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National Chief Shawn Atleo answers questions from the media during a press conference at the 32nd Annual General Assembly of the Assembly of First Nations in Moncton, NB on Tuesday, July 12, 2011.David Smith/The Canadian Press

An effort to improve education substantively in native schools that was hailed as a historic turning point in co-operation between aboriginal leaders and Ottawa has been thrown into jeopardy as native groups in one province after another have withdrawn from the process.

The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations announced this week that it will not participate in a national panel on education established by the federal government and the Assembly of First Nations to look at ways to improve the outcomes for children attending kindergarten to Grade 12 in reserve schools.

Chiefs in Ontario and Quebec made similar decisions earlier this year. It total, about 230 native groups have refused to participate in the panel process, citing a lack of consultation and concerns that it will diminish the rights of aboriginal people to control their own education.

The FSIN said the intent of the panel announced last December by Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan and Shawn Atleo, the chief of the Assembly of First Nations, is to create "one-size-fits-all" education legislation.

"At the end of the day, the panel will consult with an unrepresentative group of first nations across Canada and then influence federal legislation that is not aligned with our belief systems," Lyle Whitefish, the vice-chief of the FSIN, said in a statement. "While the federal government issued a residential school apology that included a commitment not to repeat the mistakes of the past, this national panel seems like a step back to the 'we know best' colonialist attitude."

Unfortunately, Mr. Whitefish said, "the AFN, our own national first nations organization, is not listening to us, and appears to have been co-opted by the federal government in supporting a process that will only serve to create legislation that weakens our treaty right to education."

Rather than taking part in the panel's regional meetings, the FSIN is collecting its own information about education on reserves to determine what a system that respects treaty rights would truly look like, Mr. Whitefish said. A similar process is being conducted in Ontario and Quebec, and a report, parallel to that of the panel, will be delivered to the Aboriginal Affairs Department and to the AFN.

Shifting Ottawa's relationship with native communities from confrontation to co-operation has been a major focus for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and the education panel is part of a joint effort with the AFN to transform the schools, economies and quality of life on reserves. Lack of support among native leaders for one element of the plan, heralded as a major development when it was announced, could put the other parts in jeopardy.

Angus Toulouse, the regional chief of Ontario, said on Friday that the chiefs in his province rejected the national panel process at a meeting last April.

"What the first nations have said is that the national process fails to provide a clear understanding or agreement with Canada on how first nations will control the decision-making over our education and how that's going to be reflected in the process beyond the submissions in the final report," Mr. Toulouse said.

But he said there is broad understanding that native schools are underfunded and do not have the resources that have been given to non-aboriginal schools.

Mr. Duncan was unavailable for comment on Friday. His spokeswoman, Michelle Yao, said it is important to note that individual native communities from some of the regions that have bowed out of the process have expressed an interest in continuing the discussions.

Mr. Atleo could also not be reached on Friday. In a statement, the AFN pointed out that the work of the national panel was supported by a resolution at its annual general assembly last month. The AFN also said it was founded on a commitment to uphold native rights and treaty rights and "will never compromise on any of these rights or principles."

But Isadore Day, the chief of the Serpent River First Nation in Northern Ontario, said he does not see the point of having a panel to tell native communities what they already know: that investment spending and effective delivery of kindergarten to Grade 12 on reserves need attention.

Mr. Day and other native leaders are upset that they were not consulted before the panel was announced. "If you are going to proceed with an initiative of that magnitude," he said, "then there obviously should be some level of preparation and discussion with the leadership across the country."

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