(At 4:02 in the video, Atleo makes the announcement that he is resigning as National Chief)
Atleo’s Resignation – Result of Divisions Among First Nations: Bill’s Right On Blog (Opinion)
With the resignation of Shawn Atleo today we may have lost one of the most pragmatic and diplomatic leaders we’ve had in a while. Atleo understood working relationships and how to give and take with a common goal in mind. With the five defined goals of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) in hand Atleo worked to find a way to improve the educational outcomes of Aboriginal youth in Canada. It is unfortunate that the culture of protest that has arisen from #idlenomore and the mistrust of Stephen Harper and the Conservative government has created a hostile environment for working together, poisonous to any agreements that have come.
Politics is a slow moving machine as Aboriginals know; change comes slowly – if at all to our needs. We always seem to be just short of funding, held back from true independent governance, and being held back of success. One sore point that we keep coming back to is the education of our youth, persistent underfunding, inadequate staffing, and racist undertones (sometimes blatant) towards our learners. We all agreed that through and through the current system, the rules we have now and the status quo is not acceptable.
Enter Shawn Atleo who was first elected in 2009 after defeating Saskatchewan candidate Perry Bellgarde and re elected for a second term in 2012. Atleo previously served for two terms as the chief of the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations and also had been appointed to serve as the chancellor of the Vancouver Island University, BC’s first Aboriginal chancellor. With a Master’s in Education Atleo knows and values the importance of education.
He focused on education and improving the system through hook or by crook he worked to this end. Many of his critics would say he was crooked and selling us out or overstepping his bounds as AFN Chief but maybe he was only treading where others were too fearful to walk. He knew he had the ear of the Prime Minister Stephen Harper and that they both wanted change, but Atleo knew it wouldn’t be easy.
Harper is a politician unlike any other in the Canadian system, he worked from a coalition of former PC’s and Reform party members that he hammered together to bring an end to the last Liberal dynasty of the 20th century. He operated with control and precision by bringing an end to individualism in his party forcing more and more decisions to be approved by his office. With his message under control and his members afraid to speak out of turn he won successive elections gaining power each time moving his party from official opposition to the governing party with a majority. Each step of the way brought another chapter to his vision of Canada more and more into a reality.
Corporations wanted more access to Canada’s lands to speculate for resources, but the First Nations held much power over their lands and were considered opponents to resource extraction. So Harper began his termination plan first by apologizing for the residential school experience and then paying out residential school claims. During the apology he spoke very pointedly about a new relationship with Canada’s Aboriginal peoples. And he truly intended a new relationship.
Termination of the Crowns responsibility to treaty and the assimilation of Aboriginals into the Canadian economy or way of life would be through agreements forced upon bands such as the omnibus Bill C-45. This Bill threatened to loosen environmental restrictions to protected waterways, changed protections to many environmental statues. These Bills were crafted without consultation with Aboriginal peoples who would be most affected by them. The termination plan relieved Canada of future responsibilities. Sadly, our First Nations political leaders were quiet during this time, being accused of using meetings with the Prime Minister as photo opportunities rather than for discussions.
Four women Jessica Gordon, Sheelah McLean, Sylvia McAdam and Nina Wilson rose up to protest the changes Bill C-45 would bring and #idlenomore was born. Across Canada the movement spread like wild fire igniting the dry tinder of inaction and fuelled Aboriginal youth into mall round dances, cross Canada walks, road closures, teach-ins were held, railway blockades, and hunger strikes all happened in support. Our silence would not be used as consent, our voice roared to the nation’s capital.
Theresa Spence started a hunger strike and demanded a meeting with Harper and the Governor General for a discussion on treaties in December 2012. Days passed with no communication or action from the Prime Minister’s Office, than weeks still with no comments. Finally after 6 weeks, Harper agreed to a meeting with Chief Spence, Atleo and a few other Aboriginal leaders. Another meeting was planned at the governors home for later in the day but not together as Spence requested. Atleo and others attended this first meeting with Harper but Spence deciding this was not what she wanted, chose not to.
