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john ibbitson

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo poses for a photograph in Ottawa.

Barring an unexpected last-minute challenger, Shawn Atleo will be acclaimed for a second three-year stint as National Chief to the Assembly of First Nations this July. For the cause of native education, that could mean a great deal.

There have been rumblings over Mr. Atleo's leadership. Some chiefs believe he isn't sufficiently hard-edged in his dealings with the Harper government. They want a leader who will confront more and co-operate less.

Blaine Favel, a Harvard-educated entrepreneur and former Grand Chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, was the most formidable potential challenger. But Mr. Favel confirmed by email Wednesday that he has decided not to run.

Several aboriginal leaders, speaking on background, said that no other potential candidate has the political base to challenge Mr. Atleo, assuring his re-election.

This could greatly influence the passage of a new First Nations Education Act, which the Harper government is expected to introduce in the fall.

Too many natives living on reserve are trapped in a seemingly unbreakable cycle of poverty and ill-health. A United Nations envoy criticized the federal government Wednesday for the "deep and severe food insecurity faced by aboriginal peoples across Canada."

The Conservatives responded by accusing the envoy of focusing on "what appears to be a political agenda rather than on addressing food shortages in the developing world," in the words of Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq.

But most knowledgeable observers agree that the native poverty cycle will never be smashed until the education gap closes between native and non-native Canadians. The AFN and the Harper government co-sponsored a task force that is recommending a new native-run education system based on provincial or regional school boards.

Many chiefs boycotted the panel, and many chiefs will oppose the school boards, which would weaken the control of individual band councils over reserve schools.

Mr. Atleo, who has made education his highest priority as national chief, is expected to support the Conservative legislation. Had he been replaced by a national chief who opposed the bill, it would have had little chance of success. Now that he's staying, the bill at least has that chance.

As it happens, Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs was in town Wednesday to heighten awareness of some of the pressing problems facing reserves in his province. Food is, indeed, prohibitively expensive on the northern reserves. Thousands of Manitoba natives remain displaced after last year's floods.

Mr. Nepinak supports the idea of an education bill. "We need to make improvements in education," he said in an interview. "We need to close the gap."

But imposing a solution from Ottawa is no solution at all. "If the process is wrestled away from the local communities by tables operating at 35,000 feet, then there are going to be problems," he said.

Native school boards, he stressed, will have to protect the language and culture of the children they serve, whether those children are on reserves in Manitoba or New Brunswick.

When it comes to first nations education on reserves, nothing that has been tried has worked. Graduation rates remain at the same abysmally low levels they were at a generation ago. Some efforts, such as the residential school system, have proved catastrophic. The odds of success this time remain long.

But Shawn Atleo will at least have three more years to try to beat those odds.

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