Shawn Atleo has resigned as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, saying he does not want to be a “lightning rod” in the debate over the government’s education bill.

Atleo has been heavily criticized for supporting the Conservative government’s Bill C-33, aimed at reforming aboriginal education in Canada.

Aboriginal chiefs from several provinces want Ottawa to scrap the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, saying it has failed to meet conditions set out by aboriginal leaders.

Atleo said Friday he believes that the work started many years ago “must continue.”

“Failure is simply not an option. Fighting for the status quo is simply not acceptable,” he said.

Atleo said his actions as national chief have been “based on principle and on integrity,” and that he has been “honoured” to serve in the role.

In a statement, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he was “saddened” to hear about Atleo’s “unexpected” resignation.

Harper said his government has worked closely with Atleo since he was elected national chief in 2009 to improve the economy, education and standard of living on Canada’s reserves.

Observers say Harper has lost a key ally in Atleo, who has been described as a thoughtful, moderate voice by his supporters. Some of Atleo’s critics, however, say that he has been too conciliatory in his dealings with Ottawa.

In his statement, Harper said Atleo was “a conciliator and strengthened the relationship between First Nations and the Crown.”

Disagreement on education bill

Atleo has called Bill C-33 a necessary step toward giving First Nations control of their schooling. But some First Nations leaders strongly disagree, saying the bill will keep most of that control in the hands of the federal government.

Derek Nepinak, the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, is among those who have said they will do “whatever is necessary” to oppose the bill.

Nepinak told CTV’s Power Play Friday that indigenous people and First Nations communities “across the country” reject Bill C-33.

“Furthermore, we have to also recognize that Shawn Atleo’s resignation is reflective of the disrespect that the Conservative government has shown towards indigenous people,” he said.

Nepinak acknowledged that Atleo took on a “very, very difficult task” in trying to advance the education discussion and said Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt “should be the one that’s resigning out of all this.”

Valcourt has defended Bill C-33, saying it meets the conditions outlined by the Assembly of First Nations and chiefs during a meeting in December.

But Nepinak said the legislation “falls short” in many ways because it doesn’t respect Treaty rights or the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The financial package included in the education bill is also inadequate, he said.

Nepinak said the fact that Atleo “stood up to support (Bill C-33) without, I think, bringing it back to his executive, bringing it back to the leadership,” raised questions about his integrity.

The grassroots opposition to the education bill and other federal legislation is led by young, vocal aboriginals who won’t accept the status quo, Nepinak said.

“We’re going to see some changes through First Nations politics,” he said.

Eroding support for Atleo

The lack of support for Atleo among some aboriginal chiefs and groups has been evident for some time.

Atleo was criticized for agreeing to meet with Harper during the Idle No More protests in January 2013. Shortly after, he took a brief sick leave at the height of the grassroots movement.

“At times, it has appeared that the national chief has been a little bit cozy” with the federal government, Nepinak said Friday.

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Chief David Harper, who said he was “shocked” by Atleo’s resignation, called on the AFN executive council Friday to nominate an interim national chief until a July 2015 election takes place.

Asked whether he would run for the position, Nepinak told Power Play that he is committed to his leadership role in Manitoba, but added: “We’ll see what the future holds.”

With files from The Canadian Press