But first in order to attend this meeting Atleo had to push past a line of Aboriginal women begging him not to break with his people and I can’t imagine their heartbreak as he pushed past that indigenous line of unity. In that meeting Atleo lost the confidence of AFN, he acted without the political power of AFN, he acted as an individual working for the government. Following this meeting he returned to AFN with the results of his discussion.
The first meeting he brought forth the idea for the First Nations Education Act where it was discussed then rejected with a resounding “no”, the chiefs in assembly wanted five things included if they were to move it forward:
Jurisdiction recognizing the inherit rights and title, treaty and First Nations control of First Nations education which must be enabled and supported.
A funding statutory guarantee that is sustainable and consistent with Canada’s obligations
Language and culture must be fully integrated and grounded in all Indigenous language and culture
Reciprocal accountability and transparency not unilateral over sight
Meaningful dialogue to address these conditions through commitment to working together fully reflective of First Nations rights and jurisdiction
On February 7th, 2014 Atleo and his supporters would argue that these conditions were meant by the Conservative Bill, The First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act which had these provisions:
It creates minimum education standards that are consistent with provincial standards for schools that are off reserve.
Defines the roles and responsibilities for educational administration staff including requirements for annual reporting to the First Nations Education Authority which would be similar to school boards.
Creating stable and predictable model of funding that creates a single stream of funding instead of the current 3 streams used and this new funding will carry a future growth increases of 4.5% as well as transitional funding to carry First Nations over to this new model
Enabling First Nations to incorporate language and culture programming in the education curriculum, and providing funding for language and culture programming within the statutory funding stream.
Committing the Government to work in conjunction with First Nations to develop the Act’s regulations.
Atleo’s opponents immediately responded to the amount of funding and how it was to be divided up over three years, as well as the lack of control they saw embedded in the system. They didn’t want a federally imposed system that allowed for qualified candidates to administer schools via a school board model, but have offered up nothing as an alternative to use as an Indigenous model. But the mistrust of this government in pushing legislation through parliament without proper consultation or debate has lead to Aboriginals being wary of anything presented as being beneficial.
Currently the education model for Aboriginal education in Canada is broken and grossly underfunded. With over 500 schools on first nations across Canada as a federal responsibility it seems prudent that we would want to be taking steps to control our own education systems. Canada’s role as an educator has left much to be desired and that is without getting into the details of residential schools.
Claims are made that over the ten year period from 2000 to 2010 provincial school funding increased by 45% compared to the paltry 19% federal increase for on reserve schools and in 2006/07 the elementary and secondary education program that supported 120,000 students had a budget of only $1.2 billion – $240 million dollars less than comparable supports for off reserve students.
This funding gap creates a real world consequence when it comes to post secondary readiness, trades and skills training, and employment opportunities. Youth who have been unprepared by schooling are also unprepared for additional opportunities, through no fault of their own but rather a broken system that has failed to serve them equitably.
This lack of funding brings additional barriers to consideration as well, lack of library materials, computers capable of accessing proper training software, the ability to provide comparative salaries or even attract qualified staff. This lack of funding is a barrier that needs to be broken. If you feel that all or nothing approach to negotiation is what is going to work, it isn’t you that loses out or your organization but rather it is the youth who feel the sting of a broken system.
This is what made Atleo different; instead of making political grandstanding a way of life he chose to ask the chiefs what could be accomplished and was provided a list of objectives. In spite of the bold protests of #idlenomore Atleo kept on working to achieve an agreement bringing the top down approach of the FNEA into a more indigenous inspired document that promoted education. To the Conservative government this became a Hail Mary pass to finally accomplish much needed change in First Nations communities, to Atleo it became a flaming arrow to the heart of his chiefship at the Assembly of First Nations.
Will it be worth it? Our youth will be the judge of that.
– Bill Stevenson, Bill’s Right On Blog