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Shawn speaks at a news conference in Ottawa on Friday, May 2, 2014. Atleo is resigning as the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

For a brief moment, Canada had a window of opportunity to improve education for native children at on-reserve schools with the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, which sets minimum standards and secure levels of funding.

Ottawa's decision to put Bill C-33 on ice in the wake of Shawn Atleo's resignation as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations is deeply regrettable, but understandable. Mr. Atleo's support of the bill was the linchpin of its legitimacy. Without him, the government needs renewed buy-in from native leadership. The ball, once again, is in the AFN's court. What will they do with it?

The circumstances that presaged Mr. Atleo's resignation offer a clue: His support for Bill C-33 was at odds with the views of many chiefs. They saw the Act as a paternalistic move on the part of the federal government to usurp control over native children's education. They took issue with the minister of aboriginal affairs' authority to appoint nine educational professionals to a council that would oversee on-reserve education and help write regulations. Some chiefs felt the bill undermined their end goal of self-government.

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Mr. Atleo, who was elected national chief in 2009 with a mandate to boost graduation rates and fix on-reserve schools, saw Bill C-33 as the best way to accomplish that. He was right. But in the end, his critics drowned him out. Which leaves the bill looking doomed to die on the vine. That's a shame. It is a good piece of legislation that holds the potential to improve a bad situation. But it has been eclipsed by arguments over everything except its subject: native education.

Mr. Atleo's critics aren't offering a coherent alternative to what's been proposed. Some chiefs want to talk exclusively about funding. Others don't want to talk to the federal government at all. Meanwhile, another generation of native children is poised for a status quo of educational underperformance.

The underlying problems Bill C-33 was meant to solve remain: Only 40 per cent of young adults living on-reserve complete high school, a figure that's been stagnant for three decades. Unless First Nations leaders can find a way to work with Ottawa to improve this abysmal situation, it will remain so for years to come.

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