By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
A group of First Nation chiefs plan to revive a dormant oversight body within the Assembly of First Nations to turn the organization against the Harper government’s First Nation education bill.
Ontario regional Chief Stan Beardy made the first move in reviving the “Confederacy of Nations” Thursday morning. Beardy faxed a letter to the rest of the AFN executive of regional chiefs requesting a conference call to discuss holding a Confederacy meeting in Ottawa on May 14.
The First Nation Control of First Nation Education Act, Bill C-33, is currently at the debate stage in second reading. It is expected to go to committee for study next week. The Conservatives have also moved to cut debate short on the bill. The Senate Aboriginal Peoples committee is also conducting a pre-study of the bill.
Beardy said the chiefs need to meet because there are still too many unanswered questions around the bill which would imposed standards on-reserve schools, provide a framework to create First Nation school boards and provide $1.9 billion in funding. The bill would also lift the 2 per cent cap on education funding and replace it with a 4.5 escalator.
“The chiefs need to see what’s on the table so they can make a decision themselves. They need to get a full explanation of what is on the table,” said Beardy, in an interview. “I don’t think everyone has a full understanding and the AFN has to report back to the chiefs.”
The Confederacy has the powers of an oversight body within the AFN charter and it has the authority to direct the national chief and demand accountability. The body is separate from the “chiefs in assembly” which includes the chiefs and their proxies who attend the organization’s bi-annual assemblies. It met quarterly from 1982 to 2004 and then faded from use.
By reviving the Confederacy, the opposing chiefs hope to take control of the AFN which has been used by the Harper government to fend off critics and criticism of Bill C-33.
Idle No More organizers are also planning to launch a nation-wide “kill Bill C-33” campaign in conjunction with the political maneuvering by opposing chiefs. Chiefs involved in opposing the bill include Beardy, Kahnawake Grand Chief Mike Delisle, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak and Onion Lake Cree Nation Chief Wallace Fox, among others.
A group of about 50 chiefs, technical staff, education directors and school principals primarily from the prairies and Ontario held a conference call Thursday to discuss their strategy.
As of this article’s posting, the AFN executive had yet to decide on a time for the conference call requested by Beardy.
Beardy criticized AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo’s handling of the file, saying he appeared to have overstepped the mandate given to him by the chiefs which was simply to negotiate with Ottawa on education, not finalize an agreement.
“My understanding is that the national chief got a mandate to negotiate, but a negotiator usually comes back to the people who sent him to say, ‘this is what I managed to negotiate,'” said Beardy.
Atleo announced the bill’s impending introduction with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Feb. 7. The AFN also released an analysis of the bill widely interpreted as more promotional than analytical.
The AFN, however, is preparing to propose amendments to the bill once it goes before the Commons Aboriginal affairs committee.
Atleo, who is in currently in Seattle attending a conference, could not be reached for comment.
An AFN source said the national chief will not stand in the way of Beardy’s request for a meeting.
Morley Googoo, the regional AFN chief from Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador, said he wanted to hear more before deciding whether to support Beardy’s bid for a meeting.
Googoo, who holds the education portfolio on the AFN executive, said people were overreacting to the bill. While the bill does not give First Nations jurisdiction over education, it is just a step in that direction, he said.
“This is a bridge toward the final step of self-government agreements,” said Googoo. “It’s the communities that will design their education system. This bill gives opportunity, resources and options for communities to move forward…It is something better than the status quo, but it is not the end-all-and-be-all.”
In Nova Scotia, the Mi’kmaq took over their education system through an agreement with Ottawa in 1998 and their graduation rates have since increased dramatically.
Manitoba regional Chief Bill Traverse said he was in favour of Beardy’s bid for a meeting.
“I think we as regional chiefs have rights here in terms of decision-making and unfortunately we have not been included in recent decision-making by the national office,” said Traverse.
Dene Nation Chief Bill Erasmus, regional chief for the Northwest Territories, said he also supported the call for a meeting. He said bill ignored the education needs of northern Indigenous people.
“We should get it done quickly so we know where everyone is at so we determine how to proceed,” said Erasmus.
Alberta Regional Chief Cameron Alexis said he needed to get direction from his region’s chiefs and grand chiefs before making any decisions.
“It is a collective decision and we have to agree upon a cohesive decision on dates and times and everything,” he said. “I am not saying I am for or against anything.”
Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde, who turned against the bill almost overnight, ducked a request for comment from APTN National News. Bellegarde asked an assistant to contact APTN National News to state he would not offer any comment on Beardy’s meeting bid.
British Columbia regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould and Quebec and Labrador Grand Chief Ghislain Picard did not return phone calls. Picard has not shied away from criticizing the bill and is leading a charge to have a federal court launch a judicial review.
Even if the AFN executive turned down Beardy’s meeting request, the Confederacy meeting could still go ahead under the charter. The body, which is made up of representatives chosen by each of the 10 regions plus one representative for every 10,000 First Nations people in each region, has the power to hold its own meetings. Based on Statistics Canada data, a Confederacy meeting would have about 75 delegates. A group of about 36 representing six regions is all that would be needed to form a quorum.
If the revived Confederacy meets in Ottawa, some involved in organizing the event say it could resemble Jan. 11, 2013, when Idle No More protesters took the downtown while Atleo and a select group of chiefs met with Harper.