By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
OTTAWA–Facing mass country-wide protests under the banner of IdleNoMore, the Conservative government unveiled its plans for proposed First Nations legislation Tuesday only to have it met by immediate derision.
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) blasted the Harper government’s planned consultations on the proposed legislation as nothing more than a “dog and pony show.” The AMC said Ottawa’s plan to spend a week in Winnipeg next March did not qualify as extensive consultation.
“A week spent in Winnipeg…is not consultation as they should be going to all First Nation communities if one is to do ‘intensive consultation,'” said the statement.
Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations vice-Chief Simon Bird also panned the consultation plan, which scheduled one week in Saskatoon next February, as another example of the Harper trying to strong-arm First Nations.
“The federal government dictates where and when First Nations will show,” said Bird, who holds the education portfolio with the FSIN and sits on the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) chiefs education committee. “The so-called willing partners are given nothing but ultimatums.”
Bird also issued a warning to other First Nations that may still be considering working with Ottawa on the education legislation.
“Any First Nation that does not stand together against this federal government will ultimately pay the price,” he said. “We will get picked off one by one.”
APTN National News reported Monday that the federal government was planning to let chiefs view and give input on a draft version of the proposed legislation to govern on-reserve K to 12 education before it gets tabled in the House of Commons.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said in a statement that education “is a priority we share with First Nation parents, students and leaders.” Duncan said the government would begin “intensive consultations” this month which would run until April 2013.
Duncan’s statement said the government would then share the draft legislation with First Nations, provincial governments and “other stakeholders” for input.
Duncan said the government would also “explore” ways to get First Nations communities more stable education funding.
The government’s announcement comes on the same day that Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence began a hunger strike in Ottawa to force a treaty meeting between the prime minister, the Queen and First Nations leaders. Greg Rickford, parliamentary secretary for Aboriginal Affairs, told APTN National News Duncan is willing to meet with Spence.
On Monday, thousands of people rallied across the country in the name of Indigenous rights under the banner of IdleNoMore. The rallies are riding a wave of discontent that crashed against the threshold of the House of Commons last week after chiefs from Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario attempted to enter the Chamber where MPs pass and debate Canadian laws. Parliament Hill security pushed the chiefs back.
How the chiefs react across the country to Ottawa’s education announcement could add fuel to an already simmering situation.
For now, one of the key players on the file says he needs more time to review it.
Nova Scotia regional Chief Morley Googoo, who is the chair of the AFN’s chiefs committee on education, said he wasn’t up to speed on the government’s announcement, and couldn’t directly comment.
“What First Nations communities have been looking for is real, direct involvement,” said Googoo.
Googoo, along with AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo, met with Duncan after the close of last week’s special chiefs assembly in Gatineau, Que. Duncan told the First Nations leaders that he had a cabinet mandate to push ahead with education legislation.
In a letter to Duncan that preceded the meeting, Googoo wrote that the government needed to increase funding for education.
“There have been no assurances that new legislation will address the historic gaps and the urgent and long-term funding needs of First Nations schools and education systems,” wrote Googoo, in the Nov. 28 letter. “A change in the law is not required for the federal government to provide sustainable and equitable funding for our children, schools and systems.”
The topic of education has proved to be divisive within the AFN. Some chiefs were upset with Atleo for agreeing to meet with Duncan despite a resolution directing the national chief to reject the legislation issue on principle. Berens River First Nation Chief George Kemp called on Atleo to resign over the meeting.
Tensions on the issue were already heightened after Ontario, Saskatchewan and Quebec withdrew from participating with a blue-ribbon panel studying the issue. The panel was co-sponsored by the AFN and Ottawa.
While chiefs have also passed resolutions calling on the AFN to reject any legislative remedies to education because they say the treaties already spell out Ottawa’s responsibilities on that front, there are some who are open to the idea. The federal government has already passed legislation for on-reserve education in British Columbia.
This past July, during the AFN’s annual gathering in Toronto which re-elected Atleo, chiefs passed a resolution calling on the government to first get approval from chiefs for the legislation before it tabling it in the House of Commons.