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(Left to right): Grand Chief Murray Clearsky of the Southern Chiefs Organization, Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, and Aboriginal elder Ernie Daniels talk to reporters on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, January 18, 2013.

PATRICK DOYLE/REUTERS

The federal government is facing questions over the legitimacy of its centrepiece for aboriginal education reform.

Manitoba chiefs rejected the Harper government's vision for aboriginal education on Monday, claiming Ottawa is trying to "bypass" first nations chiefs and shirk its treaty responsibilities. The first nations group became the latest to criticize the consultations over the First Nations Education Act, which have been mired in boycotts and protests since they began in January.

In a letter to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said it would not attend this week's consultations in Winnipeg. "Any manufactured consent from this coercive exercise will be considered invalid to many Treaty people," wrote Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, who represents 60 Manitoba communities.

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Also Monday, Grand Chief Murray Clearsky, who represents 33 Southern Manitoba chiefs, sent a letter to Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt saying he would attend the meeting but only as an observer and that any future assertion he was consulted would be "vigorously refuted and legally challenged." A spokesperson for Aboriginal Affairs said in an e-mail that Ottawa will go ahead with its planned consultations and "looks forward to continuing our ongoing dialogue."

The Winnipeg discussions mark the fourth of seven scheduled consultations on the government's proposed aboriginal education act, a recommendation born from a 2011 national education panel that was itself contentious since some 230 first nations groups refused to participate amid concerns of diminished control over aboriginal education.

This latest round of consultations seems similarly fraught, casting a cloud over Ottawa's plan to craft an act by 2014 that would likely promote regional native school boards. Nova Scotia chiefs boycotted the January meeting in Halifax while leaders from the other three Atlantic provinces attended the session but deemed it "unproductive," according to the Assembly of First Nations' point-person on education, Morley Googoo. The February meeting in Saskatoon was met with protesters who claimed they were shut out. And last week's B.C. meeting saw upward of 20 first nations leaders express dismay at Ottawa's "unilateral" approach, according to Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs president Stewart Phillip.

(He described the eight-hour meeting as "restrictive" and "intense," while Aboriginal Affairs called the discussions "productive and frank.")

Although the recent Idle No More movement shone a bright light on the government's strained relationship with aboriginals, namely treaty first nations in power bases such as Manitoba, the issue of aboriginal education is particularly emotional given Canada's history of residential schools.

"[This latest opposition] is a reflection of a long history of a strained relationship," said Simon Fraser University Professor Doug McArthur, who once served as B.C.'s deputy aboriginal affairs minister. "I think this is going to be a long, slow process."

Chief Googoo said first nations must be recognized as partners in the push toward a brighter future for education. He said his education committee will meet in the next two weeks to discuss the consultations, though he already appears skeptical of the status quo.

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"It needs to be [rethought], on the federal government side, what true partnership means," he said. "The Dene, the Algonquin, and the Mi'kmaq are different nations with different cultures, but Canada doesn't recognize that. It just recognizes an education act for Indians."

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