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What’s next for the Assembly of First Nations, the aboriginal education bill?

It was just three months ago that then-Assembly of First Nations chief Shawn Atleo shared a stage Prime Minister Stephen Harper touting a "historic" deal on aboriginal education.

After years of urging by the AFN, the federal government was finally coming to the table with consistent funding and the promise of First Nation control over First Nation education.

At the time, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt called the deal a "new beginning" in the relationship between First Nations and the Crown.

That beginning, however, has come to a screeching end over the past week.

Thanks to vocal criticism of the legislation, dubbed Bill C-33, Atleo has stepped down from his post and the Harper government has halted the legislation pending further clarification and guidance from the AFN.

[ Related: First Nations education act 'on hold,' minister's office says ]

Whether the education bill will survive this current turmoil is unclear.

Last week, First Nation activist and lawyer Pam Palmater told Yahoo Canada News that under Bill C-33, Ottawa retains all of its control over First Nation education except over some limited administrative functions; she argued that funding is inadequate and will be eaten up by new bureaucracies; and she complained that the Act excludes First Nation control over their students within their territories but off-reserve.

"The focus has to be on killing this bill – Bill C-33," Palmater said.

"The anger, frustration and upset you see in Chiefs and grassroots people is them standing in defense of their right to control their own education. They are saying no to the status quo and Harper’s assimilation plans."

[ Related: Shawn Atleo's surprise resignation ]

Grand Chief Doug Kelly of the Sto:lo Tribal Council in British Columbia, however, says the bill is a good one and includes the five principles that were unanimously agreed upon at an Assembly of First Nations special chiefs assembly in December.

"We're a little better than four months [removed] from the passage, the unanimous consent of Resolution 21/2013...and so in that four months we went from saysing yes, let's move, let's get money, let's improve First Nation education, let's make sure that we have greater control of First Nation education to now we're in never never land," Kelly, who served as Atleo campaign manager in 2008 and 2011, told Yahoo.

"We have a bill that's promised to us but we're now fighting amongst ourselves instead of working with the government to get the bill right and to make sure that money moves into our communities and supports our students."

Kelly went on to defend Atleo, who he affectionately calls his "brother", saying that he did consult the grassroots.

"[Atleo] went into hundreds of our communities First Nations schools, he visited with students, he visited with parents, elders and leaders. And they want trans- formative change," he said.

"Our leaders listen to the grassroots."

One thing both Palmater and Kelly agree on is the need for reform in the AFN.

Unfortunately they disagree on what that change should be.

"The AFN could be relevant as an advocacy organization that is designed to conduct research and analysis, share information, empower First Nations, and coordinate action across the country – but it needs to get out of the business of secret meetings, backroom deal-making, and taking matters into their own hands," Palmater said.

"This is an organization that by all insider accounts, has become an arm of the federal government. So long as it maintains this path of allowing the federal government to control its mandate, press releases and actions – it will fade into irrelevancy.

"How the AFN Executive handle the Minister’s request for “clarification” on Bill C-33 will be a strong indicator of where they are headed."

Kelly wants to see more structural change. He told Yahoo that he'd like AFN election candidates to run as slates — or political parties — so that the AFN can speak with voice and actually get stuff done.

"It is incredibly hard to achieve a consensus and even after we've achieved an consensus it's even more difficult to maintain it," he said.

"Right now we've got a choir that sounds so god awful no one is listening."

That's the best analogy that I've heard with regard to the First Nation policy woes of late: a choir so out of sync, no one is listening.

(Photo courtesy of The Canadian Press)

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