By Cara McKenna
APTN National News
Former Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo responded Thursday to a secret education agreement he signed with Prime Minister Stephen Harper months before the controversial First Nation Control of First Nations Education Act was tabled in Parliament, igniting a firestorm of criticism that led to Atleo’s resignation in May.
The document, filed in Federal Court in September, outlines the framework and name of the now-shelved First Nations Education Act.
It was signed Feb. 3 by Harper, Atleo, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt and former Clerk of the Privy Council Wayne Wouters.
Atleo said in an interview Thursday that, at the time, he was pressing Harper about First Nations education, and understood the federal government would be responding positively to five educational priorities put forward by chiefs.
“The details of which I was not a party to,” he said.
Atleo said that only governments can forge deals with other governments, and that he wants to clarify his role was not legislative.
“I always said over and over again, ‘I’m not the Indian Prime Minister,’ when I was in my former job as National Chief,” he said.
“My work, as I followed the instructions by resolution, was to do exactly (what I did), and an important decision on my part. Recognizing the tasks that I felt the chiefs has sent me to Ottawa to do, I had accomplished.”
APTN National News earlier reported that Atleo never told chiefs about the document. Two AFN regional chiefs also reportedly didn’t attend a Feb. 7 announcement at the Blood Tribe reserve where Harper and Atleo announced a “historic agreement” on education because of the lack of information.
During the announcement, neither Harper nor Atleo mentioned that the draft proposal of the upcoming bill – “Bill C/S-X, First Nation Control of First Nations Education Act” – existed.
In May, Atleo resigned suddenly after many chiefs outright rejected the legislation, which now sits in limbo with $1.9 billion in funding.
He has since kept a low profile, but at a press conference at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo on Oct. 30, B.C. Premier Christy Clark announced Atleo is now taking on a new academic role working indirectly for the provincial government as Canada’s first “Speaker for Indigenous Dialogue.”
The job will involve leading sessions between corporations, local governments and First Nations on various issues including resource development and land rights.
Clark said Atleo has become “a great friend” and “a really outstanding example of how people of First Nations ancestry can bring both their traditional outlook … and at the same time grasp the opportunities for economic growth.”
“We are very focused on trying to build partnerships in a respectful way,” Clark said.
“We need to hear each other’s stories if we want to ensure those relationships work. The speaker’s role is to lead the development of dialogue sessions, research and public policy.”
Atleo, who will be working through VIU’s newly formed Centre for Pre-Confederation Treaties and Reconciliation in Nanaimo, said his first role will be listening to what people have to say.
He is also currently doing academic work out of the University of Toronto.
“I’m honoured to continue this work on education in a different way,” Atleo said.
“I’m so thankful for both the support I received as well as the sharp criticism at times, because you learn from both. And I’m thankful for all of that. I don’t think I would have done anything any differently, but of course in hindsight, you always learn a lot.”
Atleo said he has been reflecting for the last few months on whether or not to return as a leader in the public eye, but started to feel a sense of responsibility and is now ready and willing to continue his work.
“Life is messy, life is full of surprises,” he said.
“When I came back from my last role I thought, ‘am I going to go home and be a fisher or an oyster farmer, or do something else unrelated?’ No. My heart is so full of a love for my people and my land.”
When asked about a recent quote that he had “enough of Ottawa,” Atleo said his comment was misconstrued.
“To be clear, I think others said that,” he said.
“What I said was that I had enough of the winters in Ottawa. Six of them, if I’m counting. But I was tremendously honoured with that role, and it’s not about leaving the place. It’s about being finished with the work. It feels very good to be home.”
-with files from Jorge Barrera