Nor will Mr. Atleo’s endorsement of the legislation go unchallenged, said Mr. Delisle, who called the bill a “rights grab” and an act of assimilation. “I think the leadership and lack of responsibility, not only at the Assembly of First Nations but in other areas, is being called to task and you will see some formalized change in the coming months.”
Mr. Atleo has made it clear that the AFN does not have the authority to negotiate acceptance of the bill on behalf of individual First Nations.
But the AFN has called the legislation “constructive and necessary.” And Mr. Atleo joined Prime Minister Stephen Harper earlier this year when the government announced it would provide an extra $1.25-billion over three years for First Nations education, starting in 2016, as long as the bill becomes law.
In a statement issued on Monday, Mr. Valcourt said the legislation “comes after years of unprecedented dialogue and consultations with First Nations all over the country and the Assembly of First Nations who identified a need for better education for their children.”
But the chiefs at the news conference said they were not part of those consultations.
“Once again, it’s the federal government dictating arbitrarily to good little Indians that ‘we know what’s best for you,’” said Wallace Fox, the Chief of the Onion Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan.
The chiefs who oppose the legislation say it would grant broad discretion to the minister to intervene in the operation of native schools while shifting liability onto native communities. And, while they say their objections are not about money, some argue the amount being offered is billions of dollars short of what’s needed.
Despite the visible anger expressed by the native leaders, some said they would rather be negotiating with the government to improve reserve education than making threats.
Closing trade corridors like the highway leading to the Ambassador Bridge linking Canada to the United States would hurt the economy, said Gordon Peters, the Chief of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians. “We talk about those things,” said Mr. Peters. “But we shouldn’t have to talk about those things. ... We shouldn’t have to be fighting with this government.”
Derek Nepinak, the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, agreed.
“Often times, we get caught up in these dialogues where we are talking about using force against force,” Mr. Nepinak said. That “gives Canadians the wrong idea about who we are. We are a loving people. We are a caring people. We’re a hospitable people. And we want what’s best for our children.”