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Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo speaks with media as Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation Chief Gilbert Whiteduck (left) and nation AFN youth representative Kluane Adamek look on during a news conference in Ottawa, Tuesday September 21, 2010.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has taken a personal stake in improving the way children are taught on reserves by agreeing to meet collectively for the first time with first-nations leaders - a gathering where education would top the agenda.

Mr. Harper told Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, in a recent letter that he is "open to participating" in a Crown-first nation meeting and stressed his commitment to educational reform.

The letter, which Mr. Alteo shared with other aboriginal chiefs at a special assembly in Gatineau, Que., on Thursday, follows the Conservative government's historic apology for the treatment of native children at residential schools and Canada's recent signing of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

"The government has publicly committed to working with first-nations groups and other willing partners to develop options, including new legislation, to improve the governance framework and clarity accountability for first-nation elementary and secondary education," Mr. Harper wrote. "The government views the Assembly of First Nations as an important partner in advancing first-nation education reform."

Mr. Atleo said in an interview with The Globe and Mail that the letter was one of the most "significant and focused" statements by any Canadian prime minister about the failure of a policy that has so profoundly affected the aboriginal people of this country.

"The time frame for achieving success in areas like education, it can't be a 25- or 50-year time frame," he said. "It's got to be in the short time frame because there is so much that is threatened. Our languages are threatened if we don't support them. We're threatened to losing another generation to deep despair if we don't do this."

Mr. Harper and Mr. Atleo have talked privately on a couple of occasions since meeting at the international climate-change conference in Copenhagen last year.

"In our conversations, we first talk as fathers and talk about our kids," said Mr. Atleo, chancellor of Vancouver Island University. "And we actually had a very basic conversation about education and youth."

The chief said he hopes the meeting between the Prime Minister and the first nations could be organized for next spring. It would be the first gathering of its kind since former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin sat down with aboriginal leaders in Kelowna, B.C., in November, 2005

That two-day event resulted in an accord that promised $5-billion over five years in new aboriginal spending, an agreement that Mr. Harper effectively killed when his party formed the government in 2006.

But, while the Kelowna deal attempted to mitigate the broad range of problems faced by native people in this country, the AFN says a meeting with Mr. Harper would be much more narrowly focused on education, economic opportunities and first-nation governance.

Mr. Harper writes in his letter that he is willing to have his officials meet with the AFN and officials from the Indian and Northern Affairs department to discuss the reform of governance and economic issues but cautions that the matters are complex and a number of considerations would have to be taken into account.

At their meeting this week, the chiefs took a major step toward public accountability by unanimously committing all band politicians to disclose all salaries, honorariums and expenses to band members.

But the issues of Canada's aboriginal people, many of whom continue to live in Third World conditions, will require far more action on the part of both first-nations leaders and government, and education is a crucial piece of the puzzle.

The most recent statistics show that 40 per cent of aboriginal people in their early 20s do not have a high-school diploma, compared to 13 per cent of the non-aboriginal population. And just 8 per cent of aboriginals have graduated with a university degree, compared to 23 per cert of non-aboriginals.

"We made it very clear to the Prime Minister that no other prime minister has been able to successfully resolve this challenge, that first nations have been looking for first-nations control of first-nations education and they've been calling for it loudly since the early '70s," Mr. Atleo said.

"It's about coming together and jointly designing a future together and he expressed his willingness to do that."

Editor's Note: Mr. Atleo is chancellor of Vancouver Island University. Incorrect information appeared in the original newspaper version and an earlier online version of this article. This online version has been corrected.