An education agreement this week between Ontario, Ottawa and a large group of almost 50 First Nations from northern Ontario is a prime, practical example of how Aboriginal Peoples can improve their living conditions and work with governments, said Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
"I'm hoping that this suggests a shift in the pattern," Atleo said in a phone interview from Timmins, Ont., after a signing ceremony to formalize the memorandum of understanding.
The MOU commits the two governments to sit down with the First Nations leaders and negotiate more First Nations control over curriculum and better supports for children attending schools far from their reserves.
Significantly, Atleo was not a signatory to the pact. After months of outcry and protest from First Nations people across the country — not just about the federal government's heavy hand but also about the need for the Assembly of First Nations to step back — Atleo was careful to underline his role as a "facilitator" rather than a political player.
He said he hopes the MOU — and others like it that are in the works — are a move away from what he calls the "reactive" approach of Ottawa of late: where the federal government announces a "smattering" of initiatives, says it will work with so-called willing partners and passes off the effort as a major accomplishment.
Education is a good place to start, Atleo said, because there is a solid consensus among governments that improving education is the key to improving living standards and autonomy more generally on reserves.
But while there is a consensus on where to start, there is no consensus on how, he added.
"The 'how' needs to be answered by the treaty nations themselves," he said. "I'd like to see the education piece as the door that everyone walks through."
Ottawa's willingness to sit down and talk directly to band leaders through an MOU is a sign of change, as is a commitment Atleo said he heard from Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt to follow up an eventual agreement with sufficient, stable funding.
Atleo said that change in attitude can be traced back, in part, to a January meeting he and other chiefs held with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who agreed to empower government negotiators to figure out how to better implement treaty rights and sort out comprehensive land claims.
Atleo and Harper indicated at the time that they would meet again soon to follow up, but they have not done so — nor will they any time soon.
"It isn't on my radar right away for that to happen," Atleo said. Rather, the government's commitment is being tested through its willingness to enter into meaningful talks with treaty chiefs and other First Nations leaders.
For Atleo, a key sign of the government change was the commitment from Valcourt to follow up with adequate funding.
But Valcourt's officials said the minister merely repeated past commitments to revisit funding once legislation is in place to reform the First Nations schooling system.
That legislation is controversial to say the least.
Ottawa wants to set up a school-board type of system for regions of First Nations, but many First Nations have opposed the plan because they say it is being imposed on them without any firm promise of funding to provide education on par with other what other Canadian children receive.
Indeed, the very chiefs who entered into the MOU with the federal government this week have also made a point of denouncing the plan for legislation.
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