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Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo. REUTERS/Chris Wattie (CANADA - Tags: POLITICS)CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

Shawn Atleo has resigned as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations after finding himself offside with large numbers of native leaders over his support for the Conservative government's plans to reform on-reserve education.

Mr. Atleo, who had more than a year left in his second mandate, struggled to control his emotions Friday while announcing his decision to step down as leader of Canada's largest aboriginal organization.

He told reporters that education has been his priority and he believes legislation, which the government has dubbed the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, is a sincere and constructive effort on the part of Prime Minister Stephen Harper to move forward.

But chiefs from most parts of the country, including some of those who have traditionally been Mr. Atleo's supporters, say Bill C-33 is a paternalistic effort on the part of the government to retain its ability to intervene in on-reserve education, while downloading liability onto the backs of the First Nations.

In recent days, many questioned why Mr. Atleo was endorsing a measure they so strongly oppose. Some warned there would be consequences for the National Chief. And there were quiet rumblings about his impeachment.

But Mr. Atleo, a Hereditary Chief of the Ahousaht First Nation in British Columbia who holds a masters degree in education and is chancellor of Vancouver Island University, pre-empted any challenge to his leadership by relinquishing his job.

He said he has fought hard to improve the standards of education on reserve, where just over a third of students graduate from high school.

"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.

The leadership of the AFN will be taken over by its executive committee, who will appoint an interim leader and schedule an assembly where an election date will be chosen.

Mr. Harper said in a statement that he was "saddened" by the resignation. The Conservative government has lost someone who was an occasional ally when its relationship with the First Nations was at its rockiest moments.

Although detractors have complained that Mr. Alteo was too conciliatory in his dealings with Ottawa, he was re-elected in 2012 with a resounding mandate and was a steady voice for his people during a period of increasing tensions between Canada and its native communities.

Perry Bellegarde, the AFN's regional chief for Saskatchewan, said he and other AFN executive members were "shocked and surprised by his resignation."

Mr. Bellegarde has often been supportive of Mr. Atleo but was among those chiefs to issue statements this week in opposition to the education bill. "We will be calling the chiefs of Canada together to deal, not only with this issue [of the election of a National Chief] but Bill C-33 itself," he said.

Jody Wilson-Raybould, the regional chief in British Columbia who has been a close ally of Mr. Atleo's on many issues, said she was disappointed with the loss of a respected leader who articulated clear priorities and a positive vision. But even she did not agree with his support of the education act and used her Twitter account before his resignation on Friday to say First Nations "do not want a nanny state in our classrooms."

The fight against the legislation is expected to grow more heated in coming weeks as the Conservatives try to get it passed into law before the House of Commons breaks for the summer.

The bill was intended to give First Nations control over their own education. But the many chiefs who oppose it say there has not been adequate consultation. They say the bill imposes standards on First Nations while allowing the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs to intervene in on-reserve education through a council dominated by his appointees.

Although the bill allocates $1.25-billion over three years in additional funding starting in 2016, some chiefs say it may ultimately be insufficient to meet the needs of a ballooning aboriginal population.

Even as he was offering his resignation, Mr. Atleo continued to speak in favour of the legislation.

"Smashing the status quo means ending the glacial pace of change for our people and providing full support for growth and success," he said. "Smashing the status quo means new approaches grounded in recognition and in reconciliation."

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