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We won't go back to 'Square 1' on First Nations education bill: Valcourt

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Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt prepares to take part in a Commons Aboriginal Affairs committee in Ottawa, on Parliament Hill, Thursday May 29, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

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Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt prepares to take part in a Commons Aboriginal Affairs committee in Ottawa, on Parliament Hill, Thursday May 29, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

OTTAWA - Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt sounded a note of frustration Thursday after chiefs from across Canada flatly rejected proposed changes to First Nations education.

In his first public comments since a special assembly of chiefs voted this week to reject Conservative education reforms, Valcourt lamented the fact that the Assembly of First Nations has walked away from its agreement with the government.

"One thing is sure: we thought we had an agreement. Those chiefs present there decided not to honour that agreement that we had reached with the AFN," Valcourt said.

"I look forward to finding a way to not let the children, the students on reserves throughout all of those First Nations communities, to have to pay the price for this."

The aboriginal community remains split over Bill C-33, dubbed the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act. Some saw it as a step in the right direction, and welcomed the $1.9 billion tied to the bill. To others, it was a government imposing too much control over First Nations.

Shawn Atleo suddenly quit this month as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations after becoming a self-described lightning rod of controversy for backing the bill, leaving the organization in a state of flux.

The divisions within the First Nations community were on full display this week when chiefs gathered in a downtown Ottawa hotel to decide how they would respond to the legislation.

After hours of sometimes heated debate, the chiefs voted in favour of a resolution that rejects the bill and calls on the government to negotiate a new education agreement that provides transfer payments to aboriginal communities.

The resolution also asks Ottawa to provide $1.9 billion tied to the original bill immediately, with a 4.5 per cent escalator until a new deal on education is reached.

But Valcourt says too much time and effort have gone into the bill to start all over again. It was already re-tooled once before to include five key conditions needed to get the AFN's support, he noted.

"In good faith, we worked together. I incorporated — we incorporated — those five conditions in Bill C-33 and we jointly announced a way forward that we had agreed to in Alberta," Valcourt said.

"Then, we tabled the bill that incorporated those conditions. And moreover, the prime minister personally committed the funding necessary to implement this so that it'd be successful. And now, you know, we are back to — what? — Square 1? I don't think so. Too much work has taken place."

The bill remains on hold while he considers his options, Valcourt added.

He also sounded frustrated when he spoke about the AFN.

"It was represented to us that the AFN was representing those First Nations across Canada and they were our interlocutor," Valcourt said.

"We have invested tens of millions of dollars in the last 10 years, eight years, into the AFN for that very purpose, to have this relationship rebuilt. And, you know, so I respect their charter, I respect their way of doing business, but we have got to find a way to move this file forward, because it is the kids, the students on reserve who are paying the price — not the chiefs."

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