Shawn Atleo and many First Nations leaders were at odds with each other over the Harper government’s plans to reform on-reserve education, and then suddenly, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations resigned.
Many First Nations communities were against Bill C-33 which downloaded liability on the backs of First Nations communities while retaining the right to intervene and dictate how on-reserve education would evolve, thereby creating a nanny state in schools. In other words, the Bill gives control of education to First Nations communities unless the Harper government decides to take control of education in First Nations communities with the blessing of a council appointed by the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs.
Imagine being told that the house you own outright could be taken away from you by the municipality just because it wants to. That’s a simplified example of what Bill C-33 sets up for First Nations communities across Canada.
Still, Shawn Atleo supported Bill C-33 despite the mandate from his constituency to take a stand against the Bill.
Many in First Nations communities felt that the legislation continued to support discrimination and racism against First Nations peoples, and there was talk of approaching the United Nations to appeal the legislation if it was passed. The reason for this was because Bill C-33 (like so many other Bills affecting First Nations communities) was designed without consultation with First Nations chiefs, took a disciplinary approach to First Nations education,and didn’t protect treaty rights. What’s more, it seemed that the long-term consequences that would result from the passing of Bill C-33 had not been considered by those promoting and supporting the proposed legislation.
While Shawn Atleo endorsed the legislation and asked that the Bill go through unchallenged by First Nations communities, he also made it clear that the Assembly of First Nations and he did not have the authority to negotiate acceptance of the bill on behalf of individual First Nations.
That being said, some felt that the AFN under Shawn Atleo’s leadership had become an assimilationist organization. Some thought it had to do with the fact that he was from the untreatied lands of British Columbia, and had not attended residential school thereby suffering as so many who were thrown into the residential school system were made to suffer.
His close collaboration with the Harper government which oftentimes was at odds with the needs and rights of the First Nations peoples caused deep rifts between himself and the regional chiefs and with many First Nations communities as well as with status and non-status Indigenous peoples. Some went so far as to refer to him as a traitor, while a few hailed him as a hero.
He chose to resign, saying that he was not prepared to be an obstacle to ensuring First Nations students had every opportunity to reach their full potential in school.
While no one can say who will become the next National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, it’s a safe bet that Bill C-33 will not receive the support from the AFN that it did under Shawn Atleo’s leadership.