First Nations leaders are meeting to decide whether a controversial education bill can be redrawn in ways they find acceptable and how to negotiate those changes with the federal Conservative government.
Wednesday's Confederacy of Nations meeting – the first such gathering in a decade – was called, not by the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), but by chiefs from across the country who said they wanted to convene in the forum that exists, in part, to address "emergency" matters.
The Confederacy gathering will be blended on Thursday with an AFN education committee meeting about the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, said Stan Beardy, the AFN's regional chief for Ontario. Mr. Beardy called for the Confederacy session two weeks ago.
"I think what's important with the Confederacy of First Nations is that it gives the voice to the grassroots," Mr. Beardy said. The group is a special forum of chiefs from every region with representation based on population.
The education act has been on hold for more than a week, since shortly after Shawn Atleo resigned as AFN national chief over his support of the bill. Many native leaders said the law would allow the government to interfere in their schools.
But the chiefs who are against the legislation also say they realize they cannot just walk away from the problems with education on reserves, where, on average, just slightly more than one in three students graduate from high school.
The confederacy was held on the same day as First Nations demonstrations in several Canadian cities, including Ottawa, to protest against the education act, a bill that targets contraband tobacco, and the government's refusal to call an inquiry into the large number of murdered and missing aboriginal women.
"Obviously, we are going to reject the [education] bill," said Isadore Day, the chief of the Serpent River First Nation in Northern Ontario. But "if we are going to say no, we have to have a substantive reason for that. And we have to have a way to follow up."
Some chiefs say the legislation could be amended to make it workable. And they are trying to determine who among them should represent First Nations in negotiations about the bill.
Anything decided this week will have to be approved at a special chiefs assembly scheduled for May 27.
The Confederacy's revival after a decade of dormancy comes at a time when the AFN is in transition after the resignation of Mr. Atleo and amid growing dissatisfaction with the representation it has provided.
Don Kelly, an AFN spokesman, said he believes it is "healthy" for chiefs to consider how the AFN should function, adapt and possibly evolve. "Any time First Nations are gathering to discuss key issues – and certainly at times like this, which is not a typical moment for First Nations – it's important, and it should happen," he said.
Peter Kulchyski, a native studies professor at the University of Manitoba and a founding member of the aboriginal activist group Defenders of the Land, said the return of the Confederacy model signals that "things are very much in play at the AFN, including maybe even the survival of the AFN."
Prof. Kulchyski said the build-up to Wednesday's meeting – the AFN executive expressed concerns it would not meet its charter standards, but proponents forged ahead anyhow – is a sign of the dynamics.
"It says that, particularly chiefs in certain provinces, are frustrated by the institutional forum of the AFN, and they're quite willing to go outside it or operate with different elements within it," he said, noting it is "too soon to tell" the significance of Wednesday's meeting.