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Tories isolate Assembly of First Nations over economic threat

Canada's Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa May 14, 2014.


Ottawa is dismissing a revived First Nations forum that has rejected an on-reserve education bill, saying the group's threat of an "economic shutdown" shows it doesn't represent the majority of natives.

A rare meeting of the Assembly of First Nations' Confederacy passed a resolution Wednesday rejecting the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act and calling for a new Confederacy committee to open talks on an education "accord." It was the first such regional and population-based gathering of native leaders in a decade.

The resolution, obtained by The Globe, challenges the powers of the AFN executive at a time when the lobbying body is leaderless and facing dissatisfaction among many chiefs over the representation it has provided.

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The road map laid out in the resolution would strip the AFN executive of the ability to engage in talks with the government over education. That could prove challenging for the Conservative government, which for years had an occasional ally in Shawn Atleo, who resigned as national chief this month over his support of the education act. It could create a situation in which a Confederacy committee seeks to engage Ottawa on piecemeal education reforms tailored to regions or treaty areas.

On Thursday, the Prime Minister's Office and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt signalled Ottawa won't recognize the Confederacy's standing so long as a warning contained in its draft statement is left lingering.

"Should Canada not withdraw and cease all imposed legislation on First Nations without our free, prior and informed consent, we will strategically and calculatedly begin the economic shutdown of Canada's economy from coast-to-coast," says the draft statement, which was obtained by The Globe late Wednesday night.

The draft statement was circulated to AFN executives, but was not expected to be released Thursday – the second and final day of the Ottawa gathering.

Anything decided at the Confederacy gathering will have to be approved at the May 27 special chiefs assembly, as per the AFN charter. The Confederacy is expected to reconvene May 28.

"We do not believe that a group, like the Confederacy of Nations, that threatens to harm Canada's economy truly represents the views of First Nations who truly want to improve the on-reserve education system," Jason MacDonald, a spokesman for the Prime Minister, said in an e-mail Thursday.

And in the House of Commons, Mr. Valcourt condemned the threats of "rogue chiefs" and said he won't meet with the group until the warning is withdrawn. "I do not think that this group is representative of the majority of First Nations, and I trust that the good, hard-working chiefs will speak up," he said.

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Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy noted the Confederacy exists within the AFN structure. He said the the body decided not to release the statement Thursday so chiefs could first consult their communities ahead of the special chiefs assembly at the end of this month.

Outside Thursday's meeting, which was closed to the media, some chiefs appeared reluctant to discuss the prospect of an "economic shutdown." Asked whether any future shutdown could include blockades, Quebec and Labrador Regional Chief Ghislain Picard, who co-chaired the meeting, said he "wouldn't even go there."

And Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon said he voiced concern at Wednesday's session over the rhetoric, which he said risks "lowering already shaky public opinion toward First Nations." Regional Chief Beardy said stock market uncertainty could arise due to "unrest."

The AFN executive had initially expressed concern over holding an official Confederacy meeting, citing relatively short notice and logistics. A source with knowledge of the proceedings said B.C. and New Brunswick were not formally represented at the Confederacy session. Saskatchewan, the source said, didn't send a formal delegation but chiefs from the province did attend.

Over the course of the two-day session, native leaders heard varying views on how to proceed with on-reserve education, though most, several said, were in favour of rejecting the act altogether.

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