APTN National News
OTTAWA—Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo announced his resignation Friday afternoon amid growing political pressure over his perceived support for the Harper government’s First Nations education bill.
Atleo said he was resigning his position as the head of the organization representing First Nations chiefs across the country because he didn’t want to be an impediment to improving First Nation education.
“This work is too important and I am not prepared to be an obstacle to it or a lightning rod distracting from the kids and their potential,” said Atleo, during a hastily called press conference in Ottawa. “I am therefore today resigning as national chief. I have carried out my actions based on principle and on integrity. Personally, I believe this work must happen, it can and should happen in parallel to other efforts addressing fundamental questions of how we do this work.”
Atleo is the first AFN national chief to resign from his post.
Atleo was in his second term as national chief. The term was scheduled to end in 2015. Atleo was first elected in 2009 after a marathon, 23-hour vote in Calgary. He handily won re-election in Toronto for a second term in 2012.
A hereditary chief for the Ahousaht First Nation in British Columbia, he also served as AFN regional chief for the province before his election to the top post.
Atleo was facing increasing political pressure over his perceived support for the Harper government’s First Nation Control of First Nation Education Act. A group of chiefs from the prairies and Ontario were planning to try and seize control of the AFN.
Atleo said that the prime minister was being sincere in his desire to improve First Nation education on-reserve through the bill.
“The current proposal on education is the latest attempt in a sincere, constructive effort on the part of Prime Minister Harper to take a step forward,” said Atleo. “The work must be understood in that context, as a challenge, not for me, or any one individual, but a challenge and a call to action for the entire country.”
Atleo compared the Harper government’s work on the education bill and its impact to constitutional negotiations, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the Kelowna Accord executed by former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin.
“Now the work started so many years ago must continue. It must continue in every community, it must continue within Parliament. I challenge every party and every First Nation to carry this work forward. Failure is simply not an option. Fighting for the status quo is simply not acceptable,” said Atleo.
Atleo did not offer any hints on what he planned to do next, saying only he would continue the “struggle.” He took no questions from reporters after announcing his resignation.
“I will, as I have all my life, continue this struggle in other ways,” said Atleo.
Reaction from First Nation leaders was swift from across the country.
Many were surprised.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office sent out a release late Friday. “Together, we helped improve opportunities for greater participation by First Nations in the economy and standards of living and quality of life on reserve, including through the Crown-First Nations Gathering in 2012. We also shared a commitment to improving First Nation education and ensuring that students on reserve have the same education standards, supports and opportunities that most Canadians take for granted.”
“National Chief Atleo was a conciliator and strengthened the relationship between First Nations and the Crown.”
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said, ““It was with sadness I learned of Shawn-A-in-chut Atleo’s resignation. As Grand Chief, as Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, as AFN Regional Chief for British Columbia, or as a teacher, he has shown himself to be an inspiring leader. I thank him for all the work he has done in support of Canadians and aboriginal communities across the country.”
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau tweeted: “I would like to thank Shawn Atleo for his dedication to improving the lives of First Nations and the goal of a better country for everyone.”
From the east, AFN regional chief Morley Googoo, Atleo’s point man on education and ally satated, “I was saddened today to learn of the sudden resignation of National Chief Atleo. I understand, however, that in making his decision he is putting, as he always has, the interests of Canada’s First Nation children and communities before all others.”
On the west coast and Atleo’s home province, B.C. AFN regional Chief Jodi Wilson-Raybould, who recently called the education act an illusion said: “It was with surprise, disappointment and sadness that I learned of the resignation of National Chief Shawn Atleo today. (Atleo) is a respected leader who articulated clear priorities and has a positive vision for First Nations within Canada.”
A group of First Nation chiefs who flercely fought Atleo on the education plan, announced plans to revive a dormant oversight body within the AFN to turn the organization against the Harper government’s First Nation education bill were largely silent after the announcement.
Ontario AFN regional chief Stan Beardy criticized 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.
The AFN executive including Beardy and Wilson-Raybould, Saskatchewan regional chief Perry Bellegarde, Quebec and Labrador regional chief Ghislain Picard and Nova Scotia regional chief Morley googoo held conference call late Friday afternoon to discuss the next steps for the organization.